Pop quiz: Do you know how much you’re spending on all those back-to-school notebooks, clothes, and backpacks? Answer: “They can easily add up to $500 to $1,000 per child in the first 30 days of school,” says Peter Dunn, author of 60 Days to Change: A Daily How-To Guide With Actionable Tips for Improving Your Financial Life ($15, amazon.com). Surprised? Here’s how to not get schooled on back-to-school expenses.
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Put in Planning Time
First, gather any back-to-school supply lists from your kids’ schools, add the clothing and any extras they’ll need, then look through the calendar to try to predict the cost of upcoming school activities, suggests Dunn. “As parents, we often get surprised by expenses that we shouldn’t,” he says. With your list in hand, it’s easier to set a realistic budget for each category.
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Focus on Big-Ticket Items
There are so many ways to save these days: coupons, incentive programs, rebates, weekly specials, online-only deals. To cut through the clutter, Chrissy Pate, co-author of Be CentsAble: How to Cut Your Household Budget in Half ($14, amazon.com), recommends focusing on finding the best prices for the most expensive items on your list. “Don’t worry so much about what the prices of the crayons or the pencils are because you’re going to find pretty good deals everywhere on those,” she says. “You’ll save the most money on those big items, as well as time and gas money.”
Best for: Computers, calculators, cell phones, backpacks.
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Shop on Tax-Free Days
Many state and local governments offer special tax-free shopping periods with the back-to-school shopper in mind. Check our list of tax-free shopping dates to find out when you state is participating and which items are exempt.
Best for: Clothing, school supplies, computers, books.
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Follow Your Favorite Stores
Back-to-school clothing sales start appearing in mid-July through the end of August, and the options can be dizzying. “They’re putting lots of coupons out there,” says Pate. She suggests keeping track of your favorite retailers’ deals by following them on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. “Then use those coupons in conjunction with sales to really get the biggest bang for your buck.”
Best for: Clothing.
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Buy Free Money
Once you’ve decided where you’re going to shop, look for discounted gift cards to those stores on sites like giftcards.com or plasticjungle.com. You’ll save as much as 25 percent on cards recipients don’t want.
Best for: Clothing, electronics.
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Shop at Consignment Sales
If you like consignment stores—where you can buy and sell used clothing in good condition—look for group consignment sales in your area. These mega sales, which are usually held over a weekend, bring together a plethora of consigners’ items under one roof. If you want to take care of an entire season’s worth of shopping in one afternoon, this is the place. “It’s especially great for younger kids because they outgrow their clothes so quickly,” says Pate. Find a national directory of consignment sales at kidsconsignmentsales.com.
Best for: Clothing, sporting equipment.
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Go Green for Lunch
When it comes time to pack those lunches, think reusable. Washable sandwich bags ($9, lunchskins.com), perfectly portioned bento box-inspired lunch cubes ($5, containerstore.com), and real spoons from your utensil drawer require an initial investment but will save money on plastic bags in the long run and keep all that plastic out of the landfill.
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Get Your Kids Involved
Back-to-school season is a great time to teach budgeting basics to your children. “Give your children a clothing budget and a list of necessities, and let them help make decisions on the rest of the wardrobe,” says Dunn. This also works with extra-curricular activities. “Does it cost $50 to join the Spanish club? Varsity volleyball uniforms and fees are $150? If so, then they need to know that their activity of choice is not only a time commitment, but a financial commitment as well,” he says.