It's that time of year that parents love and kids loathe: Back to School. That, of course, means shopping trips to stock up on necessary supplies. Back-to-school and back-to-college spending combined will reach $72.5 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. On average, parents will spend about $635 on back-to-school items per family for K-12 students (down from $688 last year) and $836 for college students (down from $907 last year) on supplies and apparel.
That's a hefty tab after a summer of spending on camps and vacations. A smart spending strategy can help you stick to a back-to-school budget. Here are 10 tips for parents of younger kids on how to survive the fall ritual without going broke.
1. Start at home
Before you head out, go through all your children's clothes and school supplies left over from last year. You'll likely find you may need less than you think — those scissors your kid brought home in June still work just fine. Sharpen the pencils; get the stickers off the ruler, wash the backpack and if it still looks good, you've saved a bundle. Once you've taken stock, create a list and stick to it.
2. Set a budget
Determine how much you can spend, and share the details with your kids. Showing them how to shop and sticking to a budget is a great personal finance lesson. Depending on your children's ages, consider giving them a portion of the budget so they can learn first-hand how to select items within a set spending limit. If older kids want something that's beyond your budget, ask them to chip in with allowance money or cash earned at a summer job.
3. Be app savvy
Check in at a store on your phone with FourSquare, ShopKick, and Yelp, advises Jana Francis, co-founder of Steals. "You'll receive coupons and freebies just for checking in on these apps." Then use a shopping app like RedLaser to make sure you're getting the best price for items inside the store.
4. Brand new may not be best
Imagine getting a name-brand laptop for under $200, sports equipment, or a musical instrument for 60 percent off the list price. You'll find those kinds of deals on items on the "secondary market," says Tom McElroy, vice president marketing and e-commerce at GENCO Marketplace, which started NoBetterDeal.com.
Take advantage of yard sales and scout for bargains on eBay or Craigslist.
Second-hand textbooks are a great way for college kids to save some cash. Sites like Powells , Chegg, and Half specialize in used books and may offer better deals than college bookstores do. Students should look also look into rental and e-book options to save on required texts.
6. Buy last year's electronics
Purchasing the second-newest model of a laptop or tablet can yield savings of 25 percent or more and will suffice for most students' needs. Some stores such as Best Buy and RadioShack will give you cash for trading in an older model, which can help offset the cost of newer items. Getting a good deal on electronics (which are likely the most expensive items on your list) can make a big dent in your overall budget, so it's worth doing some extra legwork and comparison shopping. See how the retail deals compare to any discounts offered through your school.
5. Hit the warehouse stores
Warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam's Club often offer great deals on electronics. If there's a laptop on your list, check out the prices at your local store. They're also a great source of generic supplies, but who needs 200 pencils? Connect with a neighbor or friend to split the cost and take home a more manageable bounty.
6. Use credit reward cards
This is a great time to start cashing in some of those rewards you've been collecting. Check out your balance, and visit the rewards website to convert them to cash or gift cards that could help pay for supplies. Some credit cards will double the value of your rewards at designated retailers.
For example, through the month of August, Discover card is offering 10 percent cash back when you shop online at Macy's, JC Penney, Kmart, and Foot Locker, says Jill Cataldo, shopping expert for CreditSesame.com. Old Navy and Gap are offering 5 percent back, she says.
7. Say 'no thank you' to new retail credit cards
If you already have store-specific retail credit cards from a Kohl's or Target, ask whether there are any special promotions tied to them. You might get a percentage off your purchase for using the card, explains Cataldo.
But don't sign up for a new card just to get a one-time discount. Applying for a new card can ding your credit score. "Saving 10 percent on $425 of school supplies might seem like a good idea, but trading a free $42 for a lower credit score could cost you thousands in added interest down the road if you carry a balance," Cataldo cautions.
8. Canvass coupon sites
Sites like RetailMeNot.com and CouponCabin.com that keep track of discounts and free shipping offers for many online shops. CouponCactus has a section with back-to-school coupons and features different tabs to display coupons for school supplies, textbooks, computers, and other extras. Combine sales and coupons to maximize savings. Follow your favorite retailers on Facebook or Twitter for additional coupons. College students may find additional coupons for local retailers available through their admissions department or among their orientation materials.
9. Price match
Stores like Target are now price matching competitors like Amazon and Walmart. "Just because you're in a discount retail store doesn't mean you're getting the best price, see what others have and ask their competitor to match it," Francis says. "The answer is usually yes."
10. Save some shopping for September
Stock up on all the supplies your kids will need for their first day of school, but hold off on items they may not need until later in the year. Retailers drop prices in September, once the back-to-school rush has passed, and you may find some great deals on items then. (August is still your best bet for finding a great deal on a laptop, though.)
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