Back to School on a Budget

It’s back to school buying time and with it comes the prospect of a considerable hit to the wallets of parents across the country.

Financial advisory firm Deloitte found in a recent survey that American parents will spend an average of $501 per child on back to school shopping.

But don’t fret, with so many options available to find bargains these days, your child can start the new school year in style, without busting your budget

Plan ahead
The best time to shop for clothes and shoes for back to school is during your state’s tax-free week/weekend, usually held in August. The Shop Maryland Tax-free Week for 2017 is August 13-19. Any qualifying apparel or footwear priced at $100 or less (per item) is exempt from state sales tax. This year, school supplies are not tax-free, nor are accessories like purses and backpacks. So leave the school supply shopping for another time, and be sure to stock up on the clothes and shoes your kids will need for the fall.

Some states, like Virginia, do include school supplies in their tax-free week. Virginia’s 2017 tax-free weekend is August 4-6.

FOR YOUNGER STUDENTS

Start with the closet
See what school supplies you have lying around the house, or tucked away in a closet. Once you get your school’s required supplies list, take a look around to see what you can cross off before even going to the store, like pencils, highlighters, scissors, erasers, etc.

Next, go through your kids’ closets. What still fits and what have they outgrown? The leggings from last year may not fit anymore, but that slightly oversized raincoat may have another year left in it. If your child wears a uniform, many retailers like Lands’ EndOld Navy, and Target now offer school uniform pants, polos, skirts, and shorts, at a much lower cost.

Check the Dollar Store first
You’d be amazed how many items you can cross off your list and for super cheap at your local Dollar Store. You’ll find most of the basics—notebooks, pencils, pencils, composition books—all at a discount, leaving more money to spend on higher-end items like calculators and binders.

Hit the pavement
Set the alarm clock early on a weekend and make your rounds to local yard sales. These, along with your local Goodwill or thrift store, are a great place to score gently used and often designer brand backpacks, clothes, and shoes at a minimal cost. Be sure to get an early start; the selection will be picked over if you arrive too late.

The almighty coupon
Starting this month, look for coupons and sales in your Sunday paper and online at sites like RetailMeNot, which has a special section on their site for back-to-school coupon codes. Many stores, like Walmart, offer price and coupon matching. If you find an item cheaper somewhere else, they’ll match the price, or at the very least match a competitor’s coupon. Always ask if the store will price match; it may save you money and time driving around to different stores.

Set limits
As your kids grow older, they may not be satisfied with the plain folders at the Dollar Store and want the more expensive Justin Bieber ones instead. However, buying character-focused products can quickly wreck your back to school budget. So, it’s important to set limits with your kids before you shop. Perhaps you can allow them to have one or two character items, like a Bieber backpack, and the rest will be generic. TIP: A fun way to personalize “plain” folders is to buy some cheap stickers and markers and let your child get creative.

FOR THE COLLEGE-BOUND

The first year in college is an exciting time, but also a stressful one. Be prepared as the sticker shock for attending college is very real. The good news is, bargains abound and you can skip the outrageously long line at the campus bookstore and order most of what’s needed online.

If your child will be living on-campus, check with the school’s Housing Department. Most will have a checklist of what your child should bring—and what is not allowed. Be sure to shop early: Many dorms, for instance, now have Twin XL mattresses, and those size sheet sets sell out fast.

Once you have your list, shop for dorm room essentials like rugs, towels, mugs, and plates at Dollar General stores, yard sales and thrift shops. Also ask friends and family if they have extra items they’re not using—maybe that old coffeemaker that’s been in the closet since they bought a Keurig— that you can take off their hands.

If your child will need furniture for his room or an off-campus apartment, before heading to IKEA, check your local Craigslist or FreeCycle, and popular apps like Letgo, Varage Sale or your local yard sale group on Facebook. You can often find cheap and sometimes, even free, furniture as long as you haul it away.

Save on college textbooks
Another big way to save in college is to buy used textbooks or rent them from sites like Amazon, eBay, and Half.com. You can also compare prices on new books on CheapestTextbooks.com, or buy books on bargain sites like Textbooks.com.

Have a Kindle? You can often save 50% or more on textbooks if you buy a digital copy and download it to an e-reader. At the end of the semester, sell back your books to Amazon or eBay or other websites where you can sell used textbooks for cash.

Resources: MoneyCrashers, The Balance, Rather-Be-Shopping.com