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Back-to-school bargain hunting

August 7, 2009

As back-to-school shopping veterans, my wife and I have learned our share of money-saving tricks – plus methods to lessen meltdowns and frayed nerves that come with the territory. If you are new to this parental rite of passage or simply looking for a few new strategies, read on.

First, create a realistic budget. Calculate what you can afford to spend on school-related expenses without blowing your overall household budget. Scoring bargains won't help your bottom line if you end up having to pay interest on unpaid balances.

Make a comprehensive shopping list. Gearing up for a new school year involves much more than simply buying a new backpack and a few outfits. Consider these expenses and strategies:

  • Spread new clothing purchases throughout the year to foil sudden growth spurts.
  • Many schools issue lists of supplies parents are expected to purchase – from pencils to paper to calculators. Share your overstocked supplies with other families or go in together on volume discounts.
  • If your kids participate in athletics, band or other extracurricular activities, find out the financial commitment for uniforms, dues, field trips, etc. (Try renting that saxophone first until you know your kid will stick with it.)
  • Factor in public transportation or school bus charges, if any. If you're in a car pool, calculate your share of the gas.
  • Learn what your school charges for meals and weigh their convenience (and nutritional value) against the cost for home-prepared food.
  • Many schools require proof of childhood immunizations. Learn your school's policy and see what's covered by your insurance – or what you could access for free at health fairs or community clinics.

Prioritize. Once you've finalized an overall list, prioritize how to spend your budgeted amount. Get your kids involved in this process so they'll learn the difference between "must-haves" and "nice-to-haves" as well as the art of compromise: If they truly want those designer jeans, together figure out a way they can earn the price difference.

Bargain hunting. After prioritizing expenses, start your research. First, look through the kids' closets to see what's still serviceable. Then:

  • Compare notes with friends. They may be able to use your in-shape hand-me-downs, and vice versa.
  • Check garage sales, consignment or thrift shops and online sites. While you're at it, see what items you can sell or donate to make a few bucks and free-up space.
  • Clip newspaper and online coupons. Many stores will match competitors' prices even if their own items aren't on sale.
  • Wait for fall clearance sales to buy some items.
  • Although comparison shopping online can save money, time and gas, before purchasing anything online, factor in any shipping or return costs that might undo your savings.
  • Understand your school's dress code so you don't buy inappropriate clothing.

For help devising a workable budget, visit Visa Inc.'s free personal financial management site, Practical Money Skills for Life. Its Back-to-School Budgeting section contains an interactive budgeting calculator, online shopping tips and much more (http://practicalmoneyskills.com/learn/budgeting/seasonal_budgeting/budgeting_back_to_school.php).

In these lean times, make sure you've got a sound battle plan before entering the back-to-school shopping fray.


This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered health, legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.