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Saving Money on Back to School

Ylan Mui

The end of the summer is in sight: Back-to-school sales have hit the stores.

According to Google's Insights for Search, people have begun thinking about the back-to-school season earlier this year, with searches up 10 percent by mid-July compared to last year. And not surprisingly, discounted and free supplies are in the top 10 list of school-related searches.

A recent survey by consulting firm Deloitte found that economic conditions are forcing 70 percent of consumers to change their shopping habits this season, including buying more items on sale and heading to less-expensive stores. About one-third plan to buy more private-label brands, and nearly half said they would spend less on shoes.

To help you stick to your budget, we turned to Todd Mark, vice president of education for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas, for advice:

Budget with the kids: Parents will often spend on their children even when they're scrimping on themselves. Not only is it difficult to say no to your kids, but Todd said some parents hope that buying a Hannah Montana notebook might entice their kids to study harder. Myth, myth, myth.

Todd recommends explaining your budget to your children in an age-appropriate way and then enlisting their help to meet the goal. Get their input on what's worth an investment and where to cut back -- all the while showing them that tradeoffs must be made, Todd said.

“Back to school shopping truly is a teaching experience for the kids themselves,” he said.

Don't open up a credit card. Stores try to lure customers by offering discounts for signing up for their credit card. Don't fall for it. Even if you pay off your purchase right away, your credit score could still take a hit. And saving a couple of bucks is rarely worth that.

“Credit cards aren’t meant to be used as a coupon," Todd advised.

If you really do need more credit, shop around for a card with the best rates and benefits. Don't just react spontaneously to a store promotion, he said.

Take inventory. Round up last year's pencils, notebooks and folders to see if anything can be re-used. Todd also suggests swapping clothes or supplies with friends. (Hmmm, I'm thinking a tween slumber party and clothing swap could be a great way to end the summer!)

Todd acknowledges that sticking to a budget through back-to-school season can be tough: “It’s no different than at Christmas when people think that money equals love."

His comment made me think about something my grandma once told me. I was complaining about how expensive things are in the Washington area and the amount of money my friends spend on day care, schools and extra-curriculars for their kids. How could I ever afford to have children and give them all the advantages that I was fortunate enough to have growing up?

And my grandma, a child of the Depression, very simply responded, "Ylan, all they really need is you."

By Ylan Mui  |  July 23, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Bargains , Consumer News , Ylan Q. Mui  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Cash for Clunkers Part 3: Running the Numbers
Next: When to Make Private-Label Purchases


School supplies at this point (going into 3rd) are fairly minimal -- $25ish, which usually leaves plenty of glue sticks and pencils left over. The PTA has a yearly sale of packets of all recommended supplies. I could probably save $5 by plowing through what I have and buying only what I need, but for me, the $$ saved isn't worth the time and mental effort involved.

School clothes, on the other hand, are huge. My kids are still growing so fast that they need almost an entire new wardrobe every year. Basics are Target, Old Navy, and the outlet near me vs. Gap and Gymboree. Gymboree has a cheaper version called Crazy 8s that have some decent stuff, too. And there's a consignment store near me that I've been meaning to check out; they just don't seem to be open when I'm home. But even there, kids' clothes are relatively cheap compared to adult clothes. I've gotten both kids entire wardrobes for the same price as I've found myself two work pants and three work tops (on sale).

The things that get me are the extras -- coats, backpacks, shoes. Those three things tend to cost as much as everything else! Luckily, I think my girl is finally going to get a second year out of her coat this year.

Posted by: laura33 | July 23, 2009 7:49 AM | Report abuse

Don't buy everything at once. Lots of times kids will continue to wear summer clothes for several months. By the time it cools off they'll want something different, plus what's in stores in August will be marked down by then.

With my boys I could usually get by with a new pair of shoes for the start of school and purchase other things later.

For kids old enough to add/subtract I give an allowance for school supplies. A kid who has a pot of money is a lot more discerning about what they want and trades-off between things better than a kid who has Mom and her seemingly endless credit card in tow.

Posted by: RedBird27 | July 23, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Good advice RedBird. I also recommend shopping a season behind for clothing. I will start looking for next summer's wardrobe next month since I've bought a good starter wardrobe (light jacket, jeans, fleece, etc.) for back to school months ago. This has gotten a little trickier as my almost 11 y.o. grows. I've wound up with forgotten clothing but, on the whole, it works. Back to school supplies are bought in bulk at the best possible price I can find so I don't have much to buy this year other than a notebook which never makes it through to next year.

Posted by: flabbergast | July 23, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Oh: don't forget hand-me-downs! Unfortunately, my DD is one of the oldest, so we tend to be givers and not receivers. But her cousin pretty much gets a full wardrobe that's just a year or two out of season -- not too shabby.

Posted by: laura33 | July 23, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

It also makes sense to look for some of the basics (like backpacks and jackets) on the web. Most online retailers mark down their already low prices pretty dramatically on this stuff. Personally, for shoes i love -- and i just picked up a new JanSport backpack for almost 75% off at

Posted by: chris250480 | July 23, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

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