How to Save on Back to School Expenses

Have you ever reflected on how nice it would be if your child's school supply list were merely a Colonial-style lunch pail and a primer, both of which could be passed down from child to child? A lot of things have changed in American education over the last 150 years, none more than back-to-school shopping.

The thought that school expenses could soar to $500-1000 per child is staggering. Any sane parent knows it doesn't take $500 to get a child ready for 180 days of school. But do you send your child in off-brand clothes, skip buying the four required containers of disinfectant wipes, or follow what has become the cultural norm and break the bank?

Not every parent is spending and then overspending on school "necessities." The smart and savvy are staying within budget. You can save on back-to-school expenses.

The In-home Inventory
Before shopping, check out what you have at home. Look through last year's supplies. You likely have some binders, erasers, scissors, and a calculator. Utilizing your in-stock inventory is a basic practice of any successful business. You can do the same with your home.

The Freebies
Any time you're at an expo or fair, vendors will have office supplies promoting their cause. Businesses are eager to have you take their products into the community. You can save a few dollars and advertise in the process.

The Purchases
After checking out what's at home and collecting the freebies, you'll inevitably need to make some purchases. Kids really do write better with a new pencil and color better with new crayons: taking pride in new things has a real psychological impact. Enjoy making some purchases for your kids.

When is it smart to stock up? Answer: you know your family. Imagine this scenario. The list says three highlighters. You can buy a package of ten at a cheaper item-for-item price. At your house, will the extra items be saved for another child or for another year? Or, will the extras get absorbed into life and never make it to school? Match your purchases to your family's lifestyle.

The Quality
Sometimes it is worth the extra money to go name brand. Your child's school supply list may request a specific brand of scissors or pencils. When you can, go with the brands the teacher requests. Seasoned teachers have watched students struggle with scissors that chew paper instead of cutting or with erasers that smear instead of erasing. Their request for a specific brand is probably intended to help students to succeed with minimal frustration. Some supplies also have a rough life. The plastic cover on the notebook and the backpack with secure straps may be worth it.

The Buyer
Parents use a variety of strategies to give their children some buying power and responsibility for back-to-school expenses. Parents recognize that purchasing every requested or demanded notebook, locker accessory, marker set, and pair of jeans is unwise and impractical.

List only - Mom and Dad provide what's on the list, plus a modest wardrobe and simple lunch foods. The student is responsible for any and all extras.

Allowance - Parents give their child an allowance. Out of the allowance, the student can make decisions about which notebook, pencils, etc. to purchase.

Basics plus - Under this strategy, the parent pays the price for the basic supplies. The student makes up the difference for the extras. For instance, a basic binder is $2. The student wants a flashier binder that costs $4.50. Parents pay the $2 and allow the student to pay the additional $2.50 toward the binder of choice.

Budget - The parent sets a budget. Kids have freedom to shop for what they want within the set amount.

If you've been blessed with a master negotiator, you'll want the terms of the purchasing strategy spelled out very clearly before shelling out the first dime.

The Timing
Timing is a tricky thing. Shop too early and you're bound to overspend. Shop too late and the supplies may sell out. Shop under pressure in a hurry, and you just put it all in the cart, swipe the credit card, and be done, and too weary to even care how much you just spent.

Experience will enable you to anticipate what your child will need throughout the year. Some businesses start running a back-to-school item or two in July. School supplies in grocery stores may hit clearance racks as early as September. Discount stores may hold out until late fall or even early summer to reduce prices. The parent who makes the right purchases throughout the year can save a bundle.

Nearly every retail establishment offers back-to-school savings. Read the circulars and pick up the sale items when you're at that retailer.

Tax-free holidays give buyers in some states a break from sales tax on select items. You'll need to find out whether your state offers this perk and read the fine print about the terms. Policies on the length of holiday and cost of purchases vary from state to state. Some states include large purchase such as computers; others limit purchase to around $20/item.

The Receipts
Save receipts for larger purchases such as calculators. You'll want to accommodate errors such as purchasing from an old list or buying the wrong item.

The Community
Network with friends or community organizations to co-op and share. Whether it's the super pack of graph paper of a musical instrument, look for ways you can be part of a community that looks out for each other and works together to meet kids' needs in sensible ways.

There's an old wedding mantra: "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue". Applying that same principle to school preparation can save you time and hard-earned money. Maybe there's a bit of luck for the child who starts the year with a convergence of love and smarts packed in his bag.