By Gretchen Roberts
When September rolls around, the expenses add up fast: new clothes, school supplies, backpacks and extra stuff you didn't even know you had to buy. If your budget is especially tight this year-and whose isn't!-these 20 cost-cutting tips will help you send your kids back to class for a lot less cash.
The Look for Less
1. Linsey Knerl, a mom of four from Tekamah, Nebraska, keeps clothing costs down by snagging $3 clearance T-shirts and tanks right before school starts. "Summer tees printed with graphics, likeSave on Back-to-School Shopping the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana, can be layered over a solid-colored thermal long-sleeved shirt. My kids love this look," she says.
2. Kami Gray, a professional stylist in Portland, Oregon, suggests resale shops like Buffalo Exchange and Plato's Closet for middle-school gear (go online for locations). "Kids become more clothes-conscious at this age, but buying brand-new, expensive items isn't economical or practical when your child is still growing," says Gray. "Buying resale gets them the brands they want at an affordable price, and they can trade in their outgrown clothes for some extra cash."
3. Save cash by procrastinating, says Stephanie Vozza, founder of TheOrganizedParent.com. "Most children return to school when it's still warm. Wait to buy fall clothes in late September or October, when they're on sale."
4. Bargain website ShopItToMe.com has helped Mobile, Alabama, mom Carolyn McDuffie save hundreds on school clothes for her four kids. "Shop It To Me tracks the brands we like in the kids' sizes and alerts me when they go on sale," Carolyn says. "Last year I saved $580 by using this site."
5. Julie Rebboah, a mom of two, counts on Lands' End Overstocks to find great deals on backpacks, clothes, shoes and lunchbags. "If you get on their mailing list, they'll send you freeshipping coupons, and you can make returns at your nearest Sears store," says Julie, who lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
6. If you're lucky enough to live in a state that has a tax-free shopping weekend just before school starts, hang on to your shopping list until then.
Supplies on Demand
7. Tammy Lessick of Sanford, North Carolina, loves the 1¢ school supplies offered in the summer at stores like OfficeMax and Staples, but she doesn't love the limits-per-customer rule. Her solution? Take a friend along and get double the allowed amount.
8. With three boys to buy for, Amy Kossoff Smith, founder of The Business of Motherhood website, also finds strength in numbers. She teams up with another family in her Potomac, Maryland, hometown, combines her school supply list with theirs, and shops in bulk at warehouse stores like Costco. "You can buy one giant pack of pens and split it among five or six kids," she says.
9. Take your kids on a treasure hunt: Amy Kossoff Smith and her boys each grab a bag and hunt down school supplies lurking in drawers and cabinets at home. "We found enough pens and pencils to supply the kids for the whole year," she says. "We put extras into a clear container and saved it for backup.
10. Bank of America online banking customers can enroll in a program called Add It Up that partners with major retail websites like Walmart.com, BestBuy.com and BarnesandNoble.com. You'll earn up to 20% cash back on purchases, including school supplies. Learn more at BankofAmerica.com/AddItUp.
11. Sylvia Duong of Rosemead, California, longs for the days when a few pencils and notebooks were the only must-buys. "Nowadays kids are pretty much required to have a computer for schoolwork," she says. Her two daughters' old computer was slow and unreliable, but she didn't have money for a new one. Instead, she bought System Mechanic, a computer software program designed to fix, speed up and maintain PCs ($20; at Target). "It made a huge difference to my girls-and to my bank account."
12. If you're planning to buy a computer or laptop online, after registering at the site, put the item in your online shopping cart but don't purchase it right away, advises Greg Hintz, general manager of Yahoo! Shopping. "The next time you go back, the site may offer you a discount code or markdown," he says. Do it on several different shopping sites and check your carts daily for a deal.
13. Another way to get the best price on a computer? Try Gazaro.com, which tracks sales flyers and websites like Walmart.com, BestBuy.com and Amazon.com, and alerts you when prices have gone up or down.
14. One of the unexpected school expenses parents have to pony up for: field trips. "Volunteer to check online for tour passes and educational discounts on tickets for upcoming trips," suggests Lenka Keston, senior product manager for PromotionalCodes.com. "If you find a good deal, you can save all the parents money."
15. The fees for standardized tests that college-bound students take add up during the high school years. If your family meets the eligibility guidelines, such as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, your child can take standardized tests like the AP exam, PSAT and SAT at a fraction of the usual cost. For example, an AP exam costs $86, but in Washington state it's just $5 with the qualification. Check with your child's school for specifics on your state's guidelines.
16. Don't spend a lot on your kids' back-to-school haircuts. Take them to a beauty training school instead of a pricier salon. You'll get a break on the price, and the hair students will be up to date on all the latest styles-a big bonus in your kids' eyes.
17. If your child comes home from his first day of school and announces that he's joining the band, "don't buy a brand-new musical instrument right off the bat," advises Leah Ingram, a mom of two in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and author of the upcoming Suddenly Frugal. "Look for a used one on eBay or MusicGoRound.com. If your child sticks with it and wants to upgrade, you can plan and save for that down the road."
The Freshman 15 (Make that $515!)
If your child is heading to college, get ready to shell out big bucks for books. How to keep costs down?
19. Rent. Diane Totten, a mom of two in Pittsburgh, spent $1,200 on textbooks for her kids last year before hearing about Chegg.com, a site that lets you rent college texts and return them at semester's end. So far this year, Diane has saved $250.
20. Buy used. The university bookstore is typically students' first stop. But Diane turned to Chegg.com again and got used
books for less. Plus, she sold back old books for a higher price than her kids would have gotten at the campus store.
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