Thursday thoughts 7-15: Back to school supplies that won't break the bank!

Looking for ways to afford school supplies without getting a second mortgage? Read on for lots of ideas to help you cut school supply costs while still checking off everything on the list!

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School supplies
Faye Prosser


As we look to the new school year, it’s time to tackle the daunting job of hunting and gathering school supplies. This is no easy task, as any parent knows. Not only do the kids need the traditional school supplies like pencils, paper and notebooks, they now have to purchase hygiene items like tissues, hand sanitizer and baby wipes. The list for one of my girls has 23 items on it and the list for my other daughter has 21 items. If I paid full retail for the 23 items on the first list (including a college dictionary, binders, baby wipes and book covers), it would cost approximately $72.00! I have two children but I know many families who have 3 or 4 children and the supply cost really adds up when you have a big family! So, what is a parent to do? Your child needs the paper, pens and notebooks, but you also need to pay the mortgage. If you are feeling the pinch of school supply costs, it’s time to get creative so you don’t overpay for supplies that you can find for a fraction of the retail price.

First step – shop your house! Before heading to the store to buy supplies, take a look around your own home to see what you may already have. Did your child’s teacher send home any extra supplies at the end of last year? Determine if they are in good enough shape to use again this year. Both of my girls treated their backpacks very well last year so they don’t need new ones this year. We also bought well-made backpacks expecting that would last more than one year. Items like scissors and rulers can be used for more than one school year. Before going school supply shopping, I always “shop” the plastic storage container under our bed with school supplies I have bought frugally over the last year, including the back to school clearance last September.
DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT buy all your school supplies at one place. Many stores are offering great loss leader buys right now. These sales involve selling a few items at really low price, where they may actually loose money to lead you into the store. They realize that once you are in the store, with your long school supply list, that you will be tempted to just get everything at that store so you can be done with the shopping. So, you end up paying $3.00 for a pair of scissors that you could have bought for FREE after rebate at one of the drug stores. Stores that offer excellent school supply sales include drug stores (especially with free after rebate deals), office supply stores and big box stores. Each week I’ll post the best school supply deals on the blog so you can stock up now, even if your little ones don’t go back to school for more than a month.
Price match to cut down on trips to different stores. Target, Walmart, Staples, Office Depot and Office Max all price match identical items (same brand and size) so bring in the competitor ads and save yourself some time. Some of the best deals are on store brand items, which you won’t be able to price match, but there are always some excellent buys on name brand items like crayons and colored pencils.
Buy a few extra supplies for later in the year because by February, kids often run out of paper, pencils, notebooks, etc and need new ones. They will not be 10 cents during Valentine’s Day, so now is the time to stock up. February is when I go shopping in the storage container I mentioned earlier.
Hit the tax-free weekend held August 6 – August 8, 2010 in NC. School supplies with a sales price of $100 or less per item are included in the tax-free weekend. For all the details on items that are exempt from tax see the NC Department of Revenue website at the link in the box above. Make sure you still take advantage of the great buys going on until the tax-free weekend, though. You can't beat free after rebate items and 1 cent sales!
Don’t assume you need to buy name brands. Often, the brand name crayons, colored pencils or glue sticks are twice the price of the generic brands.
Let the kids contribute. If there is a particular item your child wants for back to school, but doesn’t need, let your child know that he can buy it with his own money. If he really wants it, then he can have it….at his own expense. If there is an item he needs but he wants a more expensive version than another one that is just as good, let him know that he can have the more expensive version if he pays the difference with his own cash. I have done this a few times with my daughter (who has saved every penny since birth – I am so proud!). It works beautifully. She usually chooses to keep her money and opt for the less expensive item that mom is willing to pay for in full.
Use your rewards. Many credit card companies and retailers offer rewards like gift cards and rebates when you buy qualifying items. You may be able to cash in your Visa reward points for a Walmart or Target gift card that can be used to lower your out of pocket cost for school supplies. On Sunday, I used my Staples Rewards from purchases I have made at Staples over the last few months to buy $55.00 worth of school supplies for 12 cents (plus I earned another $4.98 rebate)!
Hit the clearance sales after school starts. By mid-September, stores are marking down school supplies and that’s a great time to do a little more stocking up for later in the year and even for the next year.
Consider buying a few extra of the very best deals for those who can’t. There are usually a couple kids in each class whose parents are unable to afford their child’s school supplies. When you find 2 pocket folders, crayons and pencils packs for 1 – 5 cents, that’s a great time to buy a few extra to give to the teacher for those kids who don’t have any supplies.

The key when buying supplies is to only buy what you need and shop the best deals each week until school starts. With a little patience and a few extra trips, you can save hundreds, which you will need for the back to school clothes, sports gear and instrument rentals! Please share any other tips you have for cutting those supply costs.  As I always say, it’s your money – spend it wisely!




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