by Ryan G. Van Cleave, Ph.D.
Even when the U.S. economy isn't having problems, no parents should spend more than they need to in order to ready their child for school. But each year, that's exactly what happens. Why? Impatience and ignorance are two culprits. The good news is that both are easily remedied.
Stephanie Nelson, the Coupon Mom—whose CouponMom.com website boasts nearly 5 million users—says that most parents go wrong in shopping for back-to-school items by not planning. “As a result, they tend to overbuy at the beginning of the season,” she says. “By taking inventory of what you already have and coming up with a basic list of essentials, you can avoid buying more than you will use.
“Plus, students like to see what their peers are wearing at the start of the school year, so it makes sense to hold off on buying the majority of the new clothes until their preferences are clear and prices are dropping for fall/winter clothes." Nelson's sound advice basically boils down to this: have a little patience.
Ignorance is a problem because far too many parents don't recognize the real value of coupons and other discount strategies that can net you clothes, shoes, and school supply bargains. One way to do this to shop online through "stacking," which is to simultaneously use (a) sale pricing, (b) online coupon codes, and (c) cash back at various sites (such as Upromise.com, Ebates.com, or through a cash-back credit card).
Nelson offers this example of maximizing your savings by stacking four different savings strategies at Gap.com, a great place to get kids' school clothes:
1. Start at Upromise.com a cash-back rebate site. Start up your own free account. When you click on Gap.com from the Upromise.com website, you get a 2 percent cash rebate into your Upromise.com account on any spending you do at Gap.com (or at 800 stores listed on Upromise.com).
2. Go to Gap.com, click on "Sale" section. Up to 50 percent off.
3. Go to Google to find a valid online code such as ONBIG30 which gives 30 percent off.
4. Spend $50 or more and get free shipping.
5. Enjoy the huge immediate savings and watch your Upromise.com account slowly grow as a bonus.
If shopping online isn't your thing, don't worry—you’ve got plenty of other options that still won't break the bank. Here are several ideas:
● Maximize sales tax holidays. More than a dozen states have offered this opportunity recently for school-related items, so mark these days on your calendar and combine tax-free shopping with buy-one-get-one sales.
● Recycle. Is last year's binder still in decent shape? If your students resist reusing a serviceable item, let them decorate it to give it a new look, or perhaps trade it to a friend or neighbor for their binder (or book bag, pencil case, etc.).
● Consider demo models. A little wear-and-tear can often equal big savings for pricier items such as iPods, computers, and cameras. Most stores will still honor the product's warranty just as if it came new in a box.
● Buy in bulk. Warehouse clubs can offer great deals on certain items. Just check their prices against places like Office Depot or Target, and don't be afraid to stockpile pencils or other commonly-used items. A gross of pencils sounds like a lot, but you'll use them all eventually.
● Use cash. If you have a hard time sticking to a budget, just take cash and leave the credit cards behind. You'll be amazed at how far you can get if you have a clear, non-negotiable limit.
● Try garage sales. Where else can you get designer brand shirts for $5 or a computer chair for $2? The bargains are too good to feel uncomfortable about purchasing used items. As long as they're clean and in working order, consider them as viable options.
● Outlet malls. Combine outlet mall prices with coupons and the savings begin to multiply. Don't assume everything at outlet malls is a bargain, though.
● Use printable coupons. More and more stores offer online coupons that you can print up at home and use in the store. For example, Staples recently offered a printable coupon for $5 off $25.
● Consider alternate brands. While some school supply lists might say Crayola 24-pack, ask your student's teacher if other brands are okay. Often a cheaper alternative is acceptable (and quite welcome if you have Buy-one-get-one coupons for 24-packs of Rose Art crayons but not for Crayola).
No one option will solve all your school supply needs, so combine the ones you like most and watch the savings begin to multiply.
Back-to-school shopping can take place all year round, though the best savings are often in August where stores are vying for the attention of shoppers. Take advantage of the best sales, then pick up the rest of the items as needed or when the sales are too good to resist. Parenting children is expensive enough! Avoid the impulse to "just get it done," and your wallet will be the better for it.
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The father of two, Ryan G. Van Cleave teaches writing and literature at the Ringling College of Art & Design. His writing has appeared in many venues, including The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Adventures, Mommy Magazine, and Writers' Digest.