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Trim your back-to-school expenses

By Jason Alderman

It usually bugs me when retailers start hawking events months before they happen – like selling Halloween candy before Labor Day or displaying barbeque grills while it's still freezing outside. But sometimes a little forewarning is a good idea.

Take back–to–school shopping. For something so predictable, it's surprising how many people are caught off guard every year and must scramble to buy their kids proper clothes and supplies. With the average family spending over $500 per child, any planning and budgeting you can do ahead of time are well worth the effort.

Here are a few suggestions for getting more bang for your buck:

Get organized. With gas topping $4 a gallon, driving across town to save a few dollars on socks doesn't make financial sense – not to mention the time you waste. Before you buy a single thing, develop a list of everything your kids need and create a budget so you'll know how much you can afford to spend.

Visa Inc.'s free personal financial management site, Practical Money Skills for Life, contains a Back–to–School Budgeting site that features an interactive budgeting calculator, online shopping tips and much more (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/backtoschool).

Find deals. While developing your shopping list, save newspaper ads and flyers featuring sales on items you need. Take them along when shopping at stores promising to match other stores' prices, thereby eliminating additional stops. Also, check retailers' websites for online specials and free shipping, saving time and gas.

Don't rush. You needn't buy everything on your list before the first day of school. Ask the teacher which supplies your kids will need on Day 1 and which can wait until after stores start unloading their overstocked inventory.

Wardrobe check. Clothing is usually the biggest expense. Before hitting the mall, sort through your kids' closets to see what still fits, what they've outgrown, and which items can be mended, handed down to other kids, sold or donated. If your kids grow like weeds, spread clothing purchases throughout the year so they don't outgrow everything all at once.

Form your own shopping co–op. Thanks to tightening school budgets, parents are being asked to provide more and more schoolroom supplies for their kids – it's not just paper and pencils anymore. Go in with other parents on bulk–item purchases. The school may be willing to coordinate the effort for even larger–scale savings.

Know when quality counts. There's not a lot of difference between brands of notebook paper, but some items may merit spending more. For example, older kids can get several years' use out of a well–constructed backpack, but if they're in first grade and likely to lose or outgrow it, a cheaper variety might suffice. And poorly made shoes aren't worth the damage they can do to growing feet.

Rent vs. buy. Before you plunk down hundreds of dollars for musical instruments or sporting equipment your kid may quickly lose interest in, considering renting or buying used equipment first.

Help your school. To stretch your dollars even further, you can join school fundraising organizations like Electronic Scrip Incorporated (www.escrip.com) and Schoolpop (www.schoolpop.com). As a member, a percentage of all purchases you make at participating retailers and service organizations – and there are lots – are donated to the school of your choice. Rules vary so check out their websites for details.

Back–to–school shopping is a tedious chore, but if you plan carefully, you can save time, money and aggravation.


Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. Sign up for his free monthly e-Newsletter at www.practicalmoneyskills.com/newsletter.




This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how tax laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.

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