Avoiding the Back-to-School Wallet Pinch

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A texture of colored paper clips

If you’re the mom of a school-aged kid or two, chances are good that you’re doing battle with the dreaded school supply list this month. The pencils. The notebooks. The staplers of just the right brand. The tissues and erasers and hand cleaner and every other thing that your kids need for school. Just buying school supplies can leave you feeling broke. Then there’s still clothes shopping. It can leave you wishing for a money tree.

Over the years, due to parenting ten kids, I’ve come up with a few ways to save some dough on back-to-school shopping.

  • Inventory what you already have. Chances are that you already have a few binders and a pencil box and maybe even a few decent outfits lurking around your house for your kids. Making a list of what you already have can save expensive duplication at the store.
  • Stock up during those back to school sales. Make sure to buy enough of the things that are at the best prices to last the whole school year. I routinely buy 5 or 6 dozen spiral notebooks when they’re on sale for a dime each. Soon enough, the price will be back to a buck apiece, and I don’t want to be kicking myself in January for not buying enough when the buying was good.
  • Don't go overboard on the fancy versions of notebooks and trapper keepers. If your kids really want the more expensive versions of required items, ask them to pay the difference. Or tell your kids you’ll buy ONE expensive item with the understanding that they will supply the cash for other extras.
  • Don’t fear used clothing. When shopping for clothing, devote at least one morning to yard sale shopping. Stop at a couple of thrift stores on the way home too. Every kid at school will be wearing used clothes by October -- a few washings take care of that. So why not save 50% or more by buying at least some of your kids’ clothes used? Another way to get used clothing is to arrange a clothing swap with girlfriends: everyone brings nice, unneeded clothing items and then swap around. Fun for everyone. We do our kids a service by being comfortable with ‘recycled’ clothing. Awhile back, one of my daughter’s friends complimented her cute name-brand jeans and asked where she’d gotten them. My daughter was pleased to tell her that we’d found them at a yard sale for $4. The friend’s mouth dropped open; she’d spent $60 on a similar pair brand new. It was a great lesson for both girls.
  • Have your kids make up the difference. When clothes shopping with brand-conscious teens, you’re bound to end up negotiating the great divide between the basic version and the more expensive designer version. Don’t be afraid to tell your teen you’ll supply the cash for the 'basic' version, and he can upgrade to the designer version with his own dough. You're not being mean -- you’re being a realist, and you’re teaching your kids a lesson just as important as any he’ll learn in school. Kids who learn real-life budgeting at a young age are less likely to be foolish with their money later on. Your kid may very well decide that the $100 shoes are essential, and indenture himself into yardwork servitude until the extra $60 is earned. But I'm always amazed at how quickly a "NEED" becomes non-essential when the kids have to foot the bill for extras themselves.

Mary Ostyn Owlhaven Author of FAMILY FEASTS FOR $75 A WEEK and A SANE WOMAN'S GUIDE TO RAISING A LARGE FAMILY.

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