Back-to-School, bargain-style

BlogHer Original Post

My kids have been back at school for a full week, now, but most of the country is still enjoying summer break. This is for those of you just starting to think about preparation for the back-to-school routine.

Back-to-school means opening your wallet and emptying it, right? Actually, it doesn't need to, no matter how your child tries to convince you that she needs that shirt or this special notebook. You don't stop being on a budget just because school reopens its doors, and it's surprisingly easy to get everyone outfitted without breaking the bank.

Take a deep breath. Let it out. Okay; you're ready to start.

Step 1: Take stock of what you already have. In Step 5 we'll talk about buying ahead, but even if you weren't doing that, before, you already have plenty of school items you probably don't need to buy again. There may be a box of pencils in the bottom of the art chest or some perfectly good binders that can easily be reused. Know what you have, so that you'll know what you do and don't need to buy.

Step 2: Get a supply list from the school, and then wait. Unless your kids' school hands out a supply list that means "we expect you to buy every item on this list by the first day of school," wait. My kids' school, for example, makes lists available, but then individual teachers vary from the list quite a bit, with some actually providing all materials. If this is your first year with a child in school or your first year at a new school, wait to shop. And definitely find some veteran parents who can give you the lowdown.

Step 3: Invest in staples. Oh, I'm sure it's fun for a kid to get a new backpack every year, and heaven knows that Target and Walmart and all of the other biggies sell some cute ones for not very much money. But guess what! Junior needs a bag for school each and every year, and for what you'll spend on two cheap bags -- that will fall apart and be replaced by necessity, rather than choice -- you can buy a high-quality backpack with an unconditional guarantee. I'm partial to the packs at LL Bean, myself, but Lands' End and Jansport also offer sturdy backpacks that the manufacturer will replace if necessary. My kids' packs are on their third year, and that's after they were replaced for defective handles. Worth every penny. (Bean and Lands' End also both regularly clearance out old styles and offer free shipping codes. I'm just sayin'.)

Step 4: Surf the newspaper flyers; surf online sales. Before you step foot out of the house, know where you're going and for what. You should know where the best deals are, and you should have verified that similar deals aren't available at Amazon or other online retailers -- or if they are, order from home, get free shipping, and save the gas money. (For basic school supplies, don't overlook cheap outlets like your local dollar store or Big Lots, too.)

Step 5: Grab the bargains for now and later. Every big box and office supply store in your area is going to start running back-to-school specials designed to lure you in. Crayons for a quarter! Glue sticks for a dime! Notebooks for a nickel! Here's the thing: If you have any storage space at all, think big picture on these items. If Junior needs notebooks this year, he'll probably need them next year, too. And things like crayons and pencils and such are great items to donate to the school or include in Christmas shoeboxes, if you're into that sort of thing. The point is, at a dime or a quarter apiece, stock up.

Step 6: Resist the higher prices behind the deals. So once you're in the store buying the $.25 crayons, you decide to pick up that graphing calculator the high school requires... and lo and behold, that's not on sale at all. Do you buy it, because you're there? Resist! If you did your work in Step 4, you won't be stuck paying full retail for an item just because you're unaware of your options.

Step 7: Clothes make the kid, but you can shop their closets. I have fond memories of doing "back to school clothes shopping" as a child, and it was always both exciting and terrifying. It was exciting to get a heap of new clothes, but it was terrifying to have to withstand a marathon day of power-shopping. Regardless of whether or not your child would find that enticing, the reality is that this is the wrong time of year to be buying clothes for Fall if you're on a budget. If you shop clothing clearance year-round (and gone are the days of being dragged into the fitting room; this is why online shopping was invented!), you'll always have a "buffer" of next-season items to dip into. I break out the clearance stash and any hand-me-downs we've accumulated, and voila! Instant wardrobe makeover, and I never had to step foot in the mall. Bliss for everyone involved. (If you've never shopped this way before, it's never too late to start. Online, I find that The Children's Place and Kohls consistently offer great clearance deals and coupons; for in-person shopping, I'm a Target girl through and through.)

Step 8: Once the dust settles, think about next year. The same stores that specialize in back-to-school will start clearancing out the excess a couple of weeks after school resumes. This is a great time to pick up extra lunchboxes and such at a deeply discounted price. Don't go nuts -- buying stuff just because it's on sale, whether you need it or not, is just as bad as paying full price -- but do grab extras of the larger items you know you'll need for next year.

What are your best back-to-school bargain tips? Use Mr. Linky, below, to leave links to either value-priced school essentials or to posts with great ideas. Help others in the BlogHer community go back to school, bargain-style!

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir also blogs about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.

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