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Stretch Your Back-to-School Budget

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State and local government budget cuts have taken their toll on practically every public service. Among the biggest victims of funding cutbacks are local school districts, which have experienced everything from teacher layoffs to curtailed enrichment programs to slashed office supply budgets.

As parents, you're probably already being asked to contribute more and more to fund your children's classroom and extracurricular activities -- and I don't see that trend diminishing anytime soon. That means when it comes to personal budgeting, we've got to do more with less.

Take back-to-school shopping. Some of the money you earmarked for new clothes may now have to go toward classroom supplies or to pay for childcare you need because after-school programs have been shuttered.

Here are a few tips on how to better manage back-to-school expenses while helping your school get through tough times:

First, calculate how much you can afford to spend on school-related expenses without blowing your overall budget or racking up debt. Consider spreading some purchases like clothing throughout the school year -- added bonus, your kids won't outgrow everything all at once.

Next, make a comprehensive list of all anticipated expenses, and leave wiggle room for unexpected ones as well. A few strategies:
  • Try to recall what you had to buy in previous years -- and compare notes with other, more experienced parents.
  • Ask the school which supplies they expect parents to purchase. Go in on supplies with other families to take advantage of volume discounts and sales.
  • Find out the financial commitment for extracurricular activities like athletics, music and art programs. Consider things like uniforms, membership dues, private lessons, field trips, snacks, etc.
  • Rent vs. buy. Before you plunk down hundreds of dollars for musical instruments or sporting equipment for activities your kid may quickly lose interest in, consider renting or buying used equipment instead.
  • Don't forget public transportation or school bus charges, if that applies; and if you're in a car pool, calculate your share of the gas.
  • Compare the cost, convenience and nutritional value of school lunches and food you prepare yourself.
  • Learn your school's policy on immunizations and see what's covered by your insurance -- or which ones you can access free at health fairs or community clinics.

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 may suffice.

Prioritize "needs" versus "wants." Although outgrown shoes should be replaced to ensure proper physical development, you can probably get one more year's use out of an older computer if money is tight. Share your decision-making process with your kids -- it's never too soon for them to learn about delayed gratification and making trade-offs.

Before buying new clothing or accessories, look for "gently used" items in the closets of your older kids, friends and neighbors, at garage sales, thrift or consignment stores, and at online shopping sites like eBay and Craig's List. While you're at it, try to sell or donate items you no longer need.

Many retailers post discount coupons in newspapers and on their websites. In addition, numerous consolidation websites post downloadable coupons and sale codes you can enter at online shopping sites. Some of the better sites I've seen include: Dealnews.com, CouponCode.com, MyBargainBuddy.com, DealCoupon.com, DealHunting.com and Alex's Coupons.com. A few additional shopping tips:
  • Wait until after school starts to shop fall clearance sales -- that's when department stores want to make room for holiday merchandise.
  • Although shopping online can save you money, time and gas, shipping and return costs can undo your savings, so anticipate these expenses before making a purchase.
  • Understand your school's dress code so you don't buy inappropriate clothing.

Help your school. To stretch your dollars even further, you can join school fundraising organizations like Electronic Scrip Incorporated and OneCause.com (the new home for Schoolpop). A percentage of all purchases made by members at participating retailers and service organizations are donated to the school of your choice.

With a little careful planning, you can stretch your dollars and ease the financial pain of back-to-school shopping.

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

To Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney

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