Parents, if this is your first time at the back-to-school rodeo, let me share a few lessons my wife and I have learned the hard way: Chances are you'll be spending the next few weeks filling out piles of pre-enrollment paperwork, lining up carpools and, of course, taking the dreaded shopping excursions for clothes and school supplies.
If you're a first-timer or simply need a back-to-school refresher course, here are a few suggestions that can help you save time, money and sanity:
Get organized. Maintain a correspondence file from your kid's school for things like registration requirements, report cards, permission slips, required vaccinations, school policies (absence, illness, discipline, etc.), contact information for teachers, aides and classmates' parents, etc. Ask whether the school has a website, online calendar or email list you can join.
Also, create a family master calendar noting registration deadlines, school holidays, vacations and field trips, doctor's appointments, your work events, carpool schedules, parent/teacher meetings, athletic and arts events, parties, etc.
Back-to-school shopping. Between new clothes, classroom supplies and extracurricular activity fees and equipment, many parents end up spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars per child. Ideally, you've been setting money aside all year. If not, you'll need to determine what you can afford to spend on school-related expenses without blowing your overall budget.
Here are a few organizational and money-saving tips:
- Before you shop, make a comprehensive list for each child. Use previous years' expenses as a guide and compare notes with other parents and school officials.
- Engage your kids in the budgeting process. Share how much money is available to spend and get them involved in prioritizing expenses between "needs" and "wants."
- Use this as an opportunity to teach the art of compromise: If your kids truly want something outside the budget, work together to determine how they can earn the difference. And, as an inducement to save money, agree to split the savings if you come in under budget.
- Go through your kids' closets and have them try on everything. Make an inventory of items that fit and are in good shape, and take it when shopping so you don't accidentally buy duplicates. (While you're at it, share, sell or donate unneeded items.)
- Spread clothing purchases throughout the year so your kids don't outgrow everything at once. Many stores hold fall clearance sales to make room for holiday merchandise.
- Review the school's dress code so you don't waste money on inappropriate clothing.
- Although shopping online can save money, time and gas, don't forget to factor in shipping and return costs, which could undo any net savings. If your kids are old enough, put them in charge of online comparison shopping and coupon clipping.
- Ask which school supplies you're expected to buy. Go in with other families to take advantage of volume discounts and sales.
- Find out how much extracurricular activities (athletics, music, art, etc.) cost. Account for uniforms, membership dues, private lessons, field trips, snacks, etc.
- Rent or buy used sporting equipment or musical instruments until you're sure they'll stick with an activity. (Try PlayItAgainSports.com and similar outlets.)
- Factor in public transportation, school bus or carpool expenses.
- Learn what your school charges for meals and weigh their convenience (and nutritional value) against the cost of home-prepared lunches and snacks.
- Know when it's important to spend more for higher quality. Cheaper notebook paper shouldn't matter, but you shouldn't risk buying poorly made shoes that might hamper proper physical development.
- 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 and consignment stores, and at online sites like Craig's List.
- Many states offer a sales tax holiday for back-to-school purchases -- typically in late July or early August. Go to the Federation of Tax Administrators website and search for "Sales Tax Holidays" to see if and when your state is participating.
- Clip newspaper and online coupons. Many stores will match competitors' prices even if their own items aren't on sale. Plus, many consolidation websites post downloadable coupons and sale codes for online retailers, including: CouponCabin.com, CouponCode.com, CouponCraze.com, DealHunting.com and Dealnews.com.
- Mobile shopping apps let in-store smartphone and mobile browser users scan product barcodes and make on-the-spot price comparisons, read reviews, download coupons, buy products and more. There are hundreds of popular apps including Price Check, ShopSavvy and PriceGrabber.
- Before checking out, ask the salesclerk if there are any available coupons or discounts. Even if you don't have your own coupon, many clerks, when asked nicely, will scan one for you to ensure that they make the sale.
- At this time of year, some credit card reward programs offer extra points for office supply stores or other back-to-school retailers. Another strategy: If you're short on cash but have lots of reward points, use them to buy gift cards for stores you frequent.
- Back-to-school loss leaders begin to pop up in discount and office supply stores around mid-July.
- Follow your favorite retailers on Facebook and Twitter, where many post special savings for their followers.
Bottom line: If you get organized before setting out on back-to-school shopping, you can save money, time and aggravation.
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.