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9 early back-to-school shopping tips

Dawn Papandrea

Somehow, in June, the back-to-school sales commercials and signage are already being pumped out (sort of like how Christmas decorations start showing up in September).

With all this prompting, it’s no wonder that according to the National Retail Foundation’s research, 73 percent of people surveyed last year (new stats haven’t been released yet) said they planned to shop as early as one or two months before the first day of school.

Plus, back-to-school purchases for K-12 and college has grown 55 percent over the past decade, with shoppers having spent an average of $674 in 2016.

That being said, let’s not let back-to-school shopping stress get in the way of summer relaxation. Here are nine ways to enjoy your break and still save big.  

1. Take inventory of what you already have.
Remember all those extra notebooks you bought last year for 13 cents? You probably don’t, but they may be sitting on a closet shelf somewhere in your home, and if you don’t look, you’ll buy them again.

Also, when your grade-schoolers bring home the contents of their cleaned-out desks once school’s out, look through the items carefully. It’s likely that their safety scissors and mini-staplers still work, so there’s no need to buy them again. Scratching a couple of items off your back-to-school shopping list saves money and time.

2. When buying merchandise, think about longevity.
I used to buy cheap backpacks with characters on them (Super Mario, Star Wars, etc.) for my kids that would rip halfway through the semester. As my kids got older, I decided to invest in more expensive, heavy-duty ones and those backpacks are still going strong.

A quick toss in the washing machine works wonders with more durable items. Buy for longevity, not the latest fad or craze.

Here’s a related tip: Instead of going through dozens of ripped folders and having to tape up soft notebooks and workbooks throughout the year, pick up some clear contact paper to cover them. Our school forces us to do this, and while I thought it was a pain at first, it really does keep flimsy items well protected.

3. Don’t reinvent entire wardrobes.
Go ahead and splurge on a nice first-day-of-school outfit, but beyond that, your children most likely have ample clothes in their closets (all that laundry comes from somewhere, right?).

If your children grew like weeds over the summer, you’ll have no choice but to stock up on a few staples (leggings, jeans, sweats and T-shirts), but try to choose some neutrals and mix-and-match pieces that allow for multiple wearing options. This will help rein in your back-to-school clothing budget – and it may even mean fewer laundry loads.

4. Stock up on items that make sense.
There are certain school supplies you’ll use for years to come (pens, pencils, loose-leaf paper, glue sticks, etc.), and others your kids will use less over time (colored pencils, construction paper, protractors, etc.).

Don’t just buy things because they’re on sale – think about what you’ll actually need. Start with a back-to-shopping list and stick to it.

5. Think beyond school.
With dorm gear heavily discounted all summer, if you’ve been wanting to replace guest room linens or pick up low-cost storage bins or pop-up hampers for the playroom, basement or garage, grab them now.

Bonus tip: If you have a home office like I do, look for great back-to-school deals on copier paper (last year I bought a ream and I got a $25 rebate check), envelopes, printer ink and other things you go through frequently.

6. Spread out your back-to-school shopping.
Don’t let the sales flyers and emails fool you into thinking that stores or favorite shopping websites will run out of highlighters, or suddenly triple their prices the last week of August.

Just like ahead of the holidays, sales continue all season, and even a couple of weeks after school begins. If time allows, check flyers to score the one or two deeply discounted items featured each week, but resist the urge to get everything in one shot. If you do your back-to-school shopping in a rush, you’re likely to overspend – or overpay.

7. Don’t let your kids lead you to overspend.
If you’re not careful, your children (usually the young ones) can sucker you into springing for overpriced folders and pencil cases. I’ve been there.

My advice: Hit the dollar store for some stickers and glitter glue and let them decorate their binders, folders, lunch bags and pencil cases. Or, give them a small budget from their own money so they can choose the fashionable products they want most.

8. Redeem your credit card rewards for gift cards.
Put in a gift card order now for kids’ clothing retailers, office supply stores or sites such as Amazon or Zappos so you’ll have them in time to give your school shopping budget a boost.

You’ll often get more value for your credit card rewards by redeeming your points for airfare or other travel, but you often can catch a special on gift cards through your credit card’s shopping portal. Then double-dip on your savings when you use your gift card to pay for back-to-school items that are on sale. Bonus points: Triple-dip if your state has a tax-free weekend for back-to-school shopping.

9. Do some good.
As taxing as back-to-school shopping might be on your bank account, there are so many students who struggle to afford the basics, and many teachers who pay for materials from their own wallets.

See if the stores you shop offer any opportunities to give back (like buy-one-give-one promotions), or fill a backpack with some door-buster items you picked up and leftover crayons you no longer need, and donate it to Operation Backpack.

Don’t let marketing gimmicks trick you into overspending on back-to-school items. You and your children should enjoy your summer. All of you are entitled to take a much-deserved mental break from all things classroom related, and trust me, the sales will still be there when you’re ready to buy school clothes and supplies.

See related: Money lessons I learned this past school year, 4 easy things I did to trim my credit card bill, 7 ways to unstuff your family budget

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