Making the Grade: 3 Tips to Save Big on Back-to-School Shopping

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The lazy days of summer are slowly winding down. In the weeks ahead, many kids across the country will say farewell to swim parties and play dates in exchange for school books and packed lunches.

The annual prep for back to school comes with a cost. According to the National Retail Federation, the average family with children in grades K-12 planned to spend $630.36 on electronics, apparel and other school needs in 2015 while total spending was expected to reach $24.9 billion.

These expenses can put a financial strain on families, especially for the 60 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck and those struggling to pay down debt.

[See: 10 Easy Ways to Pay Off Debt.]

However, there are several ways to make going back to school more affordable and as easy as 1-2-3.

Do Your Homework

Before you purchase anything for back to school, do your homework. If your school provides a class supply list, start by taking inventory of what you already have at home. Repurpose any pencils, crayons or folders that came home at the end of the school year. Check to see if lunch boxes, backpacks and water bottles are in good condition and can be reused this year.

[See: 10 Things to Know Before You Shop for Back-to-School Supplies.]

Once you determine what you need to buy, create a budget and stick to it. If you’ll feel the financial pinch with back-to-school shopping, consider making temporary trade-offs in other areas of your budget, like dining out.

The important thing to remember is that back-to-school planning is not a one-time financial event. At the start of every calendar year, it’s a great idea to include an education budget among your spending categories so you can plan and save. To best prepare you and your wallet for the academic year ahead, remember to budget for expenses beyond school supplies like school lunches, supplies for special class projects, shoes (because kids always seem to outgrow them) and class photos.

Be an A+ Shopper

Whether its tech gadgets, school supplies or clothes, it’s important to shop smartly. Many big retailers are already advertising back-to-school sales. Monitor your favorite retailer websites for special offers and discounts and take advantage of loyalty reward programs. Check with your school to see if it has discount programs with retailers.

When it comes to purchasing school supplies, get creative! Buy items like glue sticks and paper in bulk and split the cost with other parents. Another easy way to save money is to buy generic versus name-brand items.

Don’t forget your pantry. Take advantage of good deals on food essentials like peanut butter, granola bars, and tuna and crackers, which are staples of many school lunches and make perfect after-school snacks.

[See: 12 Ways to Save Money on Food.]

Don’t Ditch Clothing Deals

One of the most anticipated, but often expensive aspects of going back to school is buying new clothes. To help curb your spending, first identify the must-have items in your child’s closet like jeans, comfortable shoes and a jacket for the cold winter months. If your budget allows, expand the wardrobe and purchase additional items as needed. It’s also a good idea to buy clothing that can be easily mixed and matched. A girl’s black cardigan, for example, looks great with jeans and a plain T-shirt or over a dress. Consignment stores, clearance racks and online resale sites have a great selection of name brands at a fraction of the cost.

There are several options to save money on school uniforms, too. Many big retailers sell traditional navy blue and khaki pants as well as solid colored polos. Uniform exchanges are also popular at many private schools. These exchanges are a great way to buy gently used uniforms at an affordable price. If your school doesn’t offer a uniform exchange, start one of your own with other parents.

There are countless opportunities to take advantage of back-to-school summer savings before the first bell rings. All it takes is a little creativity, patience and a budget to help you get there.

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