Beating the Back-To-School Budget Blues

by Ami Elizabeth Reeves

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After an early-August romp through a major department store, a giant office supply retailer, and a discount shoe hawker, I'd spent over three hundred dollars on my sixth grader's back-to-school necessities. His requirements were nothing extraordinary: shirts and pants, a few shorts, shoes, backpack, paper and pencils. I'd diligently watched the Sunday sale papers and clipped coupons with the best of intentions, making lists and strategizing for the best possible fiscal outcome. Unfortunately, the enormity of school shopping can overwhelm all but the most carefully laid plans.

Here are six secrets I've come up with that have helped whittle that shocker of an August credit card bill (or checking account balance) down to a more reasonable amount:

1. Set Aside Early

Calculate the average total amount spent in previous years on back-to-school items for all children. Divide the final figure by fifty-two and subtract this dollar amount from your checkbook register once a week. It's much easier to "pay" five or ten bucks every Friday instead of coughing up a few hundred dollars in August.

Set up a spreadsheet to monitor this set-aside money. If it's too tempting to know it's still in your account, cash a check every week for the amount needed and put the bills in a coffee can. Alternatively, take the plunge and open a savings account, earning interest on this money as an added benefit.

2. The Thrill of the Hunt

Depending on how you look at it, today's relaxed fashion styles are a blessing! Thrift-store finds are "in" and the more worn, the better. Also check these stores for expensive brands at drastically reduced prices. A wash and iron routine can transform bargains into look-alike mall purchases.

Hunt down alternative clothing sources. Dry cleaners sell items that have been left too long. Since they are looking to recoup their laundering costs, not to profit in the retail clothing business, this means bottom-dollar prices for nice, clean clothes.

Scout outlet malls for clothing. Don't be fooled by the word "outlet." A true outlet store is packed with wall-to-wall merchandise, some with missing buttons, damaged zippers, holes, or stains. Examine all clothing carefully and determine if the defect is fixable. Don't forget to check out upscale consignment stores for name brand buys as well.

3. Long Live DIY

Join the Do-It-Yourself craze and learn to sew. Custom make dresses, shirts, skirts, and shorts for your kids. Their tailor-made clothes will fit perfectly and they can pick out their favorite patterns and colors. Purchase material on sale for under two dollars per yard to really rake in the savings. Don't own a sewing machine? Search yard sales and flea markets for a working model and have a repair shop clean it and overhaul any glitches. The money contributed toward a decent older sewing machine, a tune-up, and a few classes will be less than the price tag of a Gap outfit.

4. These Shoes Are Made For Walking

Visit shoe retailers who offer two for one deals. Even buy one, get another half-off works in your favor. In order to shop comparatively, keep a close eye on Sunday newspaper ads the month before you plan to buy shoes.

Just when you think you've got the shoe situation under control, your son decides he's joining athletics this year. Now add the price of basketball, soccer, or track shoes into the mix! For good quality athletic shoes and cleats, nothing beats a sporting goods consignment store. These establishments buy used sports equipment and resell at a much lower price than other retailers. Return the shoes or athletic gear at the end of the season for a little of your money back.

If you ever run across a fabulous deal on a pair of shoes that are too big for your kids' feet, buy them anyway! Nike, Adidas, and Reebok have been around for years and will most likely continue to be popular until your child grows into his shoes.

5. Reading, Writing, & Arithmetic

The dreaded school supplies. Purchase as many goods as you can from stores with "$1 or Less" on their signs. Stock up on paper, notebooks, binders, and pens in September when Wal-Mart and K-Mart have clearance-tagged the school supply aisle to make room for Halloween costumes.

If your child needs a special calculator for trigonometry or a set of charcoals for Still Life 101, go ahead and buy the best you can afford. These are items your kids can use for many semesters to come. I haven't had to spend money on this particular school supply because I paid top dollar over a decade ago and took good care of it.

6. Leap of Faith

Suppose your kids would never go for thrift-store buys or handmade clothes. Why not give them a taste of budgeting? If your children are at least twelve years old, here's one way to solve the tug-of-war when it comes to spending money on school clothing and supplies.

Give them the money you've set aside. That's right, hand it over. If Suzie insists she'll die without a certain seventy-five-dollar pair of jeans, let her make the purchase. Then she has to understand the rest of the money she's holding, whether it's twenty bucks or a hundred, has to be stretched to include everything else she needs. Watch your children become creative.

Giving in means a lesson lost so stand firm! If your son buys two items of clothing and runs out of money, he'll have to buy paper and notebooks with his allowance or mowing money. If your daughter chooses to buy an outrageously expensive pair of shoes and a few notebooks and has twelve cents left, that's all she gets. Next year, they will think much longer and harder about what to buy.

Use all of these ideas or just one, depending on your children's personalities, your financial goals, and the family's income. The idea is to control your spending instead of letting spending control you every August.

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