Just when I'd settled into my summertime routine, the ads started blaring: "The first day of school is right around the corner!" According to local retailers, it's time to hit the stores in search of the perfect everything. In the face of this media blitz, my one-income budget demands a clear head and a bit of creativity as I begin gathering true essentials for the coming school year.
Thanks to discount stores like Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Target, school supplies aren't too scary. Since everybody needs them, competition is fierce. They're practically giving away glue, markers and folders, hoping that you'll pick up a backpack or two while you're there. Resist the impulse and recycle last year's more expensive items whenever possible. Use coupons and bring competitor's fliers for price matching. Keep your eyes open for rebates, which are very common this time of year.
CLOTHES, COATS AND SHOES
Hopefully you remembered to purchase the kids' fall and winter coats last spring at the 70 percent-off sales. If not, it's not too late to scour neighborhood garage sales in search of a gently-used jacket. Since jeans are the uniform of choice for most students, watch sales. Recently I spotted flares at Wal-Mart for my 5th grader - $15 jeans marked down to $10, then $7, then $3 each. I grabbed five pair and headed to the registers, where they rang up at ONE DOLLAR EACH. (God bless Sam Walton!)
There's not much lee-way in dodging sports and band fees, but you may be able to save on the uniforms and instruments. Check the craigslist for second-hand items. Email friends and classmates to see if anyone has something you need for sale. Ask coaches and tutors for leads on used equipment. If there's a good chance your child will be on the same team next year, allow some growing room. Buy a little big; there's a good chance that soccer or cheerleading outfit will work for two seasons instead of one.
Most schools kick off with some type of fundraiser. Parents, I hear those groans! But don't turn away every kid who knocks on your door, because they might be peddling something that benefits YOU as much as their sports or drama team. I'm talking about those Entertainment and Gold C coupon books (and their many clones). I love these buy-one, get-one-free deals. They allow me to splurge on a night out or fun fest - at half-price. The books usually pay for themselves the first time I use them.
Hint: Think through fundraisers before pitching products to your neighbors. To offset cheerleading costs, I bought 20 fundraising coupon books at $1 each - which my daughter was then supposed to sell for $5 apiece. (She would pocket the extra $4 per book, clearing a total of $80.)
But each book - which offered discounts at my favorite grocery store - included a "$5 off the total purchase" coupon, along with another $50 or so in additional savings. Since I shop at that store every week, I gave my daughter $80 toward her uniform, kept the books and used the coupons myself.
The $5-off coupons alone saved me $100, plus I saved hundreds more with the remaining coupons in the 20 books. Next year, I'll buy FORTY books and double this year's savings!
MORE QUICK TIPS:
(1) If your kids don't take the bus to school, carpool with other families. (That goes for before and after school practices, too.)
(2) Most days, have children take lunches instead of buying at the cafeteria.
(3) Get required vaccinations through your local county health department, where shots are often offered at a discount or free.
(4) If you're paying tuition, work part-time or substitute at the school to offset expenses. (It'll make it easy to pop in on their class parties or keep an eye on your teen, too!)