Keep Back-to-School Shopping Costs Down

Retail federation predicts a back-to-school spending drop, but you don't have to settle for less.

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As record job losses and high unemployment continue to put a crimp in families' disposable income, the National Retail Federaton predicts the worst back-to-school shopping season for stores in more than a decade, with a spending drop of 8 percent. But many retailers are doing everything they can to win back business, and you can do your part to stretch your dollar—and keep your children happy—by considering these recommendations:

Delay some purchases until after school starts. This is a good strategy for two reasons. First, with Labor Day falling one week later this year, many retailers are keeping back-to-school products on shelves through September, particularly at clothing stores, and offering a broad assortment in smaller quantities, which allows them to rotate more new items into the store. Second, for classroom supplies, you will probably get a list from your child's teacher or school, and it makes sense to wait until you receive that.

"Do not buy anything until you see that list," says Christina Vercelletto, senior editor at Parenting magazine and a mother of three. "You'd be surprised how picky teachers are getting about what brands they want you to buy. 'Guesstimating' is a waste of time and money."

And if you have questions about what's on a teacher's supply list, or if you aren't sure if one type of item can be substituted for another, don't be afraid to ask. "A lot of parents think that what comes down from the school is on high, but an E-mail or telephone call to the teacher is more than welcome," says Tim Sullivan, a former English teacher and president of School Family Media, a media company that connects parents with schools.

When it comes to clothes, your son or daughter is likely to take great interest in what other kids are wearing during back-to-school time, so it's important to wait it out a little bit, says Bill Jackson, CEO of San Francisco-based GreatSchools, a nonprofit group committed to improving education from pre-K through 12th grade by getting parents involved. "Don't spend any extra money until you know what your child might enjoy most, and that could come a week or two after school starts." If patience isn't exactly your status-conscious kid's forte, don't worry. "If you explain to kids why a particular strategy is smart," says Jackson, "they're amazingly responsive."

Look for and stick to bargains. Keep an eye out for back-to-school sales and deals advertised in the newspaper and online. One website, called Shop It To Me, will send you E-mail alerts about sales at leading retailers. In some areas, local health departments also offer free basic school supplies to parents who bring their children in for immunizations.

Stores will try to lure you in with their promotions in the hopes that you'll buy other, nondiscounted items. Some are promoting 50-cent boxes of pens and pencils and outright giveaways just to get people in the door. But once you're inside, keep your eyes on what's on sale, Jackson urges. If something's not on your list and it's not on sale, just say no. One store might have products "on special" that other stores don't, and it might mean going to more than one store. But you'll find the basics like T-shirts and lower-priced jeans on sale at one of the popular retail chains. You might also be able to get a price match by presenting a competitor's advertisement.

Also consider your local dollar store, bargain stores, and even eBay. Scissors, glue, erasers, rulers, crayons, and more can be found here, and many of the items are the same familiar name brands. They may not have everything you need, but it's worth a shot to see what they have in stock, recommends the Family Education Network, a division of the publishing company Pearson PLC.

And try setting a budget for your kid's supplies and clothing. It will help your child learn how to manage money, and if you give an allowance, it could inspire him or her to save money for a big-ticket item that your budget won't allow.

Reuse supplies. Backpacks, binders, folders, and even pens can have a second life. Tearing out the marked-up sheets of a used notebook, for instance, and decorating it with stickers, magazine cutouts, or photographs can give it a fresh new look. Check to see if your child's backpack has a lifetime warranty. According to GreatSchools.com, some companies, like Jansport, will repair broken zippers or replace damaged backpacks free of charge.