Back-to-school to-do list: Know how to save and not blow the budget

Welcome to August — the month that can sometimes break the bank in most families. School comes with all kinds of unexpected expenses.

Here are some of our tips to anticipate those expenses and save:

Avery Ellis-Byerly looks through the racks at Savers for the right outfit.
Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

Save on clothes

Shop the thrift store. We took four kids to a Savers Thrift Store and a Goodwill of Central Texas store two years ago. We got eight outfits, one necklace, a pair of shoes and one purse for $113.97, and our purchases benefit Easter Seals Central Texas and job-training programs.

We thought the kids a 7-year-old, 11-year-old, 13-year-old and 16-year-old — would think that thrift store shopping was lame. Not true. Three of them already love shopping at thrift stores. The youngest one doesn’t usually shop at all.

Be patient. It’s not always easy to find what you’re looking for. Be ready for the hunt. Prepare for frustration, too. Sometimes they can fall in love with an outfit that doesn’t fit and there’s no “I’ll just get the next size” at the thrift store. And be careful. Inspect the clothing before purchasing to look for any stains, seam rips, missing buttons or other flaws. Also, know the school dress code.Those shorts might be cute, but not if your kid gets sent home because they are too short.

Shop garage sales. Look for multifamily or community-, neighborhood- or church-based sales, where you can pick up clothes by the bundle.

Shop the sales. Aug. 11-13 is tax-free weekend on clothing and school supplies.

You will skip paying the tax on these things:

Supplies: Binders; backpacks and book bags; calculators; cellophane tape; blackboard chalk; compasses; composition books; crayons; erasers; folders — expandable, pocket, plastic and manila; glue; highlighters; index cards; index card boxes; legal pads; lunch boxes; markers (including dry-erase markers); notebooks; paper; pencil boxes and other school supply boxes; pencil sharpeners; pencils; pens; protractors; rulers; scissors; writing tablets.

Clothing: Most clothing (but not if an item is more than $100); socks; most shoes; ties; coats; pajamas; swimsuits; uniforms; underwear; sports jerseys; sports hats.

Others: Adult and baby diapers.

What’s not tax-free: Sports shoes like cleats or fishing boots; sports equipment; sports clothing except jerseys; fabric, buttons and zippers; accessories; purses; luggage; wallets; any item more than $100.

It seems like a big savings, but it’s only 8.25 percent. Look for sales that are bigger than that — 20 percent, 30 percent and up. Often, after kids get back in school, clothing goes on sale, especially summer wear. With our warm climate, kids can wear shorts and T-shirts most of the year. Put off shopping until September if you don’t find good deals.

Don’t shop in advance. We like to think that we will pick up an outfit on clearance that is a size or two too big for kids to wear in the future. Many a kid has skipped a size all together, and then you’ve spent money on something your kid won’t be able to wear.

Shop their closet and others’ closets. First assess what they have. They might have forgotten that fun T-shirt shoved in the back of the closet. Do they even need new clothes? If the answer is “no,” you can skip the back to school craziness and wait until they outgrow what they have.

Remember hand-me-downs? Embrace that again. Find a friend with kids slightly older than yours. Or share clothes between your own kids. My tomboy daughter has been known to sport her brother’s T-shirts. They both raid their parent’s closet, and recently as they’ve gotten older, we’re raiding their closets.

Don’t forget as you’re going through their closets to donate their clothes or find a friend with younger kids to pass clothes to.

Save on school supplies

Get the list, then look at what you have. Last year’s markers might still be good. They become this year’s at-home supplies, or if your kids really didn’t use those markers, send them back to school for another year. Too often we get Back to School Fever and think we need all new items. Don’t forget to shop for supplies at home, too, if you have nothing left from last year. You don’t want to have a color pencil emergency at 9 p.m. on a school night.

Inspect the backpack and lunch box. Your kid might not need a new one. If he does, buy for quality, not fashion, to get the longest life out of the same backpack. Last year’s backpack also can become this year’s overnight bag, carry-on bag or soccer-gear bag.

Shop unexpected stores. You might think you need to head to Wal-Mart or Target, but sometimes the best deals might be at the Dollar Store, CVS, Walgreens or the H-E-B. Bring your lists with you and shop around for the best deals. See our story about where we shopped last year and what we found had deals on what items. 

Don’t shop at all. Some schools have packages you can buy with all the school supplies you need. They will cost more, but you’re saving on gas, as well as your time. Your time is worth something, right?

Don’t have a list? No problem. When you get to the middle-school and high-school years, school supply shopping becomes unpredictable and something that is a mystery until the first few days of school. You don’t want to be the parent in the back to school aisle at 8 p.m. that first week. You won’t go wrong with picking up three-ring binders, notebook paper, computer paper, pencils, pens, composition books and colored pencils. If your kid is going to be in upper-level math like algebra and geometry, grab a pack of graph paper, too. That’s one thing you don’t want to try to find the first week of school.

RELATED: Dear Walmart and Target, Kids still need school supplies. Love, Frustrated Parents Everywhere

Find the free supplies. Here are some back-to-school bashes with free supply giveaways that we know about:

AISD Back to School Bash: Get free backpacks and supplies, medical screenings and vaccinations with shot record. 9 a.m.–Noon Saturday, Aug. 12. Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Road. Buses leave from Guerrero Thompson and Summitt elementary schools; Bedichek, Martin, Mendez and Covington middle schools; and Lanier and Reagan high schools.  austinisd.org/bash

Bastrop Stuff the Bus/Back to School Bash: Attend the Back to School Bash, 8:30-10:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 12 at the Bastrop ISD Memorial Stadium in Cedar Creek. bisdtx.org

Round Rock ISD Partners in Education Foundation School Supplies Sunday/Kutz for Kidz Event. Come to Supplies Sunday event Aug. 20 at Hernandez Middle School. rrisdeducationfoundation.org/school-supplies

Can’t attend or not one in your district? Call your school. The staff should know if an organization has donated supplies to the school’s students or where to go to get them.

And, while this isn’t a money-saver, consider donating extra supplies when you’re out shopping. We have a list of places that will take them.

Save on school fees

Plan around your budget. The second kids enter schools, they start getting letters from teachers about field trip fees, supply fees and other needs. Ask the teacher or organizer if you can space out payments. Often, they are happy to get the fees any way you can give them. They might even give you a schedule of when they need each portion of the fee based on the date of the activities.

Start saving now. Try to put aside a few extra dollars with this paycheck before the next one.

Rethink the fundraiser. Do you really need the cookie dough or the wrapping paper? Figure out what you would have bought in products you won’t use, calculate the percentage the school would have received from your order and write a check for that amount.

Ask for scholarships. If you truly can’t afford the school fees, ask the school if there are any scholarships available or angels who can help you out. Consider going to your house of worship to see if it might be able to help as well.

Involve the kids

Let them know what your budget is for school supplies, clothing and school activities. They might be able to help you prioritize what is important to them — new clothes or joining the soccer team, for example. It might also help them avoid just mindlessly filling the shopping cart with things they don’t need.


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