Back to school on a budget

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Friends, it's that time of year again. As the Staple's commercial says, "It's the most wonderful time of the year" for parents. Christmas time? Not exactly. It's back to school time!

Getting kids ready to go back to school can be exciting, but also very expensive. To defray some of the costs, here are some budget-friendly tips.

Take stock of the supplies you may already have at home. There's no reason to buy rulers, scissors, back packs, lunch boxes and other reusable items from previous years (assuming those items are still in good shape). The same holds true for clothing.

Start your shopping at one of the local dollar stores. They have a wide selection of highlighters, markers, crayons, pencils, pens, glue, erasers, notebooks, poster board and much more. Not all the items are name-brand, but they work just as well.

Look for office supply store freebies. Stores such as Staples and Office Max not only have good deals, but freebies for customers as well. Watch the circulars in TheBAG and in the Sunday paper because each week stores offer different deals such as glue, glue sticks, two-pocket folders, and spiral notebooks. Last year I picked up quite a few freebies at Staples.

Start your shopping sooner rather than later. August is when stores offer deep discounts on school supplies to lure shoppers. Laptop computers are priced most competitively in August and September. If possible, get your child's school supply list ahead of time (usually available on the district's website). Otherwise you may end up buying items your child doesn't need.

Take advantage of the August and September sales on summer clothing. Every child wants new clothes to start the new school year, but try not to buy too much at first. The weather will be warm when kids start school, so buy only a few new seasonal items on clearance. Hold off on buying new fall clothes until they have been marked down.

Most fall-season clothing items go on sale in a month or so. Department stores such as Macy's offer deep discounts to make room for the next season's merchandise. I have always been able to keep my son in designer Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger golf shirts for less than I would be able to buy a no-name shirt at a discount store. The secret lies in knowing when to shop. With the discounted price and additional coupons available, you can too.

Thrift shopping can be a fun experience for clothing too. Make it a point to go to thrift stores and second-hand stores. Central Ohio has a wonderful selection of second-hand shops to visit. You never know what gems you'll find for a fraction of the original cost.

Network with other parents for school uniforms. Pass outgrown uniforms on to other families with younger children.

If your child plays sports, frequent used equipment stores such as Play It Again Sports. Give your family's used uniforms and equipment to others as well. Pay it forward, as I like to say.

Have your student pick out a lunch box. It's more economical to pack a lunch at home. You'll have the added assurance that your child will actually eat his or her lunch (we hope) instead of throwing it away. Save on lunch meat by buying a boneless dinner ham and slicing it for sandwiches. Buy large bags of chips and cookies and measure them out in plastic bags. It costs too much to buy the small lunch-size snacks. Throw in a piece of fruit or yogurt and lunch is good to go.

For college students, shop around at used book stores. Sites such as or may have what you're looking for. When possible, have your student buy used textbooks. Also have your child network with other students to see if he or she can borrow a book for a semester or quarter. Books alone can cost $500 or more per semester or quarter of classes. Have your student sell books back to the book store after the class is completed.

Don't get caught up in spending a fortune on dorm room items. Start out with the necessities. Two sets of extra-long sheets, a blanket, pillow, a few towels and wash cloths, comforter and a mini refrigerator or micro-wave will start things off nicely. Add other items as needed.

Set a back-to-school budget and stick to it. It's easy to get carried away once you start shopping. Determine what your children's "wants" are versus their "needs." They may want a special notebook with their favorite football team on the front, which can cost 30- to 40 percent more than a regular notebook. Give your children monetary limits on their back-to-school "wants."

Keep yourself from overspending by paying with cash only. It's way too easy to overspend on back-to-school purchases when using a credit card. Cash may cause you to stop and think before you spend.

Following some of these money-saving tips will make this year's start to the new school year a wonderful time for all.

For now, happy shopping!

Savings guru Laurie Dixon (a.k.a. TheBAG Lady) has been hunting down deals and steals for more than 21 years. Read more on

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