With fuel and energy costs already biting into our budgets, back-to-school shopping could really drop families in the red. The National Retail Federation, for example, predicts that families with school-aged children will spend almost $530 on back-to-school shopping this year -- that's up 19 percent from last year.
This makes August a great time to put your shopping skills to the test. School expenses may not look like they have much wiggle room once you start going through the list of must-haves, but you'd be surprised -- there are ways to reduce the expenses. And, more importantly, it's an ideal time to share a budgeting exercise with your kids, in an age-appropriate way.
Here are five ways to start cutting those back-to-school costs:
1. Shop once, shop big. Save time and money by making a list of everything you need and buy it all in one place at one time -- especially at a warehouse store. Do your research, and find out which outlets provide bonuses or discounts. For example, if you buy supplies online many stores will provide free next-day delivery, which saves you driving time and fuel. You may also find that teaming up with other parents -- say as part of a parent-teacher association -- will give you the kind of bulk purchasing power that results in discounts.
2. Trade and save. Kids often outgrow clothes quickly. Get friends and family together and hold a 'trade and save' event. Everyone brings items that they no longer need and leaves with new-to-them items. This works even better with a larger group: a babysitting cooperative, church group, Family Readiness Group, home-schooling association or daycare.
3. Bag Your Own. Stores often sell 'bags' of school supplies that are packaged as money savers -- but it's buyer beware, especially if the bags contain items that aren't on your list. You'll end up paying for things you don't need, and possibly having to replenish other items. Instead, buy in bulk on your own, especially for items such as paper, pens and highlighters. Divide them up as needed between your kids and your home office.
4. Source Resource. Discount stores, thrift shops, used bookstores and garage sales can be great sources of nearly new items such as clothing, books and even musical instruments. The same goes for shopping online: It's a great place to find the lowest prices on all kinds of items (just be sure that you're shopping on a secure site).
5. Downscale. If sports, arts and other assorted activities are squeezing your finances, consider downscaling your kids' activities. Similarly, this may be a good time for a discussion about the difference between 'wants' and 'needs.' You could downscale from fancier clothing and school supplies to more basic versions. Or let kids spend their allowance to make up the difference between the two. This will also help younger members of the family build a sound financial foundation.
Stanley J. Kershman is The Debt Doctor. A leading authority on solving financial disasters, he has been helping people get out of debt for more than 25 years. He's also the author of Put Your Debt on a Diet: A Step-by-Step Guide to Financial Fitness (Pepper Pike Press), a practical handbook that walks you through the process of improving your money management skills. For free copies of Stanley's handy budgeting worksheets, visit www.debtonadiet.com.