5 Back-to-School Shopping Tips You Won't Want to Miss

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By J.J. Montanaro, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™

Have you ever started writing or preparing an argument with a clear vision of where you were going only to be sidetracked by something as surprising as cold hard facts that fly in the face of your preconceived notion? Welcome to my world. I was preparing my thoughts for this post on back-to-school shopping when that's exactly what happened.

You see, my initial thought was that back-to-school shopping was like the minor leagues of shopping compared with the holidays, which, to me, represented the big time. I was going to write about fine-tuning your skills in the minors before arriving to the real show, where big money would be on the line. But then a little research revealed that Americans spend almost as much on back-to-school shopping expenditures as they do on the holidays (roughly 85%-90%). Oops!

We're not talking about practice at all; instead, it's a full-blown dress rehearsal for the holidays. With that in mind, consider these steps as you focus on getting it right — now and through the end of the year.

  1. Spread it out. I encourage folks to shop for holiday gifts year-round, and the same could be said for back-to-school purchases. There's nothing that says your kids need closets and backpacks stuffed with everything they'll need throughout the year on the first day of school. Instead, smooth the financial impact by buying over time. Heck, if they're not a Montanaro (since the kids don't seem to be headed for much more than our 5'7" and 5'2"!), they may even grow over the course of the year, so buy too early and you could get limited use out of your purchase.
  2. Stay off the bandwagon. There's no more surefire way to break the budget than to buy the hottest gift or gadget — now or during the holidays. A Coupon Cabin survey indicated that 42% of parents plan to buy new electronic gadgets, such as laptops, tablets, cellphones and e-readers for their children for the upcoming school year. I'm sorry, but an elementary or middle school child does not NEED a 4G tablet or the latest smart phone to be an academic success. This could be another great teaching moment: a discussion of NEEDS vs. WANTS.
  3. Make a list. Speaking of teaching moments, you can make any type of shopping more efficient and less costly, by starting with a budget and building a shopping list. This will keep you on track and allow you to avoid impulse buys. Do it yourself, or better yet, if your kids are a bit older, bring them in on the exercise.
  4. Can you say sale? Everybody loves a sale and if you can marry a sale with something on your list, you've got the makings of a definite winner. Of course, sales happen throughout the year, so the back-to-school season may be a great time to buy and stash a holiday gift or two. And if, at the same time, you take advantage of those tax-free days offered throughout the country, you'll get the most bang for your buck.
  5. Be a cash buyer. The definitive solution to staying on budget during any shopping spree is to use cash. When the money is gone, the shopping is done. An equally effective alternative, in the interest of budget education, is to consider getting a prepaid card for your teens and letting that provide the guiderails for their shopping.

Who would have thought a little back-to-school shopping required a full-blown financial plan? In retrospect, I think the ease in which I minimized the importance of back-to-school shopping probably had something to do with my lack of involvement in the process — sorry, honey. So, since it's clearly the big leagues this year, I'm in the game.

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