Parents, if this is your first time at the back-to-school rodeo, let me share a few lessons my wife and I have learned the hard way. Chances are you’ll be spending the next few weeks filling out piles of pre-enrollment paperwork, lining up carpools and, of course, taking the dreaded shopping excursions for clothes and school supplies.
If you’re a first-timer or simply need a back-to-school refresher course, here are a few suggestions that can help you save time, money and sanity.
Maintain a correspondence file from your kid’s school for things like registration requirements, report cards, permission slips, required vaccinations, school policies, teacher and parent contact information, etc. Ask whether the school has a website, online calendar or email list you can join. Also, create a family master calendar.
Between new clothes, classroom supplies and extracurricular activity fees and equipment, many parents end up spending hundreds of dollars per child. Ideally, you’ve been setting money aside all year. If not, you’ll need to determine what you can afford to spend without blowing your overall budget.
Before you shop, make a comprehensive list for each child. Use previous years’ expenses as a guide and compare notes with other parents and school officials.
Engage your kids in the budgeting process. Share how much money is available to spend and get them involved in prioritizing expenses between “needs” and “wants.”
Go through your kids’ closets and have them try on everything. Make an inventory of items that fit and are in good shape, and take it when shopping so you don’t accidentally buy duplicates. (While you’re at it, share, sell or donate unneeded items.)
Spread clothing purchases throughout the year so your kids don’t outgrow everything at once. Many stores hold fall clearance sales to make room for holiday merchandise.
Review the school’s dress code so you don’t waste money on inappropriate clothing.
Although shopping online can save money, time and gas, don’t forget to factor in shipping and return costs, which could undo any net savings. If your kids are old enough, put them in charge of online comparison shopping and coupon clipping.
Ask which school supplies you’re expected to buy. Go in with other families to take advantage of volume discounts and sales.
Find out how much extracurricular activities (athletics, music, art, etc.) cost. Account for uniforms, membership dues, private lessons, field trips, snacks, etc.
Rent or buy used sporting equipment or musical instruments until you’re sure they’ll stick with an activity.
Know when to spend more for higher quality. Cheaper notebook paper shouldn’t matter, but don’t buy poorly made shoes that might hamper proper physical development.
Before buying new clothing or accessories, look for “gently used” items in the closets of your older kids and friends, at garage sales, thrift and consignment stores and online.
Clip newspaper and online coupons. Many stores will match competitors’ prices even if their own items aren’t on sale. Plus, many consolidation websites post downloadable coupons and sale codes for online retailers, including: CouponCabin.com, CouponCode.com, CouponCraze.com, DealHunting.com and Dealnews.com.
Mobile shopping apps let in-store smartphone and mobile browser users scan product barcodes and make on-the-spot price comparisons, read reviews, download coupons, buy products and more.
Follow your favorite retailers on Facebook and Twitter, where many post special savings for their followers.
Bottom line: If you get organized before setting out on back-to-school shopping, you can save money, time and aggravation.
Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter @PracticalMoney.