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12 ways to go back to school (and not to the poorhouse)

The new school year is about to descend upon us any minute now — and that likely means an outlay of cash is in order. Is there any way to lessen the pain? You betcha. These tips from an extreme couponing maven and other experts can help.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

The new school year is about to descend upon us any minute now — and that likely means an outlay of cash is in order. Is there any way to lessen the pain?

You betcha. The following tips can help you avoid spending too much on the clothes, shoes, backpacks, notebooks, paper, pencils, pens, protractors and art supplies your children will need — not to mention the high-tech gear you may get tapped to provide.

1. Begin by shopping at home. One way to get around spending hundreds of dollars per child is to avoid buying everything new. Take an inventory of what your family already owns. Have your kids really outgrown all of their shoes and clothing? Do you have an abundance of pens, pencils, folders and rulers? (Note: It’s not hard to hide company logos on folders and notebooks with stickers!)

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2. Start sleuthing for bargains. Now is an excellent time to become highly attuned to clearance sales in your area and coupons that can help you at this time of year. Tiffany Ivanovsky, a dedicated couponer who appeared on the TLC reality show “Extreme Couponing,” notes that some coupons offer up certain school supplies for a dime or even a penny. If she spots a coupon like that but doesn’t have time to go to the store offering the sale, she’ll bring the coupon to Walmart and ask to have it price-matched. (Note: When you find deep discounts, remember to stock up for the entire year, not just the immediate future.)

3. Apply the brakes if your kids can stand it. Be aware that some of the best sales for backpacks, Thermoses and lunch boxes are likely to surface in September after school has already started. Can your kids make do until then?

4. Get thee to a dollar store. You might be surprised by the selection of paper products and other school supplies you’ll find there. Bring your child — a potential bargain-hound-in-training! — to the store with you.

5. Scour garage sales, thrift stores and consignment shops. These places typically require some legwork, but the bargains to be had are astonishing. On certain days of the week, some thrift stores allow you to fill an entire bag with clothing for $3 or $4. Thrift stores and yard sales also can be godsends for young people: They often serve up designer name-brand finds for $1 to $5, as opposed to $50 to $100. Why not give it a try?

6. Organize a clothing swap with other parents. “Sometimes kids don't need new clothes, they just need different clothes!” said Ivanovsky, a mother of seven who blogs about couponing and bargain-hunting at “School clothes might be in great condition still, it just doesn't fit your child anymore.” A clothing swap can be a completely free and fun way to recharge a wardrobe at any time of year.

7. Remember and . If your child simply will die without a specific high-end designer brand, look for new or slightly used clothing online at sites like these. The savings can be substantial, and the process may be less time-consuming than the thrift-store-and-yard-sale route.

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8. Set ground rules for clothes shopping. Choose clothes that will give your children room to grow. Pick up extra pairs of shoes in larger sizes when you find a good sale. Solid, neutral colors and classic styles — such as simple pullover shirts — are ideal because they’re easy to mix and match and less likely to look dated over time if you have younger kids.

9. Buy the right backpack. If you know your child is likely to overstuff his or her backpack, opt for a smaller one. Kids shouldn’t carry more than 20 percent of their own weight on their backs. Any pack you buy should have wide, padded shoulder straps. Rolling backpacks are available (if your child really will use the wheels and not just carry that extra weight around).

10. Don’t overspend on technology. Homework can be almost impossible these days without a computer and Internet access. If you’re thinking of investing in a personal computer exclusively for your child’s use, look for deals; there’s no need to pay top dollar for this purchase. Again, check out eBay and craigslist, and remember that refurbished computers are another option. As for other technology — a cell phone, an mp3 player, a handheld video-game player and the like — only you can be the judge of what your child should have. If you view a cell phone as a necessity for safety reasons, take care to sign up for a calling plan that will actually work well for your family, and teach your child not to subscribe to joke-of-the-day services, special ring-tone services and other kinds of “premium text messaging.” Otherwise it’s all too easy to get clobbered with astronomical cell-phone bills. For additional tips, read this Red Tape Chronicles post about kids and cell phones.

11. Track down the right calculator. If your child needs a fancy calculator for trigonometry class, bite the bullet and invest in a good one. It will last for years — so many years, in fact, that one of your kids’ grandparents might already have one that you could borrow free of charge.

12. Teach important money lessons. Back-to-school season lends itself to having frank discussions with your children about money, budgeting, and needs versus wants. Depending on their ages and maturity levels, you could negotiate back-to-school budgets with your kids and allow them to manage those budgets entirely. If they want anything above and beyond the amount you’ve agreed to provide, let them use their allowance money or baby-sit, mow lawns or wash cars to pay for it themselves. For more information about allowances and money management for young people, check out this column and this feature story.