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Back to school deals abound on and off line

From sales tax holidays to electronics for less. By Teri Goldberg

We’ve all seen the commercials. Parents dancing in the aisles of the office supply store at the start of the back-to-school season. These ads ring a bell with many parents relieved to have their kids out of the way but safe and settled in for the new academic year. But what about the bell at the cash register? The less, the better, no? Some relief at the checkout counter is always welcome.

Tax breaksTo start with, consider a holiday before the school year even begins. That is, a sales tax holiday. Inaugurated in New York in 1997, sales tax holidays provide consumers with temporary sales tax exemptions on certain items for a specific period of time. The Federation of Tax Administrators (FTA), a non-profit organization that represents state revenue agencies, posts a comprehensive list of states that have initiated sales tax holidays this back-to-school season. Since each state has different rules and regulations, check with your state’s department of revenue or taxation before hitting the mall (see chart below.)

Most states limit tax breaks to traditional back-to-school merchandise, such as school supplies, clothes and footwear. Iowa’s Department of Revenue even provides an itemized list. For example, ponytail holders are taxable, aprons are not. Go figure.

Most states also put a cap on the amount per item sold. School supplies less than $20 per item, and clothing less than $1000 are tax exempt in the state of Virginia, according to Virginia’s Department of Taxation.

Discount cards
Cash-strapped students are always on the hunt for deals on everything from late-night snacks to train tickets home. In general, it’s good fiscal policy not to spend money to save money. But there are exceptions. For example, a discount card from Boston-based Student Advantage costs $20 for a 12-month period but most students will get the initial fee and more back over the school year.

Cardholders are eligible for discounts from 20,000 locations nationwide including 50 national or online companies, from low-end department store such as Target to upscale Armani Exchange. Discounts range from 5 percent at Barnes and Nobles to 85 percent at Magazineline. Most discounts fall somewhere in between.

Students with plans to travel overseas also should consider an international student identification card from the International Student Travel Confederation.

Students can apply for a card in person at one of the associations 5,000 student and youth travel offices, request an application be sent by snail mail or apply online at STA Travel, a for-profit travel agency. Cardholders, who must be full-time students and as least 12 years old, are eligible for discounts at 32,000 locations in 106 countries.

Best known for its discounts on travel and accommodations, the ISIC card also can be used at museums, historical sites, entertainment and more. Cardholders can sort through the deals with an easy-to-use search engine. A search in the Austin, Texas area yielded discounts on transportation, art museums, the zoo and a yoga school. A card-carrying member in Belize can take advantage of discounts on hotel, food and transportation.

Electronics for lessStudent status also comes with time-limited options to buy brand name electronics for a less than retail. For example, Apple offers an education discount for students, teachers and home schoolers. Consumers can shop at the Apple Store for Education online or any brick-and-mortar Apple Store.

Discounts vary for different products. For example, the MacBook Pro, which retails for $1,999, is reduced to $1,799. Aperture, a production tool for photographers, is $149 with the educational discount, compared to $299 full price.

Apple also has several promotions for the new school year. Students who purchase a “super-fast, Office-running, video chatting, crash-resistant, podcasting” Mac by Sept. 16, 2006, receive a mail-in rebate of $179.

Another way to snag deals on hardware and software is through authorized resellers.  Discounts on hardware are minimal, says Michael Fischler, chief executive officer of JourneyEd.com, a Dallas, Texas-based vendor. Most manufacturers will add in components rather than reduce the price, he says. Typical giveaways include: more memory, wireless connections and the popular OneNote software program, which “takes notes” for the student. Don’t even ask…

Boxed software, however, comes at a deep, deep discount, from 50 percent to 85 percent. Current deals include: Microsoft Office Pro 2003 for $189.98, lists for $495; desktop publishing program Adobe Creative Suite 2.0 for $389.98, retails for $1,299; mechanical engineering package PTC ProEngineer Wildfire 3.0 for $199.98, retail $4,995, and the all important Microsoft OneNote for $49.98, reduced from $199.

Through a special partnership with Educational Resources, Microsoft Office Pro 2003 can be purchased for as low as $79.98. Check JourneyEd.com’s Web site to see if you qualify.

Remember: student status also does not last forever. So mine the store or take advantage of all you can. Always ask about a discount at museums, restaurants, cultural events, sports outings plus when purchasing any tangible commodity, from a single copy of a magazine to a brand-new car. Ask and ye shall sow.