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Cut Cost for School Supplies

How To Cut Costs While Shopping for School Supplies

In today's economy, saving money when shopping for back-to-school items is easier said than done. For frugal shopping expert Trish Garvis, cutting such costs is all in a day's work. "I have a basic thrift shopping principle that applies to back-to-school items: Never be caught in a panic," says Garvis, the mother of eight girls and one boy and author of Get More for Your Money. "Being in a panic is expensive. You must think ahead and plan for future needs."

For more than 20 years, Garvis, who lives in Leesburg, Va., has calmly and successfully supervised her family's limited budget on her carpenter husband's income. Her basic thrift shopping principle, coupled with a clever knack for stretching a dollar, has seen the Garvis family through the toughest of economic situations.

As a new school year approaches, such dedicated frugality may become a necessity.

Sharing Financial Responsibility

Managing a household of 11, Garvis has made a lifetime commitment of beating those odds, especially when school clothes shopping. Although the Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) averages the cost of elementary students' jeans at $40 and shoes at $50 per pair, her best advice is to avoid surrendering to soaring retail prices and becoming a "slave to fashion."

"My deal with my teens is this, 'It's my job as a parent to see that you are dressed. If you want to be cool, that's on your dollar,'" she says. "I'm happy to buy the classics that every generation since the '50s has worn, such as blue jeans, tennis shoes and T-shirts. But I don't have to spend $120 on shoes when there are adequate ones out there for $20. I'll spend the $20, and if my child just has to have the expensive shoes, she's putting up the other $100."

According to Garvis, the notion of sharing financial responsibility for trendy and high-priced clothing has worked well with her children over the years. "None of my four teens has ever gone for the expensive item," she says. "They buy most of their own clothes, and they always check the clearance rack at their favorite stores where they find great bargains, like a $4 denim dress from the Gap."

The NRF confirms this spending partnership trend, reporting that roughly one in three consumers (37.7 percent) with children ages 6 to 17 years old said that their kids planned to use their own money for back-to-school shopping in 2002. According to the NRF survey, on average, those children planned to spend $131 on back-to-school items – an addition of almost one-third to their parents' total household back-to-school budgets.

"When parents gear up for school, they know they're in for a financial tug-of-war with their children," says Tracy Mullin, NRF president and CEO. "But it appears that for many families, especially lower-income ones, the retail back-to-school season offers a particularly attractive combination of savings, strategic sales tax holidays (in many states) and fresh fall options to please kids – and their wallets."

Christmas in July

Nancy Peterson, of Carmel, Ind., a mother of 11-year-old twin girls and one 10-year-old boy, finds that post-holiday sales and promotions throughout the year make the return to classes less of a burden on her family's pocketbook. "I like to go back-to-school shopping the week after the Fourth of July, when the stores first set up the back-to-school displays and the ads come out in the papers," she says. "If you wait until the middle of August, everything is picked over. I always buy summer clothes right after the Fourth of July and winter clothes right after Christmas. Everything is marked down."

For the Peterson family, the annual tradition of back-to-school shopping compares to a favorite holiday. "Shopping for back-to-school supplies is a big event in our household," Peterson says. "It ranks right up there with selecting a Halloween pumpkin or a Christmas tree. The kids love to pick out their school supplies."

With three children so close in age, Peterson also continually searches for savings ideas. In her experience, she has found that investing in quality items, rather than purchasing cheaper brands each year, proves beneficial in the long run. "In the past, I've bought good backpacks that the kids can use year after year," she says. "I always write my child's name on everything to make sure the items can be used again next year, and I use a permanent marker so the name won't rub off."

Shop Online

If a tight back-to-school budget this year does not allow for investment in name brands of backpacks, clothing and other accessories purchased from department stores, the Internet may be another option to save money. New and gently used items including Tommy Hilfiger shirts, MUDD jeans and Tupperware back-to-school snack sets can be found on eBay at more than half their retail price. Also, eBay offers a "Summer Fashion Brand Blowout" that includes top-dollar labels such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Tommy, The Gap, Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren/Polo at considerably lower prices than offered at the shopping malls or retail outlets.

To save on new school supplies this fall, such as backpacks, lunch bags, pens, pencils, notebooks, calculators and craft accessories, parents can log on to office supply Web sites. Online stores such as Staples.com and Officedepot.com both feature hundreds of back-to-school items, and they offer free delivery on orders of $50 more. This not only saves a trip to the store, but can also provide savings of up to half off the retail price of many name-brand school supplies.

With such sound advice from experienced mothers and a little help from the Internet, saving on back-to-school shopping has never been so easy. Just heed the words of a mother of nine and don't panic – the savings will surely come.

Basics for Back-to-school Savings

Trish Garvis, mother of nine and author of Get More for Your Money, is a master of thriftiness. Here she offers her top 5 favorite ideas on saving money when sending the kids back to school:

1. Take an inventory – Rummage through drawers and closets and ask the children to try on clothes. "If they have several shirts, avoid wasting money on buying more," she says. "Instead, focus on more pants or skirts." She also advises creating a list of sizes and colors needed to complete different outfits.

2. Don't make your kid be a dork – "Even if you're out of touch with the latest styles, you can help your child fit in," Garvis says. Peruse newspaper ads to get a general idea of what's in and out of style. "It may be a peasant top for girls or baggy pants for boys," she says. "Find a couple of items that are in style and mix them with standards from your child's current wardrobe. You don't have to buy several complete outfits of trendy clothes, as one or two trendy pieces can be enough. It is important to help your child fit in socially, and if the purchase of two shirts helps, it's worth it."

3. Look ahead to spring, as early as fall – "Buy an extra pair of jeans in the next size up if the price is great now," Garvis says. "Also, purchase a pair of khaki or navy pants from the school uniform section to have on hand for dressy occasions for your son, even if your school doesn't require uniforms. They will be easy to find, durable and on sale in August." Also when buying clothes for fall and winter, check out the summer clearance section for spring shorts and T-shirts. "The prices will be excellent," she says. "And you'll have a few new basics on hand for the end of the school year when the weather changes."

4. Organize a clothing exchange with other families – "Everyone brings clothing to a central location and sorts their own items on tables according to gender and size," Garvis says. "Everything is free. At the end of the shopping day, if anything is left, I just arrange for a pick-up by a charity that accepts clothing." She says her teenagers have been surprised to find stylish items in their sizes at her church's clothing exchange. "It makes sense that someone can outgrow or just not like a piece of clothing that might be perfect for another person," she says. "Get as many items as you can for free, then fill in with new bargains."

5. Accept second-hand clothing offers – "I tell everyone I know that I take hand-me-downs and I get a lot of them; however, to keep us from being overrun with clothing, I've developed some sorting skills," Garvis says. "First, I'm really choosy about what I keep. It's got to be better than what we have or a real money-saver in a size we'll need later ... Second, I have a 'one in, one out' rule. If my children keep three shirts from a bag of clothing, they must part with three shirts they already had. Third, I donate all extra clothing to the charity thrift shop." She says her family has saved "literally thousands of dollars" by wearing free clothing.

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