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Back-to-School Consumer Tips for Tough Times

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1. Buy only what you need:

It’s never too early to teach children the difference between needs and wants.  Any child old enough for school can start to appreciate that parents are spending a small fortune on necessities these days.  If you give in like I did (breaking my first rule) to the trendy backpack, explain that it’s a splurge and that it had better last a really long time…

2. Don’t go overboard chasing deals:

I’ve used coupons all my life, as well as price matching.  The loss leaders like the 25-cent crayons are a big draw, I understand.  When I tried to make sure I got the “best” deal on some basic school supplies, I spent an extra hour driving around from store to store to save about $5.00 total.  My time is worth more than that; how about yours?

3. Reuse what you can:

We’re in the midst of a project to replace one child’s initials with another’s so that last year’s trendy backpack can get a couple of year’s more use.  I refuse to buy another one of those tiny, overpriced bottles of hand sanitizer when we can keep refilling last year’s.  Could some of last year’s binders last another season?

4. Respect the teacher’s supply list:

I respect that someone with a master’s degree and years of experience in education has a very good reason for wanting x brand of pencils instead of another.  So, I will comply, no matter what the cost.  On the other hand, if the teacher requires a pvc-filled notebook, I might politely ask if there could be an alternative.
5. Watch for health and environmental hazards:

The Center for Health, Environment & Justice points out that school supplies made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) are not only bad for your student, but for children in neighborhoods where these products are manufactured.  It further suggests that we all look for alternatives to plastics in items from backpacks to canteens and sandwich bags.  It offers a free back-to-school guide to PVC-free shopping.  Women’s Voices for the Earth has been leading a campaign to rid soaps of triclosan, an ingredient found in popular anti-bacterial products that has links to hormone disruption and breast cancer.  Surely we’ve all learned to watch for BPA in hard plastic products and lead in cheaply made plastics or metals.  When in doubt, less is more.

6. If you can’t afford supplies, ask for help:

Many communities have similar fill-the-backpack programs set up to help students in need each year.  You could ask your child’s teacher for a charitable group in your area that might be able to help.

4 Responses to Back-to-School Consumer Tips for Tough Times

  1. Anne August 12, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    That’s a good point, Siobhan, and it works in general. It’s interesting that some stores don’t price match or accept competitor coupons anymore.

    Maybe if I’d given myself a couple of different days I wouldn’t have felt like I had to make a trip to pick up a circular in one store and burn the 15-cent savings in gas to get the 25-cent crayons at another store (it was fun to see if they would match it, though).

  2. Siobhan August 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    A trick for getting the best prices without driving all over town: do you homework then go to a store that does pricematching. After you gather your items, take them and all your ads from the other stores to customer service to get everyone’s good prices all in one place.

  3. Anne August 11, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    You’re right about the basics for one child not costing more than around $15. That’s what we spent for the glue, pencils, crayons and dry erase markers (had to get a certain brand so we couldn’t go cheap on the other markers that some folks got with a coupon).

    However, when you add in other items that teachers have on the list, such as hand sanitizer, tissues, copy paper…the cost doubles. We saved on that part by using a ream of paper from the box we already had a home, using generic tissues already at home instead of buying a name brand (I’m hoping the teacher will realize the generic is just as good for that item), etc.

    Then the cost of the backpack is on top of that. I would personally rather pay more for a backpack without pvc in it and then expect it to last several years. It would be helpful if all backpacks, even the budget-priced ones, just came pvc-free. I can understand how families purchasing for 2,3 or 4 students at once see this all as a significant purchase.

  4. Mrs. J August 11, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    I don’t have children, but I was in school not that long ago and have a younger sibling. Are school supplies really that expensive? I understand that if it’s a new backpack year (or if the kid is taking a music class and needs an instrument), that could add a significant amount to the total. But I think my school supplies for the year didn’t cost more than $15-20. I got the impression from your post that school supplies cost more than this?

    And I totally agree with you on reusing supplies. I’m in college now, and I reuse notebooks and binders all the time. I even take notes on the back of old printed sheets half the time.

    I bought a quality book bag that is capable of accommodating a laptop about 8 years ago, and it is still my every day book bag (and doesn’t look bad!). If parents can afford the initial investment, maybe a good quality plain book bag could save them $$ over the long run. You could even decorate it every year with new buttons, ribbons, etc, so the child feels like it’s new and exciting!

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