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The Do’s and Don’ts of Back-to-School Shopping

July 15, 2016
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This school year, students will learn about history, science and grammar. But the first lesson for any back-to-school season is financial.

Whether you’re a parent shopping for your child or a student buying for yourself, you don’t want to overspend on your school-year prep. To help you avoid that, we compiled the do’s and don’ts of back-to-school shopping.

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Do: Set a budget

Decide how much you can afford to spend on getting ready for the semester before you make a single school-related purchase. You don’t want to splurge on an expensive tablet and end up blowing your backpack budget.

If you think you won’t be able to keep yourself on track, download an app to monitor your spending for you. Mint — free for iOS and Android — helps users keep tabs on their day-to-day spending. The download has an Apple Watch version, too.

Don’t: Pay full price

Retailers start pushing school merchandise early in the summer with catchy slogans and flashy displays, but the products frequently are listed at full price. Unless you find something on sale, it’s better to wait until the inventory has been sitting on the shelves for a while. Last-minute deals will swell in late August and early September.

How else can you jump on a good bargain? Download a money-saving browser extension such as Honey, which locates coupon codes, or Ebates, which can earn you cash back.

Do: Shop sales tax holidays

One of the best times to buy school supplies is during back-to-school sales tax holidays. Typically held in August, these are days when select school-related items are exempt from state sales tax. Dates vary by location, but if your state participates, you can save considerably on categories such as electronics and clothing.

In Missouri, for instance, shoppers can shop tax-free Aug. 4-6 on clothing with a taxable value of $100 or less, personal computers costing up to $1,500 and graphing calculators not to exceed $150, among other school-oriented items. Some cities, counties and districts won’t participate in the tax holiday.

The Sales Tax Institute has a full listing of 2017 state sales tax holidays, including the dates, details and maximum costs.

Don’t: Do it alone

Checking off every item on your school supply list can be daunting, especially if you do it by yourself. Instead, get a lesson in teamwork by going in on school supply purchases with friends or family. Coordinate supplies by buying in bulk and splitting the cost. Or, synchronize your schedules so you can share textbooks; buy or rent half the number you need, then switch off.

You can get help from classmates when it comes to clothing, too. Many schools host a uniform exchange during back-to-school orientation. This is a great opportunity to buy gently used uniforms at discounted prices.

Do: Use student discounts

Take advantage of student discounts on clothing, electronics and more. Most promotions require a valid student ID.

For clothing, students can save 15% on full-price, in-store purchases at Banana Republic. For electronics, college students can unlock special pricing at Best Buy. Apple is offering a free pair of Beats wireless headphones with the purchase of an eligible Mac or iPad Pro for college.

Other places to look for discounts? Restaurants, movie theaters, music subscription services and transportation. When in doubt, ask if a retailer has a student discount, even if it’s not advertised.

Don’t: Limit yourself

Before you head to the office supply store, consider less obvious places to shop. Your local drug store, grocery store and dollar store will be stocked with plenty of affordable school supplies.

If you do go to the office supply store, don’t pay the sticker price without first comparing your options. Price matching is a helpful option to ensure you’re not overpaying. When you shop at Staples, for instance, if you find a currently available lower price on a new, identical item, the store will match that price, with proof of the offer, plus discount it by 10% of the difference. Visit the retailer’s website for full redemption instructions. Some exclusions apply.

It’s easy to spend more than you have to during school buying season. But if you know how and where to shop, you can start off the semester with cash to spare.

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @courtneynerd.

Updated July 18, 2017.