Source: sxc.hu Photo: Capgros

Source: sxc.hu Photo: Capgros

It’s that time of year again: Back-to-school time. There is always motivation to save money at this time of the year, but with many still concerned about their finances, it is clear that even greater efforts are being made to help the family finances while still getting things for back-to-school. Here are some strategies you can employ that will help you with your back-to-school expenses.

K-12: Saving money on back-to-school clothing

Clothing can be expensive. Even though it is one of the things that is “on sale” in this recession, buying a bunch of outfits can start to add up. Here are some things you can do to reduce the cost of buying clothing for back-to-school:

  • Inventory what you already have: Double check all the school clothes. Are there some that still fit? Are they in good condition? Maybe you don’t need to buy as many clothes as you thought. Make a list of what you need, and then go off that.
  • Consider used clothing: Consignment and thrift shops are great places to find inexpensive clothing in reasonably good shape. If you go to a consignment shop, you can take some of your kids’ old clothing in and get store credit or cash and save even more.
  • Visit the clearance rack and the sales: This one is fairly obvious. Shop the sales and check the clearance racks for bigger savings. I like to combine the 20% off everything card I regularly get from Kohls with early bird sales and clearance clothing.
  • Get the classics: Instead of getting brand names, consider steering your kids toward less expensive clothing. While a trendy top isn’t the end of the world, it is best if most of the wardrobe is made up of classic styles that won’t be out of fashion in a month or two. Additionally, consider buying pieces that can be mixed and matched with what is already in your kids’ closets.
  • Have your kids contribute: There is nothing wrong with requiring your kids to help pay for their back-to-school shopping. My parents gave me a set amount of money for new school clothes. Once we went through it, we were on our own. If I wanted more clothes, or expensive brand names, I had to save our own money and use it. This meant I learned how to prioritize and make my own money decisions.

Saving money on college back-to-school

As a freshman in college, I didn’t have a very good idea of how I could save money. Happily, I’m a fast learner, and did better every year after that. While getting a scholarship or grant is an obvious way to save money on tuition, here are some everyday ways that you can use to save money in college:

  • Housing: No one wants to live at home, but if you are close enough, you can save money while living with mom and dad. You can also find some good deals by looking on community boards on campus for roommates. A great way to save money on housing after your freshman year is to apply to be a resident adviser. At many schools, RAs get their own dorm rooms for free — and maybe even a stipend.
  • Communication: Most universities provide free Internet to students. Many off-campus units also offer free Internet. You can save money by using Skype or some other Internet-based application to make phone calls. Or, see if your parents can get a family cell phone plan. If you don’t talk much on the cell phone, a pre-paid phone can help you save money.
  • Textbooks: Gone are the days when you have to get used textbooks at the university bookstore. Instead, check Amazon.com, or look at campus community boards to find textbook exchanges. Be careful, though, sometimes you might get an outdated edition that does not have everything the instructor requires.
  • Food: At some schools, freshmen and others who live in dorms are required to purchase a meal plan. Instead of getting a meal plan that covers every meal of the week, choose the least expensive option (at my college, this was 10 meals a week, with flex money for campus eateries beyond the cafeteria). Then supplement by buying your own food. A microfridge is a great addition to any room. You can heat food in the microwave and keep milk in the fridge. I always had carrot sticks, sandwich fixins and even single frozen dinners (in the small freezer section) on hand. Preparing your own meals is always less expensive than buying them.
  • Fun: Check the student center for low-cost and free activities around campus. Some of these even include food. Student cards get you into sporting events and offer access to recreational facilities. You pay for these in your student fees, so you might as well take advantage of them. Many college towns also feature cheap movie theaters and discounts at local merchants and fun centers for university students.

Getting ready for next year

Whether your kids are going to elementary school, secondary school or college, now is not too early to plan next year’s back-to-school. Look at this years costs, and then consider them as you prepare next year’s annual budget. You these expenses are coming, so you can start setting aside a little bit each month (preferably in some sort of high-yield account) to cover some of these expenses. It is also worth noting that each year doesn’t have to be an August spend-fest. Indeed, for clothing, some of the best sales come a month or two after school starts. You can buy items throughout the year, as they are needed, or plan ahead, knowing what you’ll need and buying it when you see it for a low price.

Do you have tips for budgeting back-to-school?