50 Tips for Back-to-School Savings

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LEARN ALL THE TRICKS

Families plan to spend an average of $501 this year on back-to-school expenses for kindergarten through high school kids, according to an annual survey by Deloitte, and total spending is projected to exceed $27 billion for the 2017 back-to-school season. With expenses sure to pile up in the near future, we've compiled a list of saving tips to help shave some costs in the months ahead.
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SHARE BACK-TO-SCHOOL EXPENSES

Go in with a classmate, neighbor, friend, or family member to share costs for music lessons, parking passes, or a cellphone plan. An individual cell phone with Sprint costs $60 per month, but a plan with the same carrier, charges $40 for a second line, and just $30 each for every line after that. Divided equally among four people, a $160 bill becomes $40 apiece.
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BUY FOOD IN BULK

Instead of going for single-serving packaged foods designed for school lunches, buy in bulk and portion out favorite foods in reusable containers. For example, at Walmart.com a family size box of Cheez-It crackers is 21 cents per ounce. To purchase a box of 1 oz. individual portions of the same cracker costs 33 cents per ounce.
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SHOP AT WAREHOUSE CLUBS

Whether you prefer Sam's Club or Costco, warehouse stores are the place to stock up. Although there are many perks of membership, consumers can sidestep the fee by shopping with a member as a guest and reimbursing the member for any purchases. To make this an even better deal, consider splitting bulk purchases of grocery items and school supplies.
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BUY AT THE RIGHT TIME

With retailers of all stripes advertising aggressive discounts, many supplies are at their cheapest in August. Couple that with the Tax Free holiday for even better savings. For other items, it may be worth waiting for Labor Day clearance sales in September.
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SWAP INSTEAD OF BUYING

Try websites such as Swap.com and Swapmamas to see if someone else has something your children need. The Freecycle Network claims to have 9 million members around the world interested in recycling goods. A quick search on Freecycle uncovered free plastic clothes hangers, language study books, and an office chair. All for free. Picking up all of these items could easily save a minimum of $100.

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THINK LONG TERM

Try to buy supplies that can last children longer than a single school year, such as a good-quality backpack. A name-brand backpack can cost $40 to $50 compared to just $20 to $25 for a generic brand backpack. However, as with most things, you get what you pay for. The name-brand backpack will last at least a second school year, saving parents $20 to $25 on purchasing a new backpack the following year. And with some luck, the quality backpack may even last longer than two school years, saving another $20 to $25 each year the bag is reused.
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NEVER PAY FOR SHIPPING

Check out FreeShipping.org, search online for free shipping codes, and check for special offers in RetailMeNot's free shipping section. Avoid small online purchases that don't reach the minimum threshold for free shipping. On Amazon, the magic number is $25, and at Target, it is $35.
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BE STRATEGIC ABOUT FILLING THE TANK

Think about where to stop for gas -- the cheapest station or the closest? If the cheapest is far away, it won't necessarily save money. Download a gas app to help find the best place to top up.
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UNPLUG TO SAVE ENERGY

Put the computer in "sleep" mode rather than "idle" and unplug electronics when they're not in use to save some money on the electric bill. "Idle" could cost upward of and extra $70 per year, while "sleep" mode saves $50 throughout the year on your electric bill. Turn the computer completely off, though, and save the other $20.
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PUT ON A SWEATER

As the weather gets cooler, resist the urge to crank up the thermostat. Lower the temperature at night, when everyone's snug under the covers, or install a programmable thermostat so no one has to remember to do it manually. For every degree the thermostat is lowered for a minimum of 8 hours, the heating bill will be lowered by 1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. If your heating bill is, on average, $150 per month, each degree the heat is lowered will save $1.50. Turn it down 4 degrees? Save $6 per month.
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DO LESS LAUNDRY

Don't get too excited -- the idea here is to do a few large loads of laundry instead of many smaller ones, as clothes come in sweaty and grass-stained from recess and sports team practices. And skimp on detergent, even for those larger loads. An average detergent costs 50 cents per load. The average American family runs 400 loads of laundry per year -- a cost of $200 per year in detergent alone. Using half the amount of detergent won't be noticeable in any way and can save you $100 each year.
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REPLACE LIGHT BULBS

As the days get shorter and you need more artificial light in the evenings, switch out any traditional incandescent light bulbs that you may still have for LEDs to get 25 times the longevity. A traditional light bulb costs around $1 each and lasts 1,000 to 2,000 hours. An LED, however, costs $2.50, but will last up to 25,000 hours. The initial cost may be more, but if an incandescent bulb lasts less than a year, an LED could last over 20 years. Over the lifespan of the LED, nearly $20 is saved per bulb.
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DON'T PAY FOR KIDS' MEALS OUT

Research which area restaurants offer kids-eat-free specials. There might be a nearby special for any night of the week that's too busy for cooking dinner. Most offers involve buying one adult entrée and receiving a kid's meal for free. A family of four could save, on average, $12 to 15 a meal by eating out only on nights the children of the family eat free.
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SHOP WITH A LIST

Many schools enumerate all the supplies recommended for the year. Stick to that list in the store to avoid buying things children don't need or going over budget. (Shopping without the kids can help.) Or determine whether the kids' school offers boxes of the needed supplies, which are sold at bulk rates and completely eliminate the possibility of an extra item, or two, sneaking its way into the cart.
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PAY WITH HARD CURRENCY

Paying with cash instead of credit can force you to stay within a spending limit.
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GO GENERIC

Simply switching to store brands for school-lunch staples and other grocery-store necessities can save money. Try going generic for products such as over-the-counter medications, which experts say are just as effective as name brands. Advil, for example is $7.97 for 100 capsules at Walmart (8 cents per pill). The store brand, for the same number of capsules is just $2.48 (2 cents per pill).
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EVALUATE YOUR TV HABITS

See if a streaming media player such as a Roku and services such as Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime offer enough programming to justify canceling a cable or satellite subscription. If not, try to get the company to reduce the bill. A Hulu subscription is $8-$12 per month; Netflix costs $8-$12 per month and an Amazon Prime membership runs $99 per year ($8.25 per month). The total cost per month with these services would be just over $30, $360 a year. An average cable bill, however, runs at minimum $100 per month, $1,200 per year. This simple switch could save up to $840 per year.
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USE FREE SOFTWARE

There are open-source alternatives to many expensive software programs, including Gimp, a capable substitute for Adobe Photoshop. This would save the $10-$20 on purchasing an Adobe subscription.
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TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SCHOLARSHIPS

Students headed to college should treat applying for scholarships as job. Hunt for college scholarships online and get advice from the school guidance counselor. Schools have academic scholarships available, but many companies offer private scholarships. AAA, for example, offers $100 and $1,000 scholarships to college students who are former Safety Patrol members. In fact, there are many scholarships for students whose grades aren't top-notch.

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ADD AP AND IB CLASSES TO STUDENTS' SCHEDULES

Taking college-level classes in high school, through the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, can cut down on the number of classes students have to take -- and pay for -- in college. The average cost of a college credit is nearly $600.
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APPLY FOR THE NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM

The federal government provides free and reduced-price lunches and after-school snacks to millions of children. This offer is extended to families with income up to 185 percent of the poverty level (just under $45,000 a year for a family of four). School lunch can cost up to $3 per meal depending on geographic location. A free lunch would save $60 per month.
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BE AWARE OF YOUR BANK ACCOUNT

Before ramping up back-to-school spending, sign up to get automatic texts or emails when an account balance falls below a set amount to avoid overdraft fees. Try to get an overdraft fee refunded if you are a first-time offender. An overdraft fee can cost up to $45 per item.
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CONSOLIDATE BACK-TO-SCHOOL SPENDING ON A SINGLE CREDIT CARD

Don't diffuse your earning and spending power across several cards. Focusing on one cash-back or rewards card is more likely to add up to meaningful rewards and make it easier to cash them in. Using cards that offer rewards programs, can earn you as high as 1.5 to 5% cash back on all purchases. For example, spending $1,000 with a rewards card can save you $20.
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REMEMBER THE POWER OF NEGOTIATION

Savvy shoppers can negotiate the price of some high-cost goods such as electronics, furniture, appliances, jewelry, and cars. Visit a store during non-peak hours when seeking to negotiate the best deal. Ask for better rates on monthly contracts such as gym memberships and phone service, as well.
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PACK LUNCHES IN REUSABLE CONTAINERS

Go green to save money on school lunches. With lunchboxes and reusable containers, you don't have to buy plastic or brown paper bags all year, every year. While you can get 500 paper bags for $17 for the year, you would also need buy plastic sandwich bags at 300 for $5. Even if these lasted you all year, you would still be spending a minimum of $22. A reusable lunch box can be purchased for as little as $7 or $8 and can be used year after year. For just one year, that is a savings of $15.
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REMEMBER WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT LATTES

After dropping off kids at school on another early, crazy morning, it's tempting to stop for a specialty coffee drink. Instead, order a small cup of regular -- or, better yet, make morning coffee at home or at work. Ordering a small cup of regular will save about $1.50 per day, and not stopping at all can save up to $4 a day or $20 per week.
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ELIMINATE EXCUSES TO EAT OUT

Pack a lunch the night before and let a slow cooker get dinner ready while everyone's gone for the day. If you do go out for lunch, try picking up a lunch special to stretch into a dinner. When cooking, make enough to send for lunch the next day or turn leftovers into another dinner. Skipping a meal out will quickly save at least $10 per person per meal.
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PRESERVE SUMMER'S BOUNTY

While the market is still overrun with cheap, fresh fruits and vegetables, buy them in large quantities and can or freeze to save money on meals. Save even more and grow your own produce.
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OBSERVE NATIONAL FOOD HOLIDAYS

Nearly every day and certainly every month marks some sort of national food celebration. Pay attention to the calendar and take advantage of promotions from food manufacturers and eateries year-round.
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LOOK FOR COUPONS EVERYWHERE

In the age of mobile coupon apps and websites, the newspaper circular is hardly the only place to look for bargains. Consumers can print online coupons, or show them on a phone at some stores. Look for coupons on the back of ticket stubs, packaging, and receipts, especially grocery store receipts, and in mailers that appear to be junk. Throw away coupons for items you don't need, though, and avoid temptation.
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BUY ONLY ITEMS YOU KNOW YOUR FAMILY WILL USE

Don't buy something just because it's a good deal. Think about what's necessary for the coming year and what will turn out to be useless. Why do children need an electric pencil sharpener, for instance, when there's one in every classroom?
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ASK ABOUT CAR INSURANCE DISCOUNTS

A teen with a new license can drive up rates, but many providers offer auto insurance discounts up to 20 percent for academic achievements such as a spot on the dean's list or even a B average. Companies including Allstate and Liberty Mutual also reduce premiums for students who complete the TeenSmart crash-reduction program. A 20 percent discount will save $20 a month on an average $100 insurance rate.
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DITCH BOTTLED WATER

Individual bottles of water cost more than buying gallons of water. A home filtering system may cost more up front but saves big in the long run. The average price range of a home filtering system is $15 to $35. A 12 pack of 8-ounce water bottles costs around $3. The cost of the filtering system could easily be made back in as little as a few days depending on the number of people in the household. Over time, this could save hundreds and hundreds of dollars per year.
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CONSIDER EXTENDED PRODUCT WARRANTIES CAREFULLY

Weigh the costs and benefits of paying extra for warranties on big-ticket items before signing on the dotted line. Not all are necessary, although there are some consumers who can benefit from extra protection.
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BUY SECONDHAND MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS, BICYCLES, AND EXERCISE EQUIPMENT

Kids outgrow and lose interest in these quickly, and adults often find it hard to stick with a workout routine. It doesn't make sense to go all out for new models when used equipment is in plentiful supply. A new clarinet can cost well over $200. A used one, however, can be purchased for around $50.
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REPURPOSE INSTEAD OF BUYING NEW

Check the backs of closets and storage spaces before running out to the store or clicking "Add to Cart." Reusing, repurposing, and recycling are kind to the environment and consumers' wallets.
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READ THE FINE PRINT ON PRICE-MATCH POLICIES

Many retailers match competitors' prices -- with a host of caveats. Still, shoppers who know the rules can save time and gas by shopping locally with ads in hand.
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ASK ABOUT RETURN POLICIES

Be sure a backpack or graphing calculator bought at a discount can be returned if necessary. Check store policies to see how long you have to bring back an item and whether a receipt is required to make the return.
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KNOW WHAT TO BUY AT THE DOLLAR STORE

Some items are a good deal at the dollar store and others are not. Dry-erase boards, storage containers, hangers, and plastic utensils are all good buys. Steer clear of dollar-store batteries, power cords, power strips, and anything else with a plug. Don't waste money on goods that just won't last or are woefully inferior.
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TAKE ADVANTAGE OF STUDENT DISCOUNTS

Just showing a student ID can yield discounts on dinner, movie tickets, and clothing. Many clothing retailers offer savings of 15 percent or more.
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SHOP ON TAX HOLIDAYS

More than a dozen states collect no sales tax on select merchandise on certain days at the end of July or early August. The eligible items almost always include clothing and school supplies. This can save you up to 7% on purchases in the select categories.
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CASH IN ON BIRTHDAY SAVINGS

Is there a birthday coming up in your family? Sign up for birthday freebies and coupons everywhere from the Children's Place to Dunkin' Donuts. You can score coupons, free food, and even cosmetics.
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VISIT THE DOCTOR

Don't wait until cold and flu season. A well check-up now can help stave off costly ailments down the road. Just to walk in the door for a sick visit will cost most patients a $20 to $30 co-pay. Add in prescription and over-the-counter medications, and each illness could rack up a bill of $50 or more.
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LEVERAGE GIFT CARDS

Sell unused gift cards on websites such as Gift Card Granny, Giftcard Zen, GiftCardRescue, and ABC Gift Cards. Buy gift cards at a discount and use the full value at stores you plan to frequent for school shopping.
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COMPARISON SHOP FOR TEXTBOOKS

Instead of going to the bookstore, use textbook websites and apps to get the cheapest college textbooks. According to online vendors, you can save 40 percent to 90 percent on textbooks.
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REVIEW YOUR HEALTH INSURANCE PLAN

Open enrollment will begin before you know it. For Americans buying through the federal health insurance marketplace, the date is Nov. 1. Take the time to re-evaluate your deductible versus coverage. Determine if your current plan is still fitting your needs.
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START A COMPOST PILE

Fall delivers dry leaves (brown material) to balance out kitchen scraps and other green material in a compost heap. Careful tending can create free fertilizer by next summer. It is estimated that a cubic yard of compost equates to more than $550 through a supplier.
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SKIP THE GYM

Even as cold weather encourages indoor workouts, there are ways to work out at home for far less than the cost of a gym membership. At $700 a year for a gym membership, purchasing a piece of gym equipment for your home can actually save you money in the end. Even buying a $1,000 treadmill will pay off within two years.
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BE A FRUGAL ROLE MODEL

Teaching children about the value of money and how to save for what they want will have at least as much impact than some of the knowledge they gain in school.
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TRY A NO-BUY MONTH

The idea behind a no-buy month is to commit to purchasing only what's absolutely necessary. A Cheapism writer who took the challenge saved more than $500. September might be easier than August -- one less day of scrimping.