© Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock.com
Know wants vs. needs; then make a plan
There's a "real (financial) danger" in using back-to-school as a shopping opportunity, says Jonathan Fox, director of the Iowa State University Financial Counseling Clinic and professor of human development and family studies.
The problem arises when you blow through your budget but don't end up with everything you actually need.
To make sure you don't buy what you don't need, look at the school's supply list. "Pretty much all of them will have a cost-effective list" of items a student will need, Fox says.
Make sure to shop with your student instead of giving them money and turning them loose, Fox recommends. "Co-shopping is very beneficial to developing a financially capable student."
Plus, it's "a chance to teach 'opportunity costs,'" he says. The idea that "if you have that, you can't have this because we budgeted X," Fox says.
There's likely to be some "give and take," but if you have a list "you can always go back to that," he says.
© Zadorozhna Natalia/Shutterstock.com
Stick to the basics
When it comes to school supplies, some parents believe that more is always better.
The truth can be just the opposite.
"Stick with the basics," says Jillian Kartchner, librarian and elementary school teacher in Everett, Washington.
With younger kids, a lot of those supplies will be stored, shared and used together for the group, rather than individually, so the 8- or 16-pack of crayons or pens can be more practical than the deluxe 64-pack, she says.
Think about items that can do double duty, says Karen Proehl, a science teacher at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, California. Proehl says, for example, if your kid is told she needs a calculator for math or science this year, find out whether the calculator built into her laptop or tablet computer will suffice.
If your student needs a laptop in class, would the calculator built into it suffice?
Those "open house" or "welcome back" nights for parents and students before school starts are a great place to ask these sorts of questions, Kartchner says.
© Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock.com
You don't have to buy everything at once
For a lot of parents, back-to-school shopping is "a box that needs to be checked and you're done," says Fox.
But that's a big mistake for your wallet, he says. Instead, buy in bursts and enjoy the process, he says. And whether your kids are going off to first grade or college, realize that you don't have to get everything at once.
"The first day, make sure you have pen and paper, absolutely," says Proehl.
Then after a few days or the first week, "say 'we're going shopping,' when you have a good idea of what you actually need," she says.
Also see if you can hold on to a little bit of cash for things you'll need later that might not be on the list now. This is especially true when it comes to college dorms.
"You don't need 6 coffeepots and 4 TVs," says Fox. "A lot of that can be acquired later" when you find out exactly what you have room for -- and need, he says.
© ERproductions Ltd/Shutterstock.com
Hit the sales and get creative
Sometimes a good sale on name-brand merchandise is just as economical. "I'm a teacher, so I like sales," says Proehl, the Oakland science teacher. She once found a deal on a backpack in a big-name camping supply store, snagging a $90 backpack for $25.
Kartchner, the teacher and librarian in Washington state, suggests perusing sales fliers to get the best buys once you have the back-to-school list.
Don't forget to check office supply stores. "I find they have the best deals," she says.
You also can consider going in with a few other parents to form your own co-op, says Steve Phelps, president of Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland. That way you can get supplies in bulk and split them up -- along with the costs.
Another place you may not have considered for back-to-school shopping, especially for college dorms, is "Mom-and-Dad Mart."
Outfitting a college dorm is "a great chance for the parents to have a yard sale where the student is the 'purchaser,'" says Fox.
"Use it as an opportunity to clean out the stuff in your home" -- everything from dishes to that second coffeepot, he says.
ADVISER SEARCH: Need to start planning for the kids' college? Find a financial adviser today.
Look for deals on software and tech
Computer equipment typically accounts for the most expensive items for school. But there are deals to be had if you know what to ask for.
Along with computers or laptops, if your student needs specific software for school, the college may offer it for a substantial discount, says Mary Hillberry, principal of Lone Pine Elementary School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Not only do some companies offer special prices for students, but many schools -- including some middle and high schools -- have deals with manufacturers to provide their products at a discount.
At the University of South Carolina, for instance, students can purchase Microsoft Office through the university website at a deep discount, says Augie Grant, a journalism professor at the university. "It's a huge source of savings."
Even if your school doesn't offer any discounts, you may not have to pay full price. Makers often offer special prices to teachers and students, says Hillberry.
No matter what the amount, make sure to compare those prices with the offerings in your favorite online or big-box electronics store, too, where discounts could be even greater than what the school or company offers.
© Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock.com
Don't pay sticker price for books
Don't bother paying sticker price on books.
In middle schools and high schools, books are often provided. But if your student wants to supplement the official class reading list, check e-book offerings, says Hillberry.
And don't forget used bookstores, says Proehl. "I would try that even before" going online, she says.
Note to college students: The campus bookstore isn't the only option for textbooks. And it may not even be the cheapest.
Shop online and your costs "can be one-half or less," says Grant.
Something else to keep in mind: Publishers often print international editions of their textbooks (in English), which differ only in little details, like color or cover, he says. The prices can be significantly cheaper.
If you have a class outside your major and don't think you'll need the book later for reference, consider renting it instead of buying it.
The cost is "one-half to one-third the cost of buying the book," says Grant.