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Three steps to back-to-school savings Add to ...

For some, the end of summer means the beach, BBQs and getting in as much hammock time as possible before the weather starts to turn. But for those of us with kids, late August means it's time to think about that annual back-to-school shopping trip. Clothes, shoes, coats, backpacks – it may only happen once a year, but your children’s BTS needs can take a big, hungry bite out of your budget.

But there are deals to be had, perhaps this year more than usual. As reported in The Globe and Mail last week, 45 per cent of Canadian shoppers plan to scale back school spending because of worries over the recent stock market turmoil. In order to lure shoppers back in, major chains are offering deeper discounts during the lucrative back-to-school period, which is worth up to $7-billion a year in Canada.

I spoke with super-shopper Debbie Frye of Flyerland.ca to uncover her best tips on making the most of your back-to-school funds. (Flyerland.ca is a website that compiles coupons and flyers from national stores like Wal-Mart, Sears, Old Navy, Toys ‘R’ Us, Staples and more – a great starting place to find out where the deals are). Here are Debbie's three steps to BTS savings:

1) Have a back-to-school swap party You've probably heard of clothing swaps, but this is the school-age version. Well before you head to the stores, Ms. Frye suggests organizing a potluck get-together with some of your “parent” friends, family members or the parents of your kids' buddies. Invite everyone to bring along good quality clothes, shoes, backpacks and lunchboxes that their kids may have tired of or outgrown.

“Something can be new to your kids that's not new,” said Ms. Frye. “People start thinking, I have all these clothes for an eight-year-old, does anybody need them? We all have things that are only slightly used.”

The kids can hang out with friends they haven't seen all summer, swap some cool stuff and the parents can benefit from the considerable savings.

(I, personally, am a firm believer in the hand-me-down. For example, we have never bought kids' winter coats, snow pants or winter boots – never! – all due to the excellent cast-offs of our friends and family.)

2) Pre-plan your shopping trip The second step to back-to-school savings is figuring out what your kids really need. Check your closets to see what still fits and rummage through drawers for the glue sticks, markers and pencil cases that you don't want to double up on. Once you've taken inventory, make a list of the must-buy items and decide on a budget. Then, get online and start doing your research. If your kids are old enough, get them to do the bargain-hunting.

“The kids are already wired; have them go online and start shopping around,” said Ms. Frye. “At any age, kids need a budget. Whether they are 5, 8, 12 or 18, you need to teach them how to make choices. If they want something really special, have them make a choice – what are you willing to live without?”

You (or your kids) can check store websites for great deals, sign up for newsletters and search for coupons – it will help you come up with a plan so that when you hit the stores, you're not tempted to go off-list.

“If you go to Wal-Mart or Zellers without a plan, you will buy things you don't need,” she says. “For example, backpacks vary widely and yes, some are nicer than others. But if you watch the sales, the same backpack can cost less. Payless is great for shoes, and they have a 'buy-one-get-one-half-off' right now. And I totally go online and search for Payless coupons, because there might be something else going on too.”

And if you've got a pre-teen who desperately wants some pricey runners or a fancy backpack that's way over your budget, work with them to figure out a way they can contribute to the purchase, before you hit the mall.

“If you don't make a plan, you can get talked into something,” said Ms. Frye. “Then you feel miserable about it because it was more than you planned to spend. So if you set the expectations from the beginning then they know. It's like, 'Hey, we already talked about that – you're going to work on a couple Saturdays to help pay for it. I know you want it and I'm okay with that, but I'd feel better if we were both going to help out on that. You're not being cheap, you're being smart with your kids and you're teaching them something.”

3) Once you hit the mall, don't get sidetracked You may have meticulously made your shopping list, but it'll all be for naught if you end up going rogue and dropping a bundle on some sparkly new items your kids start begging for. Ms. Frye has some tips for keeping your shopping day on track.

“If you take your kids on a really busy shopping day, go early with your own snacks so you don't waste money on food,” she said. “And maybe go with a friend so you can take a break with them, and then someone can go off for a few minutes [to make a purchase].” Tired, cranky kids can cause you to lose your resolve and give in.

Another tip? “Shop high and low at a store, because the stuff at eye level is placed purposely to get people to buy it.”

I've noticed this – department stores will offer great deals on some items, but there are always cute things mixed in that aren't actually a deal at all (Zellers clothes at Gap Kids prices, for example).

And if you're really on a tight budget, your method of payment can make a big difference.

“Set your budget, then only pay cash. Don't use an ATM or credit card,” said Ms. Frye. “Because a month from now, [if you've overspent on credit], it can really ruin your day.”

 

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