Pencils and pens and rulers, oh my! School supplies can really add up. Here's how to save some major cash on the necessities.
1. Use what you have.
According to Christine Koh, founder and editor of Boston Mamas, you probably already have all the school supplies you need right in your house. "It's just a matter of finding them and assessing." This year she gave her daughter a list of everything she needed for school and turned it into a scavenger hunt. "She went through the house and pulled out folders, pencils, pens, etc.—and she had everything on the list!"
2. Swap, don't buy.
Emily Roemmich, editor of Busy Mom, likes SwapMamas.com, a swapping website that includes a section for school and office supplies. Connect with other moms to trade items you no longer need for supplies you can use, so you won't have to spend any money.
3. Know when it pays to spend more.
Inexpensive supplies are a no-brainer, except when it comes to something like backpacks. "We used to buy the kids backpacks for $20 or less but found we were replacing them by December," says Kimberly Vetrano of She Scribes. "Now we buy quality backpacks they can use for a few years for around $40."
Back-to-school wardrobes don't have to cost a fortune, as long as you know how to handle fall fashion.
1. Take inventory.
Before hitting the stores with her two kids, Kristie Sawickis of Saving Dollars and Sense makes a list of what they already have and what they still need. "It keeps us from overspending on all the super-cute ‘must-have’ items that can break the bank," she says. Sheri Reed, editor of The Stir, a CafeMom blog, keeps track of what clothes she already has for her two boys by keeping boxes of shoes and clothing labeled by size in a closet. "I pull them out before each school year starts. That way I can see what fits and what else we need to buy."
2. Get younger siblings excited about hand-me-downs.
Lee Allport of My Sentiment ExactLee reports that her youngest son loves anything that once belonged to his older brother. "We actually do better with hand-me-downs for him than we do with buying new clothes!" she says. "We simply get him excited by telling him that his older brother once wore this outfit, and if we can find a picture to prove it, that's even better." You can also shop with hand-me-downs in mind by avoiding gender-specific or too-trendy items. "When my children were younger I used to buy certain clothing—like sweatpants, sweatshirts and T-shirts––in unisex colors so I could save them when my eldest daughter outgrew them to pass them down to my youngest son," says Kimberly.
3. Shop out of season.
Instead of paying a premium for the latest styles, Kimberly tries to shop out of season for clothing, purchasing winter items in the summer and vice versa. "You'd be amazed at how many things you can get for rock-bottom prices that way. If your child is still growing, you can 'guesstimate' what his or her size would be or buy a size or two larger so there’s something to grow into."
4. Organize a swap.
"I have six friends who are scattered across the country, and since they all have kids of different ages, we do cross-country clothing swaps," says Brittany Gibbons of Barefoot Foodie. "We each pay the shipping fee to send a box of clothes that no longer fit to the mom whose child is the next size down." If you don't have friends to swap with, the Internet can be another great source for no-cost clothing. "thredUP is really fantastic," says Christine. "It's a site where you can swap clothing with other parents; just stuff a flat-rate USPS box full of clothing and list it on the site. Then you get credit to pick a box for yourself. It's super-easy, convenient and practically free!"
5. Remember, you don't need to buy anything.
Sheri saves money by not buying into the need for new things every school year. "Since it's usually still summer weather when school starts again, my boys don't start the first day of school in a brand-new outfit. We reuse backpacks, and when we can, lunchboxes, for several years."
In the hustle and bustle of packing lunches and pulling together weeknight dinners, it can be easy to throw a lot of cash down the drain. Here's proof you don’t have to spend a ton on meals during the week.
1. Pack reusable lunches.
Don't waste money on plastic utensils and paper napkins that get thrown out after only one use, says Jessica Shepherd of My Silly Monkeys. "If you throw away bags and bottles, you're basically throwing your money in the garbage!" Instead, use cloth napkins, real flatware and reusable containers for food and snacks. Stefania Pomponi Butler of City Mama loves using LunchSkins, which are BPA- and phthalate-free reusable snack and sandwich bags that can go in the dishwasher. "It's a small investment, but they last forever."
2. Don't buy snack-size.
"Don't fall prey to snack-size options when planning school lunches," warns Kristie. "Buy a full-size bag of crackers and then make your own snack sizes with reusable containers." For creative out-of-the-packaging lunch ideas, check out the photos of the daily lunches Catherine McCord of Weelicious packs for her son.
3. Add a special—and cheap—touch to lunches.
Special extras don't have to be expensive. Lee uses cookie cutters, which she buys packs of at the dollar store, to cut her son's peanut butter sandwiches into shapes. "It's always a surprise for him when he opens his lunchbox."
4. Plan ahead.
"One way I keep my grocery budget in check is by creating a weekly menu," says Kristie. "It only takes a few minutes but it keeps me from buying things unnecessarily." Once a week she sits down with the whole family to decide what they'll have for lunch and dinner so everyone feels involved. Stefania also plans her weekly meals each Monday and posts them on her blog, where readers are invited to share their own meal plans and contribute ideas. "The whole point is to have no waste," she says. "I plan and shop, so at the end of the week I’m not throwing out wilted lettuce or rotten cucumbers."
After-School and Weekend Activities
Keeping kids busy and productive can be a challenge, especially for your wallet. Between after-school activities and weekend adventures, it can really add up. Check out the bloggers' favorite ideas for low-cost activities.
1. Don't buy new sporting equipment.
To help your kids gear up for their sports teams, Jessica recommends borrowing equipment from older students or checking out sites like Freecyle, an organization that promotes giving away items for free, as well as Craigslist and eBay. Kristie heads to Play It Again Sports, a sporting goods consignment store chain, to find goods at reduced rates as well as trade in her old items to offset the costs.
2. Pick up odds and ends when you run other errands.
Kristie recommends always being on the lookout for inexpensive crafts items, like paint, tiles and beads, as an easy way to stockpile a stash of rainy-day projects without breaking the bank. Having crafts at the ready also means not having to blow your budget on a last-minute activity.
3. Let the great outdoors be entertainment enough.
"I'm a nature junkie and my kids love coming along," says Sheri. "Our favorite freebie is visiting our local wildlife preserve, which has an auto tour. From the comfort of our car (which is great when it's really hot, cold or one of them is cranky), we can observe wildlife, sing with the radio and just be together." Find one near you by visiting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website.
4. Find free activities online.
Emily loves the printable coloring pages, videos, music and games offered at PBS Kids as well as the free reading and pre-reading activities at Starfall. She heads to Gamequarium to find hundreds of educational games and resources for kids preschool age through sixth grade.
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