Find out which classroom supplies and dorm-room buys you don't need to spend a fortune on.
While it may feel like summer just got into full swing, the new school year is right around the corner—and that means lots of expensive back-to-school shopping. But before you invest in every item on your kid's "recommended" list, take a few minutes to figure out how many new supplies you actually need to purchase this year. Whether your kid is in grade school, high school or off to college, read on to see which items you can "shop" for at your own house, reuse from last year and, best of all, don't need to buy at all.
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Unless your child was quite prolific when it came to art projects last year, she probably didn't use up her entire supply of crayons, markers and colored pencils. So, instead of buying new sets of each, check out the family art closet first for any leftovers. "One of my Facebook readers even suggested having a scavenger hunt, including at Grandma's house," says Joanie Demer, co-owner of TheKrazyCouponLady.com, as a way to save on school supplies. The same holds true for pens and pencils. "Unless you have a kindergartener that's starting for the first time, you've likely accumulated so much of that stuff," says Jeanette Pavini, Coupons.com household savings expert. If you do end up needing a few pens to send to school, resist the urge to buy colors other than black and blue. "It's more likely that the kids want to get [uncommon pen colors]; most teachers will give you a list of what they need and if it's not on the list, sometimes they won't accept it," Pavini says. Other items you may find around the house: rulers, scissors, basic calculators and, the mother lode, backpacks!
While buying a few, new seasonal items may be essential for growing kids, the myth of the "back-to-school wardrobe" is a very unnecessary one, according to Janet Bodnar, author of Kiplinger's "Money Smart Kids" column. In fact, shopping for kids shouldn’t be any different than what you do when it's time to revamp your own wardrobe: Start by searching their closet first. "Put everything on the bed and categorize it, which makes things more palatable for kids since they often have stacks of shirts they forgot about." With the clothes laid out like this, Bodnar notes that kids might also find a different way to wear something, which makes it "new" to them. Once you've sorted through everything and tried things on to make sure they still fit, then go shopping with a list of the specific things you need—whether it’s new jeans because they've grown a few inches or a couple of fun accessories to spruce up their existing outfits.
3. Pencil Case
While it is important for your child to keep all his writing utensils in one container, that doesn't mean you have to buy anything special (read: expensive) to contain them in. For one thing, a zip-top bag works great, and it's easy (and cheap) to replace if it gets damaged. An old makeup case also does the job since eyeliner pencils are roughly the same size as No. 2 pencils. Better yet, next time you get a free case with a beauty purchase, store it away until your kids need a new pencil container. And, if all else fails, there's nothing like a sturdy rubber band to keep pens and pencils organized.
Pencil sharpeners can be cute and colorful, but do your kids really need one? It's probably safe to assume that every classroom has a pencil sharpener. Not only that, rooms are usually equipped with heavy-duty sharpeners—even electric ones—that work way better than any small, portable one ever could. Bonus: No messy pencil shavings to clean up when the portable sharpener accidentally comes apart in her backpack.
5. Book Covers
School supply stores offer all sorts of fun, colorful book covers, but if paper shopping bags were good enough for you back in the day, then they're still good enough for your kids. "Every year we just made book covers out of paper bags," Demer says. "The kids like them; they can decorate them any way they want and store-bought book covers can cost up to $4 to $5 apiece." If your kids are younger, go ahead and make a crafty weekend out of decorating book covers. Gather up supplies from around the house (stickers, construction paper, rubber stamps, glitter, markers, etc.) and, after covering their textbooks, let kids decorate them however they want—just make sure they include the subject matter somewhere on the cover.
6. Lunch Box
Your child's lunchbox is definitely not something they'll grow out of year after year, but you can make it feel "new" to them. One way Pavini likes to refresh plastic lunchboxes is with stickers: "Just peel them off and replace with new ones a few months later." Another, more permanent option is to decorate them with markers or paint pens. For soft lunchboxes with straps, try adding some fun pins that can be changed up throughout the year. Of course, none of these tips will help if you've purchased a box with trendy graphics or characters on the front. "It won't even last a year. Their interest in a particular cartoon character will be gone within two months, so it's much better to go basic because that really is going to add up," Pavini says. Avoid this costly mistake by purchasing simple plastic containers, like the Klip-It Lunch Cube, which works for any age group and can be easily personalized. Another smart option that Pavini recommends is a thermos: "It saves money because you can prepare a hot lunch for them and it stays warm." Bonus: Both containers can be used around the house when school is out.
7. Alarm Clock
Though you may be so concerned about your son getting up in time for classes that you're tempted to pay a marching band to walk through his room, it's time to face the fact that an alarm clock has become an obsolete purchase in this age of smartphones and interactive MP3 players. Instead of buying a new alarm clock for your sleepy high schooler or your staying-up-too-late college student, tell them "there's an app for that." Most cell phones come equipped with a standard alarm clock function, but there are also a ton of different alarm-clock apps that he can choose from, whether he wants to wake up to the radio, a video or the sound of your voice yelling at him. Kids are likely to find just what they need to get out of bed for a fraction of the price.
Though your college-bound daughter will do all she can to convince you she needs a television in her dorm room, the truth is she'll likely be spending more time making new friends than watching TV. Plus, she can always catch up on her favorite shows by watching them on her computer by going to websites that stream video, like Hulu.com and most network websites, or by renting DVDs from a local store or through a mail-order service such as Netflix. If she does somehow convince you to buy a TV for her room, don't do it right away, suggests Graham Jones, general manager of PriceGrabber.com. "Figure out a price limit and set a price alert on a site, like PriceGrabber.com, then just wait for the right time to buy," he says.
9. New College Textbooks
While college kids can buy many of their required reading books used from the school's bookstore, even that can set them back a pretty penny. Instead, they should go online to rent them from textbook rental companies. BookRenter.com, for example, has over five million books that they ship anywhere in the country with free return shipping. The website has even partnered with over 500 university and college bookstores, so your freshman may be able to pick up his books in person—while you revel in the savings (75% to 80% off, according to BookRenter.com). Chegg.com offers a similar service and will also plant a tree for every book your child rents. And, if your super students decide they want to buy the book when their class is over, all they have to pay is the difference between the rental and purchase price. Many other sites, including Amazon.com and Half.com (an eBay-affiliated site), allow students to buy and sell used textbooks to one another for much less than campus bookstores.
Despite the glut of electronics on most college campuses, many professors still insist that students turn in a hard copy of their assignment. However, that doesn't mean your college kid needs his own printer. Most colleges have computer labs and printing bays all over campus—including in many dorm buildings. In fact, Bodnar says that when her own son went to college, the school allotted for this cost by tacking on a fee for 1000 sheets of printed material. Also, keep in mind that each dorm room really only needs one big-ticket item, like a printer as well as a mini-fridge, microwave and standing fan. If your son is convinced he needs one (or more!) of these things to survive freshman year, have him compare notes with his future roommate before you hit the stores. "If one of them is going to bring something, the other one does not have to," says Bodnar.
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