Ask Mr. Dad: smart back-to-school shopping

By Armin Brott / McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Q: I can hardly believe that summer is almost over. It’s been a tough year, financially for our family, and I’ve been putting off doing the back-to-school shopping for my three kids (14, 10, and 5). But at this point I don’t really have a choice. Any tips on how to get it done efficiently and, hopefully, save a little money?

A: Wow, summer did fly by especially quickly this year — I can tell because I find myself muttering under my breath about how much I hate shopping and how expensive things are. But, as you say, it’s got to be done. So here are a few ideas that should make the experience a little less painful.

• Check under the bed. Before you go to the store, take a walk through your house. Chances are your child didn’t use up all of last year’s paper and pencils, and you can probably reuse some of last-year’s (or the year before’s) binders. You’ll find that there are a lot of things you can buy fewer of or skip altogether.

• Be smart. Look for print and online coupons. There are some amazing deals out there. Sometimes signing up to receive text messages from a retailer will get you freebies or big discounts. You can always text STOP later.

• Look in all the wrong places. Everyone wants to cash in on the back-to-school frenzy. So in an effort to get people in the door, a lot of unusual retailers will buy a truckload of school supplies and sell them at ridiculously low prices. Think Home Depot or your local grocery store.

• Divide and conquer. Make one trip for the 14-and 10-year olds, and one for the 5-year old. The older kids won’t have the patience to deal with buying glue sticks and colored markers for your little one. And he won’t have the attention span to wait while his older siblings agonize over which color mechanical pencils to buy.

• Unite and conquer. For basic classroom commodities — binders, folders, paper, pencils, markers, etc. — get together with other parents and buy as much as you can in bulk. For next year, talk to the school administrators and suggest they buy enough of the basics for every kid in the school, then bill the parents for their share. Besides saving parents a ton of time and money, you’re also being environmentally conscious. By cutting down the number of car trips parents would otherwise have to make, the carbon footprint of a pencil gets way smaller.

• Don’t buy clothes for your older kids. You’ll eventually have to do it, but it’s best to put it off for a bit. Tweens and teens are pretty fashion conscious, but the real trends will be established after school starts, when the kids have a chance to scope each other out. If you’ve bought your child something that seemed like it might be cool at the time — but turns out not to be — you’ll have wasted your time and money.

• Don’t argue. There are bound to be plenty of differences between the items your kids want to buy and the ones you do (with them generally preferring the more expensive options). To avoid head-butting, give your kids a budget and let them buy what they want. Tell them that if they come in under budget, they can keep whatever’s left over. But if they’re over budget, (which they shouldn’t do if they shop the sales), they’ll have to dig into their own savings or make arrangements with you to work it off.