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5 tips for sensible back-to-school spending

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Students may not be thrilled about their summer break drawing to a close, but retailers couldn't be happier.

That's because back-to-school shopping traditionally brings in a windfall that's second only to the December holiday season.

The average family with kids in kindergarten through 12th grade will spend $669.28 on clothes, electronics and other school-related needs this back-to-school season, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. That amounts to a 5 percent increase from last year.

To help gin up sales, many stores roll out discounts and some states even get in on the act, offering sales tax holidays for clothing, backpacks, even computers.

Hit the stores without a plan, and you could end up overspending.

“It's an important time to keep a handle on your finances because in the frenzy to get organized it's easy to make bad purchase decisions,” said Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America.

Here are five ways to make sure your back-to-school shopping spree stays doesn't empty your wallet:

1. Make a budget

You know what you need, but do you know how much you can afford?

This is the key to keeping an annual shopping trip from swelling into a full-on spree.

Establish a budget that lays out how much you plan to spend on school supplies, clothing, shoes and other immediate needs. Then stick to it.

A good strategy is to begin with what you needed last year. Odds are that won't change too much from one year to the next. Items like pens, pencils and notebooks tend to be priced competitively. But resist splurging on fancy organizers, desk sets and other items you often can do without.

2. Use tax holidays

More than a dozen states are giving shoppers a break from paying the state sales tax on certain purchases. The sales tax holidays usually last around three days. The savings can run anywhere from 3 percent to about 7 percent.

In most cases, they apply to clothing and footwear, though typically states restrict the benefit to items that cost $100 or less. Some states also include school supplies and big-ticket items, such as computers.

“All of America loves a sale and this is a sale paid for by government,” said Verenda Smith, deputy director of the Federation of Tax Administrators, an association for state tax administrators.

However, you could end up paying local sales taxes, if any.

And if you're buying online, the sales tax holidays apply only if the address where the item will be shipped is located in a state offering the sales tax break, Smith said.

3. Use credit wisely

It can be tempting to sign up for a store credit card. Many often entice customers with built-in savings on store purchases and other perks. But think it through, especially if you anticipate not being able to pay down the balance before you start racking up monthly interest charges.

“Unless you're going to be paying that bill off right away, that great bargain will be quickly eroded by 15-to-19 percent interest rates,” Gillis said.

4. Shop around

One of the best ways to save money is to comparison shop. This is particularly true for notebooks and other office supplies, as well as clothing.

It may take a little more of a time commitment, and it may mean ordering items online, so be sure that your savings are worthwhile after you factor in shipping costs.

One way to see if you're getting the best deal is to use price comparison smartphone apps such as PriceGrabber and RedLaser. Users scan the bar code on a product and the apps display a list of stores, if any, where the item is available and at what price.

Another way to get more for your back-to-school money is to shop online at sites like, which offers coupons good at more than 5,000 stores that donate up to 20 percent of your purchase to a school or other cause.

5. Consider waiting

Sure, the stores for-sale signs scream deals to be had. But what's the harm in waiting a few weeks?

You may not get the same selection, but bargains can be found after the school year begins and stores move to clear out shelves to make space for the next batch of seasonal items.

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