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Bill Cirone: Shopping Smart for School Saves Money, Sets a Good Example

Many families with school-age children are already thinking about preparations for the new school year, which can put a strain on the household’s budget. According to a recent survey, families will spend an average of $634.78 this year on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics to get their children ready for school.

However, making these purchases strategically can save money while also setting an example for children on how to budget their own money wisely. Getting children to “buy in” to this collaboration may feel like a waste of time to a busy parent, but the effort pays off.

First, involve children in making a list of what they already have and what they need. Help them set priorities by putting the items that are truly needed at the top of the shopping list. Then draw up a budget.

Next, read through newspaper ads and check online sites — with your children — to find the best sales for clothes and supplies. Then show children how to do comparison shopping for the best prices.

Try to resist buying the latest fad in clothing, which can be expensive, especially because many children are growing fast. In addition, be sure that anything you plan to buy is within the rules of your school’s dress code. Basic, durable and adjustable clothing can stretch your dollars significantly. It helps children understand and accept this strategy if you show them that they can buy more items if they buy fewer expensive pieces.

Use every opportunity to impart “object lessons.” Your children might want colorful notebooks with logos or images of their favorite heroes, but plain notebooks are typically less expensive and may even have more paper. This is an important lesson to share. While shopping, you can also have your children compare two items and their prices, count the number of items you’re buying, and add up the bill. This will help them understand the importance of math in their daily lives.

Of course, using lightly worn hand-me-downs can save a lot of money. Garage or yard sales are great sources for a vintage lunchbox or a nearly new calculator.

For some items, such as shoes, it is important to pay the difference for good quality. Avoid to the urge to “leave some growing room,” and buy shoes that are comfortable right away. It’s best to choose shoes with a stiff heel, flexible toe, and rigid mid-section for support.

If your children need a computer, consider shopping at a store where you can purchase a refurbished model. That can save you 50 to 60 percent from the retail price. If you are considering other high-tech tools, know your school's rules first. Some cell phones, iPods and MP3 players are banned from schools.

If your children insist on buying more expensive items, consider having them put part of their allowance or paycheck toward the purchase, or have them eliminate a lower-priority item from their list. This will teach them the value of budgeting. Many times, this discussion causes children to lose interest in the item and forget how important it once seemed.

It’s not necessary to buy all your supplies now; in fact, it’s best to wait if you can. School supplies are often placed on clearance by mid-September.

Above all, stay within your budget. Using a credit card is good only if you know how you will pay it off immediately. Otherwise, the card’s interest rates and fees will soon cancel out any savings you made from finding sales and bargains.

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools. The opinions expressed are his own.

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