7 Tips for Back-to-School Spending from Bills.com

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Don't go into debt to send kids back to school

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Be careful to do your homework before you buy to be sure you get what you pay for

For families whose summer passed all too quickly, and who are cobbling together back-to-school shopping at the last minute, Bills.com president Ethan Ewing has heartening advice on how to stay out of debt and save money as the school year begins.

On average, according to the National Retail Federation, a family with children in kindergarten through 12th grade will spend about $549 preparing for school. That figure is nearly 8 percent lower than last year, reflecting the economy's impact, but still a large investment. College students and their families will spend an average $618.

Squeeze the most from back-to-school spending with these techniques:

1.    Watch for sales. Loss leaders at office supply stores are less common than last year, but many stores are still offering great buys. Take advantage of bargain-basement deals on needed school supplies, and stock up when possible.

2.    Scour unlikely spots. Grocery store aisles, for instance, might have school supplies on clearance by now. Thrift stores sometimes have new supplies at rock-bottom rates. If the price is right, stock up for this year or next.

3.    Crunch lunch numbers. Instead of automatically ordering hot lunch or packing a lunchbox, check the real cost per day. The average cost of school lunches was $2.08 last year. While that may sound expensive compared to a simple homemade lunch, it is about half the price of many pre-made, packaged meals many kids like. Families in which a breadwinner has been laid off and who are seriously struggling economically can look into free or reduced-rate lunch programs for kids.

4.    Buy used. Now known as "recycling," it's a great way to save money. Buy used textbooks and resell them as soon as the school year ends. When faced with a bigger buy, such as a high schooler's calculator, investigate used and lower-cost sources such as eBay, Craigslist and online retailers. "Be careful to do your homework before you buy to be sure you get what you pay for," cautioned Ewing.

5.    Reuse the backpack. Evaluate automatic purchases. Kids don't need a new backpack every year, or new sneakers simply because school is starting. Buy the things they really need, and wait for sales (and growth spurts) to inspire major wardrobe refashions.

6.    Stretch fashion dollars. When it comes to fashion, older kids demand labels. Thrift and consignment stores frequently have barely worn clothes for a fraction of the price. Also shop discount chains and look for your kids' sizes (and labels) on eBay. Some parents offer to pay the price of a standard garment, and let tweens and teens pay the difference if they want the brand name.

7.    Plan meals for all. Take advantage of the back-to-school season's organizing spirit to save money for the whole family. By planning meals and shopping for the week, families can eat better and save more than resorting to takeout at the end of an exhausting day. Plus, home-cooked meals provide a great way for families to stay in touch once the school year begins.

"By planning ahead and thinking purchases through, families can make the back-to-school season fit their budgets. That way, you can turn your attention from how to pay for the fall transition to helping kids use what's in those book bags," said Ewing.

About Bills.com
Based in San Mateo, Calif., Bills.com is a free one-stop portal where consumers can educate themselves about complex personal finance issues and comparison shop for products and services including credit cards, debt consolidation, insurance, mortgages and other loans. Bills.com holds the No. 273 spot on the Inc. 500 list for 2009.

Bills.com and its sister companies, Freedom Debt Relief and Freedom Tax Relief, are wholly owned subsidiaries of Freedom Financial Network, LLC. The company has served more than 50,000 customers nationwide since 2002 while managing more than $1 billion in consumer debt. Its RSS feed is available here.

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Aimee Bennett
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