Back-to-school cost saving tips

It's that time of year again - back to school - which means families everywhere are heading out, stocking up and forking over fistfuls of money on everything from pencils to peanut butter. According to the National Retail Federation, the average family spends more than $500 on school supplies each fall, making this time of year second only to Christmas for total consumer spending. Here are ways to save big bucks for back-to-school and throughout the year.

MAKE A LIST AND SET YOUR BUDGET

>> http://www.practicalmoneyskills.com: It's a good idea to know what you need to buy and how much is available to spend before you go shopping. The site helps create a budget. The site also has a handy Back to School Calculator designed to help you and your kids determine school-related expenses, make necessary adjustments to stay within budget, and then hit the stores.

SURF AND SWAP FOR FREE STUFF

>> http://www.swaptree.com: Swaptree lets you trade used and like-new books, DVDs, CDs and video games with other people online for FREE. You pay shipping and handling.

>> http://www.zwaggle.com: great for musical instruments. You pay shipping and handling.

>> http://freepeats.org: great for sports equipment and other stuff. You pay $5 for freepeats, but they are a good network in 25 cities (including SF)

AVOID COUPON CLUTTER/LAYER DEALS
One of the hardest parts about trying to save money is spending hours scouring fliers and websites for coupon deals, but some stores have really gotten smart about this.

>> For instance, you can go to safeway.com (click on a link, load online coupons directly onto your Safeway Club Card - and all the best deals are automatically redeemed at checkout time.

>> Another secret here is that you can layer on savings: find something already on sale. Then if you can get an even deeper discount - you've successfully layered some big savings.

DO NOT PAY RETAIL!

>> http://www.retailmenot.com: For clothes, shoes, things like that, always try to Double Dip on Savings. Sometimes you can even combine coupon codes online and double-dip for bigger savings. Go to this site to find coupon codes for more than 30,000 online stores. Often times there is more than one code per store - so you can double dip and end up with 50, even 75 percent off.

>> Google search with the name of the retailer and type in "coupon code."

>> http://shopittome.com: Sign up for free - this site sends you "salemail" to your email inbox whenever what you want goes on sale. I bought my daughter this Ed Hardy shirt - got it for 75% off, these sparkly converse shows, I saved 50% -- paid about $25 total for these hot finds.

>> For computers, go to http://www.newegg.com or http://www.amazon.com for great deals.

USE CASH OR CREDIT?

http://www.billshrink.com: Most of us don't put much thought into how we're going to pay for these back-to-school purchases - just throw it on any credit card that has space? Use our debit card? If you use the wrong credit card, you might end up eating all these great savings by paying too high of interest and fees. Billshrink.com can help people find these low interest credit cards. If you don't pay your bill off every month, BillShrink can likely find you a better rate than you're paying now. If you do pay your bill every month, make sure you use a card that earns you cashback. They have several listed on their site.

LUNCHBOX LESSONS

>> Don't buy juice boxes or bottled water - use a re-fillable water bottle and save as much as $400 a year!

>> Stock up on basic ingredients for your kids' such as meats that can be remade into a variety of kid-friendly lunches. For example, grill up some chicken breasts on Sunday and pack them a healthy chicken sandwich on Monday, chicken strips with bbq sauce dip on Tuesday, a grilled chicken wrap on Wednesday and so forth.

>> Look for family-pack portions of poultry and meat at your local grocery and you can freeze individual pieces to last you weeks for an entire month of budget-friendly lunches.

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