Money tips to make back-to-school affordable

Families still struggle to pay tuition bills

August 20, 2010|By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

The start of the school year doesn't have to break the bank. Here are tips for saving money this season:

SHOPPING When buying school supplies and clothes, make saving a family affair, says Mike Allen, a father of seven and president of Shopping-Bargains.com. Parents and children should make an inventory of what they need, set a budget and shop together. Teach kids to be price-conscious by letting them keep the savings for coming under budget. "It's a life lesson," Allen says.

Children grow so fast that clothes can be hardly worn. Organize a clothes swap among friends or in your community so you can trade gently used items with others, Allen suggests. Or, exchange clothes, books and other school supplies online at Swapmamas.com or Craigslist, says Sue Perry, deputy editor for ShopSmart magazine.

And if you're not using coupons, you're overpaying, according to Perry. Find coupons in newspaper circulars or online at Couponmom.com, Couponcabin.com or Coupons.com.

"Shop in stages; don't bulk up," Perry warns. You don't want to load up on jeans that a child will soon outgrow, even if they are on sale today. Retailers will have more sales, especially around the holidays.

Keep up with sales by registering at ShopItToMe.com, which will send e-mail alerts when brand items you want are marked down.

College students on a budget should check out Sonystyle.com or Delloutlet.com if they're looking for computers, printers or electronics at a discount, Perry says. The sites sell electronics that have been refurbished, returned unopened or bear slight blemishes that don't affect performance.

TEXTBOOKS The price of new textbooks continues to climb, but it is becoming easier to shop for or rent cheaper alternatives. 

As of July, federal law requires colleges to give advance notice of required textbooks and prices in course schedules so that students have time to shop around.

Many college students buy discounted books through Half.com, Bookfinder.com and Amazon.com. Even private high school students who must buy their own books are finding deals through Amazon.

But a growing trend is renting college textbooks from sites such as Chegg.com or CampusBookRentals.com.

Felicity Davenport, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, says she saves a few hundred dollars each semester by buying used books. "I have lab and science classes. The books are $200 apiece (new)," says the 20-year-old public health major.

She'll save even more by renting this fall semester. One used book runs about $80, but Davenport plans to pay $30 to rent it from Chegg, which offers more than 4 million book titles. And Davenport likes that she won't have to worry about reselling the book when the semester is over; she can ship it back for free.

Campus bookstores also are entering the rental business, including the College Park campus. The University of Maryland bookstore started renting books earlier this year as well as offering a digital version at discounts of more than 50 percent, says manager Michael Gore. It has more than 700 titles for rent, and at least that many eTextbooks, he says.

CREDIT CARDS Thanks to federal reforms this year, credit card marketers won't be able to invade campuses and entice students with T-shirts or gift cards to sign up for easy money. Also, students under 21 won't be able to get plastic unless they have a co-signer or can show they have the means to pay bills.

"It will stop a lot of the impulse sign-ups," says Gerri Detweiler, personal finance expert for Credit.com.

She predicts that many more parents will be co-signing on credit cards for their children, but that can be perilous. Co-signing puts you on the hook for unpaid bills. Detweiler also warns that a parent's credit score can take a hit if the child maxes out the card or fails to pay on time.

She recommends that students establish a secured card, where they put a deposit, say $250, in the bank that acts as a line of credit on the card. Students using the card responsibly will build up a good credit history, she says.

Or, students can first learn how to manage money by using a debit card. Don't sign up for overdraft protection, though. Without it, transactions will be denied when your bank account is out of money. But that's better than paying an average of $35 fee for each overdrawn transaction.

Once students reach 21, they can apply for a card on their own.

INSURANCE Students often arrive on campus with all their worldly possessions. But what about thieves or accidents?

Turns out a parent's homeowner's policy likely covers the belongings of students living on campus. Coverage is typically limited to 10 percent of the parents' coverage for personal belongings, says Jeanne Salvatore, an Insurance Information Institute spokeswoman. Check your policy.

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