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9 Ways to Stretch Your Back-to-School Budget

Shopping for all the things you need to get back to school—books, supplies, clothes and more—can put a serious dent in your budget. For the 2015-2016 school year, educators spent an average of $487 on out-of-pocket classroom supplies, according to the most recent survey of K-12 teachers conducted by SheerID in partnership with Agile Education Marketing.

It pays to look for deals, coupons, special offers, and tools that help you trim the cost of shopping a little—or a lot.

Try these 9 tips to get you back to school without blowing your budget!

1. Use your NEA member benefits

Save on your back-to-school needs—get discounts on brand name clothing, electronics, books, computers and other merchandise and services from hundreds of leading companies and local retailers through the NEA Click & Save program. You can also earn WOWPoints on purchases that you can spend later in NEA Click & Save stores. It’s easy to use and well worth the time. As of May 2017, NEA members collectively saved over $12 million!

To find out more about the kinds of items you can buy through NEA Click & Save, read “10 Everyday Discounts You’re Missing Out On.”

While you’re back-to-school shopping, get the most out of purchase rewards with the NEA Cash Rewards Card. You’ll earn 1% cash back on every purchase, 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, and 3% cash back on gas for the first $2,500 in combined grocery store, wholesale club and gas purchases each quarter. And there’s a special incentive for new account holders: You can qualify for a $150 cash rewards bonus by using your new Cash Rewards credit card to make at least $500 in purchases within 90 days of your account’s open date.

And don’t forget to check out our extensive Teacher Discounts list for books and magazines, clothing and jewelry, classroom supplies and teaching aids, professional development, electronics, food and much more. We’ve scoured the stores and done the deals-searching for you!

2. Share your wish list

If you hand out a classroom “wish list” to tell parents what you need, save on time and copying by posting your list online, suggests Kathryn Lagden, who works for TeacherLists.com and is vice president of strategy for the site’s parent company, School Family Media.

“Declining school budgets make it more and more necessary for teachers to figure out creative solutions to keep their classrooms supplied,” Lagden adds. She says TeacherLists.com is a free service that makes posting and sharing wish lists “really simple and effective.”

Right now, there are more than 800,000 (teacher) lists on the site, Lagden says. The most often requested items are basic supplies such as tissues, markers, paper towels and re-sealable bags.

Lists can be posted for individual classrooms or the entire school. Make your list, post it once, then maintain or update it as needed. Parents can access your list instantly on their computers or smartphone while shopping in stores, or on any device, any time.

3. Ask for donations

Join a gifts-in-kind organization like the National Association for the Exchange of Industrial Resources, suggests NAIER president and CEO Gary C. Smith. NAEIR collects donations of new merchandise from US corporations such as Microsoft, Stanley Tools, 3M, Rubbermaid and many others, and redistributes them for free to their not-for-profit members, including teachers and schools.

The donated items include free class materials, office and art supplies, janitorial supplies, sporting goods, tools, toys, software books and media, personal care items, party goods and more, Smith says. Teachers browse catalogs of available supplies and ask for what they need. Typically, members pay “a modest annual membership fee, plus nominal shipping and handling costs,” Smith says. (At time of writing, NAEIR was offering educators free membership.)

4. Go social

Shop for supplies and classroom needs online, suggests frugal living, shopping and travel expert Jon Lal, founder and CEO of BeFrugal.com. “Sign up for emails from your favorite stores, or follow them on social media, to hear about sales as soon as they’re happening,” he suggests.

Try free tools to manage those emails. Kristen Strem, spokesperson for Unroll.me and Slice, says people save money when their promotion and deal emails are organized in one easy-access place. Your “roll-up” (screen) on Unroll.me shows all your special offers, sorted and saved daily, so they’re not forgotten, lost, or buried under the crush of spam.

5. Opt for apps and online coupons

Don’t bother clipping paper coupons, says Lal. “A teacher’s time is valuable” and “it’s easier to find coupons online.” Try sites such as Retail Me Not, Coupon Sherpa and Coupon Cabin.

Or, before you buy, search “coupon code” plus the item name, adds Brad Hines, a lesson plan creator on Teachers Pay Teachers and personal finance blogger. “There is zero excuse” not to look for coupons on every online purchase but if you don’t have time, he suggests an app called Honey that finds coupons for you automatically at the time of purchase.

For shopping on your iPhone and Android phone, a mobile app called Shopular can help you save money by delivering “geo-targeted coupons” to your phone while you’re shopping, at the retailer’s doorstep.  See who else is selling the product and who has the best price (including tax and shipping fees) with the PriceGrabber app.

Use RetailMeNot‘s mobile app to get sale information, find discounts and load coupon codes to your phone while you shop. Show the code on your phone at the checkout counter to redeem your coupon.

6. Take advantage of free shipping

Look for free shipping offers and plan your purchases to take advantage of the savings they provide, suggests Lal. Many stores offer you free shipping when your order totals a certain dollar amount. If you want to buy one item but it doesn’t cost enough to qualify for free shipping, don’t check out yet. Save your cart and keep shopping until you’ve added enough items to the order to get free shipping.

7. Comparison shop

Use price comparison tools to make sure you’re getting the best deal. “When shopping for school supplies, don’t buy the first thing you see. Shop around to make sure you’re getting the best price” or use a price comparison tool like Priceblink.com, suggests company founder and Savings Expert Karl Quist. He says Priceblink finds best deals, free shipping, coupon codes, and more, saving users time—and an average “15 to 20 percent” on everything from highlighters to printers to office equipment including printers, tablets, laptops, and more.

For example, Quist found a Canon MB2020 all-in-one printer priced at $129.99. The deal sounded good because the price was “marked down from $179.99” at Office Depot. But when Quist checked the same printer through Priceblink, it showed “several other stores have it available for $89.99—that’s a difference of $40,” he says.

8. Save after the fact
Saving money after your purchase with tools like Slice that monitor price drops, suggests Strem. The app makes it easier to get a “price match refund if that backpack you bought recently went on sale,” she says. And its handy receipt tracking feature “is great for teachers who buy classroom materials out of pocket and plan to expense later” or claim as a deduction on that year’s tax return.

9. Time your shopping.

Just as holiday products are cheaper after the holiday, school supplies are cheaper after the school year begins. “If you can, wait to buy school supplies until after Labor Day,” Lal says. “Prices will drop severely late in the season.”

Bonus Tip: Be super-organized and shop a year ahead!

Hines takes timed shopping a step further. “Buy with next year in mind” to save even more. When you find a sale or special price on something your classroom will need next year, buy it now and store it for later instead of waiting until you need it, when it may not be on sale. Bonus: if the price goes up during the year, you’ll save even more by buying now.

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