9 credit card tips for scoring better back-to-school deals
From waiting on that new laptop to taking advantage of free shipping, score savings using these hacks – and your cards
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Back-to-school shopping doesn’t have to drain your wallet.
From stocking up on those “loss leaders,” to taking advantage of complimentary free shipping offered by your rewards credit card, parents and shopping gurus share some of their top tips for trimming the cost of buying for back-to-school.
And the best part is you don’t have to go out of your way or spend hours online – the key to great back-to-school savings is knowing when and where to buy and picking the right credit card.
Here are nine back-to-school tips to help you hang on to more of your money:
9 tips for scoring back-to-school deals
- Shop your closet first.
- Start looking for deals now.
- Reach for rewards to shop.
- Avoid 'list-itis.'
- Clothes in July, backpacks in August.
- Take advantage of deals via apps.
- Don't automatically buy electronics now.
- Save with 'loss leaders.'
- Take your children shopping – online.
1. Shop your closet first
Before you hit the stores, “inventory the clothes and school supplies you already have on hand,” says Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom. “It's always surprising to see how much I still have from stocking up on last year's sales.”
2. Start looking for deals now
Back-to-school sale season has already started, says Regina Conway, mom of one, and vice president of public relations and events for Slickdeals. Just like Black Friday, seasonal and holiday sales events are starting earlier every year.
We "are already starting to see some of these deals crop up,” she says. One of her favorites so far: Walmart is selling two 24-packs of Crayola crayons for $1. Normally that would run about $3, she says.
3. Reach for rewards to shop
If you don’t have other plans for those card rewards, discounted gift cards can take some of the pain out of back-to-school shopping.
Nelson used Discover reward dollars to pick up $100 gift cards for the equivalent of $80. “You can combine these free gift cards with sales, coupons, and if you shop via a cash back portal, you could even get cash back,” she says.
And don't forget to shop through your card's shopping portal – Chase, Discover and Citi are some of the card issuers that feature these – or take advantage of special deals linked to your credit card, such as those offered by American Express.
Frequent flyer programs are also offering back-to-school opportunities to earn miles if you shop through their shopping portals.
For example, you can earn up to 1,5000 AAdvantage bonus miles if you shop for school supplies and more through American Airlines' shopping portal. The promotion ends July 26.
4. Avoid 'list-itis'
Just because someone hands you a list, doesn’t mean you have to complete it. Every year, schools issue back-to-school shopping lists, and parents shuffle around trying to pick up every item like they’re on a wallet-scarfing scavenger hunt.
Even if you buy into the idea of a supplies list, remember it’s for the year – not the first day. Contact the school or the homeroom teachers and ask what items are critical in the first month, says Conway.
See related: 9 early back-to-school shopping tips
5. Clothes in July, backpacks in August
July is when retailers will have some of their best deals on children’ clothing, says Conway. One deal she’s seen: JCPenny is giving $10 off if you spend $50 or more on children’s clothing through the end of September.
Not only are stores staging back-to-school sales, but retailers are also looking to clear out their inventory of summer clothing. Which is what children will be wearing when they go back to school in the hot months of August and early September.
“What we expect is to see a lot of the early back-to-school deals – especially on [summer] apparel that can transition into fall,” says Conway. This month, look for markdowns of 20 to 50 percent.
For shoes, “many stores have ‘buy one, get one 50 percent off’ sales,” says Nelson. Her trick: “Combine family members' purchases to take advantage of sales.”
But if you’re looking for a deal, August could be the time to buy backpacks, says Conway. “You’ll see deeper discounts in August,” she says. Average savings: about 20 percent.
6. Take advantage of deals via apps
When it comes to back-to-school sales, some retailers and e-tailers are doing “rolling deals” – a bargain price that lasts until the item is gone. This is when apps, shopping websites, and online registrations come in handy.
Put the items you absolutely need into your favorite deal and coupon sites. And set alerts for price drops or deals.
Likewise, don’t forget to use coupon and cash-back sites such as Ibotta and Ebates.
And if you have a credit card that gives you cash-back or rewards, use that for an extra 1 or 2 percent, Nelson says.
See related: 5 apps to turbocharge back-to-school savings
7. Don’t automatically buy electronics now
Getting the best deal on electronics is a lot like timing the stock market: All-but-impossible for the average buyer.
With electronics, it also depends on what you need. With many brands, you could do better to wait until the Black Friday sales in November. But some manufacturers, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, often offer back-to-school deals.
Other makers, such as Apple, seldom have sales. But you can save a little with student discounts – which are also available to teachers and parents.
Another way to get a break on pricey electronics: Buy during sales tax holidays. Seventeen states will suspend sales tax on clothes and/or school supplies one of the weekends before school starts. Some states include electronics, others don’t, so it pays to check. Here’s the list for sales tax holidays in 2018.
8. Save money with 'loss leaders'
Loss leaders are those items priced rock-bottom low to get you into the store. Retailers hope that once you’re there, you’ll fill up your car, says Conway.
But that can be expensive, and driving from store to store eats gas. Instead, look at your entire list. Identify those loss leaders and pick them up as you find them over the next two months. “You'll save more by ‘cherry-picking’ the best deals at more than one store,” says Nelson.
But when you do find a deal on something you use throughout the year (such as notebooks, pads and pens), stock up.
Typically, office supply stores and big-box retailers like Office Depot/Office Max, Staples, Target and Walmart will have big discounts on basic supplies – often their best prices of the year. And check out grocery stores, too, says Nelson.
9. Take your children shopping – online
“Carve out time with each child to cybershop, saving contents of shopping carts until all the children are done,” says Madhok.
It’s easier for your child to resist those expensive impulse items when it’s not in her face, she says. “Children will love that they get to ‘drive,’ but you’ll have control over what goes in the cart and you won’t waste gas money driving around parking lots.”
Tip: Save on shipping by using a free service like ShopRunner, Madhok says. You can get free two-day shipping on over a million products from top sites, she says. While you can sample it for free for 30 days, a few credit cards, including Blue Cash Preferred® Card by American Express and American Express Cash MagnetSM card, offer complimentary access to ShopRunner.
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