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Cut costs when shopping for supplies

Whether you're getting your little ones prepared or gearing up for the big day yourself, the fast-approaching beginning of the school year means it's time to stock up on supplies.

This year, more than 90 percent of consumers said their greatest concern when it comes to back-to-school shopping is pricing and discounts, according to a survey by consulting firm Accenture. On the list of shopper priorities, price beats out convenience, customer service and even the quality of merchandise.

First-day jitters are bad enough without having to worry about how you will pay for school supplies. Here are some tips:

*Don't go shopping until you have the teacher's list of required materials. There's no use getting a great deal on something if your student will never use it. That said, you don't want to wait for the first day of school when the sales are already winding down, your coupons have expired and the selection is picked over.

If the teacher doesn't mail a list to the house, check for it on the school's website. Many schools post supplies lists for each grade prominently on the school's home page. Sometimes the list includes a general list of basic items, which the teacher will add to on the first day. If possible, contact the teacher over the summer and ask for the most complete list.

If your child's teacher waits until the first day of school to dictate a list of supplies (which they often do in high school), don't just guess. Hold off on buying until you know what you need, and purchase just one spiral notebook with folder flaps inside the covers. It will give your student a place to take notes and a place to hold papers, all of which can later be organized into three-ring binders or whatever the teacher requires.

*If a graphing calculator is on your list, don't even think about paying retail. You can find barely used calculators for as low as $20 plus shipping, as opposed to the $100 you'll drop at the store. Try eBay.com, Craigslist.com and Amazon.com.

*Consider teaming up with other parents and shopping at warehouse clubs. If a price check shows they have the best deals, but in greater quantities than you can use, there is power in numbers. Chip in for bulk amounts of supplies, then split them up amongst one another.

*Just as you do with your Christmas shopping, keep everything in its original packaging and keep receipts in a safe place. It will make returns much, much easier.

*Paper is paper, right? Not where some teachers are concerned. If they want a marble composition book and you send in a spiral notebook, don't be surprised if you have to make another trip to the store to pick up the "right" thing.

Teachers have very specific uses for some items. Certain substitutes, although similar, simply will not work. If the teacher tells you to get an eight-pack of Crayola crayons, he or she means it.

*On a similar note, pay attention to brand names if the teacher mentions them. If he or she requests a certain brand, there is a reason behind it. For example, many teachers specify Fiskar scissors because the brand has a solid reputation for high quality.

You might save a few cents on a cheapo pair, but their inferior quality can set your kid back when learning cutting skills. Teachers know this stuff.

*Rolling backpacks or suitcases are fun and easier to transport, but don't spring for them until you make sure they're allowed in school. If they are, you're still not out of the woods -- check to make sure it will fit in your student's locker.

*Take "suggested school supplies" lists compiled by stores with a grain of salt. They don't know any better than you do what your teacher will request. And it wouldn't be surprising if the quantities were a little on the generous side.

*Watch the Sunday paper for store sale circulars. Stores routinely have back-to-school promotions offering loss leaders such as pens, crayons and glue for as little as one penny.

*Get around limited quantity purchase restrictions on steeply discounted items by letting each of your students check out their own materials at the cash register.

*Don't buy anything online without first searching for coupon codes. Web sites such as CurrentCodes.com, SlickDeals.net and CouponSherpa.com compile them.

*Check the junk drawer first. Nobody said your student's crayons have to be brand new and sharp for the school year. Why buy pencils and pens when you've got dozens of them lying around?

*Watch the Sunday coupons for antibacterial hand sanitizer and tissues. It's not something that leaps to mind as a school supply, but many teachers are now requiring them.

*If the teacher allows decorated rather than plain folders, binders and notebooks, have the kids decorate them themselves with drawings, stickers, glitter and magazine cutouts. It will be cheaper and more fun than springing for the items sporting licensed characters.

*Watch the ads and shop around. Better yet, take your Sunday ads to a store that offers price matching and get everything in one place.

*Do your research before buying big-ticket items such as computers. Compare prices and features in local ads and on websites such as PriceWatch.com and Froogle.com. Read reviews. Check Consumer Reports ratings.

*Just say "no" to the Apple iPad. Consumer website DealNews.com compiled 10 reasons not to buy your student an Apple iPad. Among them: They're too expensive, too distracting, easily breakable, a target for thieves and don't lend themselves to easy note-taking.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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