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Cheap Trick Thursday: the back-to-school guide

(photo: Christopher T. Assaf/Baltimore Sun)

Here are some ideas for saving when prepping your kids for the new school year, whether they're off to a local elementary school or making the move to college.

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1. Buy the bare minimum. ShopSmart magazine advises against stocking up for back-to-school in their guide to back-to-school clothing shopping. If the first few weeks are pretty warm, kids can probably make do with a few new summer-weather clothing items purchased off the clearance rack. You also avoid investing in items before the season's trends shake out. Instead, buy things more frequently, to replace things that wear out.

The same advice applies to supplies. Run through and see what items on the list --- if your school provides one --- your kids already have.

2. Pack a lunch? With a little planning, I'm betting families can shave lunch and breakfast costs for kids too. Perhaps picking up an insulated lunch bag to bring lunch -- and make sure it stays fresh and safe until lunchtime rolls around. Gather some reusable containers for dishing out snacks and drinks prepared or purchased in bulk. And plan ahead so packing lunch is part of nighttime or early morning routines so it actually gets done.

3. Consider other expenses. The money editor at Consumer Reports shared ideas for saving on the move to college, including finding a bank for her daughter with ATMs both near her college campus as well as home to avoid paying tons in fees. She's also sharply rationing cell phone expenses so her child will be responsible for costs incurred while keeping in touch with friends. 

4. Check low-cost alternatives when outfitting a dorm room. You still have time! If your child needs certain electrical appliances, storage units or small furniture, together scour Craigslist, thrift stores and garage sales. It helps to gather measurements ahead of time, if kids find out where they'll be living during orientation or other opportunities. Or, wait until you get there to pick up only what you need.

5. Check out online alternatives for college textbooks. Again, time to prepare is essential --- once you get a syllabus, go online and compare prices at half.com, an eBay site, or others.

6. Investigate student discounts on computers and electronics. Ah, the student ID. It's your ticket to savings ... even though you have to pay so much to get it. You can often get discounts through your school or stores will offer lower prices for students.

Keep in mind, though, that you should research what kinds of systems will be compatible with your campus. Consumer Reports' back-to-school laptop buying guide reminds students to check what operating systems schools recommend, for example.

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