Updated December 8, 2014

Back to School Deals: What to Buy in August

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If you have any students in your life, give them a high-five for saving you some bucks, because the sales this month are all about school. Even if you don't need to get school-related items, you have so many opportunities to get a deal on essentials (think office supplies and organization tools for your home).

And if you do have a student to buy for, consider our tips before you head out the door to shop. Retailers know you’ll shop no matter what this month and offer a mix of mega discounts mixed in with not-so-great price breaks.

Back-to-School Shopping Tips

Here’s how to become a star player in the back-to-school sales arena:

  1. Take inventory before shopping. Check closets, drawers, and the attic before adding items to your list. That way, you’ll avoid buying new items that your kids already have. This may seem like a no-brainer, but duplicate purchases happen all the time.

  2. Take advantage of "loss leaders." Many major stores offer loss leaders to entice shoppers into their stores – i.e., they offer certain merchandise at a deep discount (actually losing money on those items) in the hope that you’ll buy other, more expensive merchandise while you’re in the store. If you don’t mind visiting multiple shops and can muster the discipline to buy only the loss leaders, this is a great way to save money. Look for limits on the number of deeply discounted products you can buy. If there’s a limit (e.g., “one per customer”), that’s a good sign you’re getting the best possible deal on a product.

  3. Factor in the cost of gas and time. If you’re spending more money on gasoline (or losing time at work) than you’re saving on that inexpensive pencil set, you’re spending too much. Don’t drive all over the state in search of the absolute lowest price if that means burning gallons of gas.

  4. For apparel and shoes, consider clearance sales and used clothing stores. Kids outgrow clothes quickly, so buying the hottest fashions can be an expensive and very short-term investment. Clearance sales and used clothing stores may be the answer, and savvy shoppers can still walk away with items that are stylish enough for junior’s tastes.

  5. Take advantage of sales tax holidays. Nearly a dozen states waive their sales taxes on eligible Back to School related purchases for one to three days during August. If you live in (or near) one of those states, plan to do your shopping on the tax holidays, and you’ll save a significant percentage on each purchase – in addition to the savings offered by the retailers. Some states that offer Back to School sales tax holidays for 2014 include Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Texas, and Virginia.

  6. Ask for student discounts. Learn which merchants give discounts to students (hint: shop near college campuses). If they don’t advertise the fact, ask around and plan your itinerary accordingly.

  7. Buy fundraising bundles. Schools and charitable organizations sometimes sell bundles of school supplies as a way to raise money. These may be more expensive than what you’ll find in stores, but you could save time – and help a good cause – by purchasing these kits.

Now that you’re in-the-know on shopping smartly this time of year, let’s get down to specifics. Here are the items that are worth buying in August, as well as one purchase to delay and invest in later.

What to Buy in August

  • Office and school supplies: Your best bet is to stick to major retailers, such as Target and Office Depot, and get all your shopping done at once. They will be bending over backwards to get your business – they missed you in July. Discounts can be steep: look for savings of 25-75% off and deeper deals of 50-75% off basic office supplies like pens, pencils, and paper.

    While demand for laptops is highest at this time of the year, expect to see some discounts of $20 to $100 off advertised laptops.

  • Clothes: Clothing stores typically offer back-to-school discounts and sales for both children and parents. Stock up on matching socks for the kids, get a fresh, professional look yourself, and replace your faded jeans during this promotional period. Look for discounts in the 25-40% range on fall clothing.

  • This is also a good time to stock up for next summer. Buy a size up or two for your little ones, and pick up a few warm-weather pieces that you’ll still love nine months from now. Did your beach towels get worn out this year? Could you use another summer dress? Discounts on summer clearance items can be 50-75% or more off regular prices.

  • Storage: Stay tuned for big sales and slashed prices while penny-pinching college students shop to outfit their dorms and apartments. As far as we know, discounts do not require a student ID, so spend some time assessing your organization needs at home and at the office, put on your alma mater hoodie, and do some fall cleaning Discounts at big box retailers are likely to fall in the 25-50% range.

  • Wine: ’Tis the season! Stock up for your Labor Day cookout now. It’s harvest time for some areas of the country, so check for specials and discounts at your local wine or grocery stores as vineyards and wine companies promote new bottles. Keep an eye out for stores with case discounts when you buy at least six bottles at once.

  • Hotels: Third-party booking websites, such as Hotels.com and Orbitz.com, usually offer the best coupons and rates during August as the high travel season starts to end and most people have already booked their trips. Last-minute travelers get to benefit as do those who are planning ahead for the winter. Last year, Orbitz saw a 15% decrease in booking costs, and Hotels.com gave special deals up to 50% off in conjunction with other coupons. Most deals are valid for several months, offering the opportunity to plan for winter vacations and early spring trips now.

  • Low interest credit cards: If there’s a chance that all that back-to-school shopping will leave you a bit short on cash at the end of the month, you might want to consider applying for a low interest credit card. While these cards don’t necessarily offer as much in the way of rewards as other cards, they’ll save you a good deal of money on interest charges if you find yourself carrying over a balance. It’s not an excuse to build up your credit card debt, but it’s a great safety net for people who need a few extra months to pay for their purchases.

What Not to Buy in August

If you are itching to upgrade your tech devices, be wary and avoid buying any until Black Friday:

  • Smartphones and tablets: Speculations by tech-focused sites indicate big unveils from manufacturers at trade shows and other events during the fall. Consumers should expect high prices until the initial craze fizzles or the holiday season begins.

Happy saving in August, and enjoy your organized, outfitted office and new clothes!

Lauren Ward is a research analyst at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and financial education website. Write to Lauren Ward at lauren@creditdonkey.com. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped families make savvy financial and lifestyle decisions. (read more)

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