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Genius Swaps That Will Save You BIG on Back-to-School Shopping

Feeling daunted by a long list of school supplies? Get everything on the list for less with a few smart tricks and trades.

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Opt for last year’s model over something new

If you’re splurging on a computer or tablet this back-to-school season, remember: You don’t need all the latest bells and whistles to do web research and write papers. A refurbished or older model could serve just as well (and make it less painful if the computer gets lost, stolen, or broken). Don’t miss these 10 hilarious back-to-school photos that every parent can relate to.

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Trade in top-shelf brands for generics

In most cases, it’s a negligible difference between the big-name brands and no-name discount school supplies. This is a great place to save on school supplies that kids tend to use up quickly, like crayons, glue, and tissues.

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Splurge on products that last vs. flimsier versions

Backpacks, lunch boxes, pencil cases, and pencil sharpeners are among the products you might be able to buy once and use for multiple years. “Invest in quality backpacks that will last for more than one school season,” says Ellie Kay, best-selling author of 15 books and founder of heroesathome.org, which provides free financial education to military members. “Get these a couple weeks after school starts, when they go on sale for as much as 70 percent off in local office supply stores and discount department stores.” (Use or borrow a hand-me-down to get through the first few weeks.)

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Choose reusable lunch gear instead of paper and plastic

Paper napkins and plastic utensils may seem cheaper from the get-go, but replenishing them for daily use gets expensive—fast. Swap them out for cloth napkins, reusable bags and containers, and real flatware (or durable plastic or bamboo versions designed for repeated use). You’ll save the planet, save your wallet—and add an extra dose of swank to your child’s lunch.

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Get digitized textbooks instead of paper versions

Invest in a tablet and have your child opt for digitized college textbooks, which often come at a significant discount over printed copies. (Bonus: You’ll save your child from back pain from lugging all those books around campus at the same time.)

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Buy in bulk, rather than smaller packages

For staples that you’ll know your child will need year after year—pencils, pens, paper—buy big and stash the extras for future school years—or split a big order of discount school supplies with a few fellow parents, to simplify everyone’s shopping. Here are the 12 things your school bus driver wants you to know.

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Skip the pricey pre-made lunch kits and DIY it

Prepackaged lunch kits may simplify lunch-packing duty, but they cost way more than buying your own lunch meat, crackers and cheese, and fruit, and building a “lunchable” kit of your own.

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Use an old makeup bag as a pencil case

Have an old makeup bag or travel-sized carrier lying around? It can make a pretty nice (and sturdy) pencil case for your child.

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Recycle paper bags or wallpaper as book covers, instead of buying book socks

Brown paper bags or old wallpaper can be even better at protecting textbooks from wear and tear—and are probably lurking around your house right now. Better still, they’re perfect for decorating, so you also get a fun craft project out of the deal. Check out the secret habits of straight-A students that you can try with your own kid.

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Consider the hand-me-down value

If you have more than one child, decide whether the gear you buy can be handed down: Some sporting equipment and other school supplies can often be reused. “If you have multiple children who will be using the same electronic devices in subsequent years, then it pays to invest in quality,” Kay says. “We had students who did algebra and then their younger siblings had the same course, so we passed down the calculators to stretch our savings.”

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Use a zip-top plastic bag for a pencil case

For super cheap school supplies, think outside the school supply aisle. Punch three holes in the bottom of the plastic bag, and use it inside a three-ring binder to keep pens and pencils in place.

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Swap the pre-sharpened pencils for unsharpened ones

You’ll pay a premium for the ones that already come sharpened—and if you’ve already splurged on a high-quality sharpener, you’ll be able to get a whole box of pencils pointy in no time flat.

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Trade your kids’ outgrown clothes for another family’s gently used treasures

Most kids outgrow their clothes before they put much wear and tear on them. “We swapped with families who had children with clothes we could use and we had clothes they could use,” Kay says. “Search on Facebook for swap sites in your area and then look to see what items you can use (and swap) on that site. To swap clothing online, go to thredup.com, swap.com, swapstyle.com.”

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Use masking tape instead of preprinted labels

You want to make sure your kid keeps tabs on his gear—but affixing preprinted labels on every crayon box and folder can add up fast. Use a roll of masking tape and a Sharpie to ensure the scissors and folders stay with him all year long. (That’ll help reduce the number of replacement items you buy too!)

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Swap out paper flashcards for their digital counterparts

“In the age of technology, digital flashcards like Brainscape are accessible, affordable, and scientifically proven more effective through an adaptive flashcards algorithm,” says Amanda from Quicken, Inc. “You can also continuously make your own and update digital flashcard sets, unlike standard paper flashcards that are unchangeable and tend to get worn over time.” Try these easy tricks for beating back-to-school stress.

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Use stickers in lieu of fancy character gear

Have a kid who’s into superheroes or princesses? Stickers are a cheaper way to indulge that passion. “Backpacks, pencil cases, and stationary emblazoned with your child’s favorite character are way more expensive than plain items,” says Jennifer McDermott, consumer advocate at finder.com. “Instead, buy a book of stickers to decorate plain items purchased in your child’s favorite color. They’ll find it fun, you’ll save a lot, and it will be easy to recycle the next year by removing and replacing stickers when they’ve moved on to the next fad.” These are the 33 things your child’s teacher secretly thinks.