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Savvy moms share secrets of back to school shopping on a budget

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (MCT) — Busy mom Alyshia Manzella is willing to share her secrets for outfitting kids on a budget.

"You have to set a budget," she said.

Hers is $150 per child — "and I seem to get away with it," she confided with a smile.

"I love bargain hunting," she said. "The key is advance shopping."

Many retailers began advertising back to school sales early this month. Retailers expect back-to-school shopping to increase this year but a majority of shoppers are looking for ways to save money, according to consumer surveys in July.

Kantar Retail, of Columbus, Ohio, which surveyed 4,000 U.S. shoppers, found 29 percent plan to spend more, up from 24 percent a year ago but down from 33 percent in the pre-recession years.

Seven in 10 shoppers plan to patronize discount stores, with 53 percent looking for sales and 30 percent planning to shop online, according to a survey of 9,000 consumers by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation.

"Many of today's shoppers are smarter than any other generation before them, especially when it comes to finding the best price," said Phil Rist of BIGresearch, noting the availability of price comparisons, free shipping and coupons online.

The survey found the average family with school-age kids expects to spend $329 on clothes and shoes and $97 on school supplies.

One-quarter said they begin shopping one to two weeks before school starts and nearly half start three to four weeks beforehand. Only 21 percent start earlier. Manzella, 45, is in that group.

She has a daughter, Ana, 13, and two sons, Alesandro, 10, and Andre, 6, getting ready for school. Her oldest, who is 28, is living on her own.

Last year was especially challenging because Ana switched from Holy Cross, where uniforms are required, to Pacific Collegiate, where students wear "real clothes," as Manzella put it.

When Ana wore her navy blue skirt from Holy Cross last year, her new classmates called her a "preppie," and she told her mom never again.

So Manzella keeps an eye out for sales at retailers her daughter likes, like Justice and Aeropostale in the Capitola Mall.

"If you get on their e-mail list, you get coupons," she said.

Another favorite is trendy discount retailer Ross, where they watched the selection and found a cute pair of flats for $12.99 and a stylish Jansport backpack for $22.

Manzella also scored at Ross for her boys, who attend Holy Cross. She snagged Hang Ten sneakers usually $30 a pair for $13.99, white polo shirts for $5

"I can find really good deals," she said. "I always head for the clearance racks."

Backpacks she got for 90 percent off at CVS in a clearance sale last September and socks for $1 at the Dollar Store.

She's an online shopper, too, raving about trousers with double knees and free shipping at LandsEnd.com.

On Thursday nights, the overstock discounts jump to 75 percent. That's when she pounces, buying white shirts for her boys. If the price is right, she buys the sizes she expects the boys will need in the future too.

She's got the storage space, thanks to the business she's in, running a moving company.

Other moms are also looking for deals as they get their kids ready for school.

Maria Cornyn, 46, of Scotts Valley, Calif., found a backpack with wheels for her younger son, who's entering second grade, at the Gap in Santa Cruz, Calif.

The store had a 30 percent off sale, so she paid $27 instead of $36.50.

She's still looking for a backpack for her older son, who will be in fourth grade.

"I want to get something that he likes," she said.

Fanny Garcia, 31, of Scotts Valley, finds it challenging to outfit her preschoolers, especially in shoes. At ages 4 and 3, they grow so fast.

To save money, she looks for big sales and secondhand stores, like Abbot's Thrift in Felton, which sells clothing at half off on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Goodwill and Salvation Army.

Moms need not worry their family is the only one being thrifty.

"There's lots of reason to budget with a tight economy," Manzella said.

Savvy moms offer suggestions as a starting point for saving on back to school shopping. If you shop at stores not mentioned here, be sure to ask if they offer coupons or discounts.

GET COUPONS

Kohl's, Land's End, OfficeMax and Staples send coupons to customers who sign up online. LandsEnd.com cuts prices on Not Quite Perfect items with slight flaws, marks down overstock items by 65 percent and offers discounts of up to 75 percent on "On the Counter" items, which change every Saturday. Trade coupons you don't use to friends for ones you will use.

INSIDER MALL INFO

Capitola Mall marketing manager Lynsey Niizawa suggests: Become a fan/follower of your favorite stores on Facebook and Twitter for exclusive savings. Shop with a friend and take advantage of "buy one get one free" or "buy one get one half off." Shop midweek when sales begin, to get deals without the crowds. Stop at Guest Services for the current savings guide and latest retailer coupons.

SELL YOUR STUFF

Carol Eiseman of Celebration Ideas Online suggests organizing an end of the summer garage sale with your friends and neighbors. Sell clothes that no longer fit, toys and games your kids have outgrown, gently used sports cleats.

VACATION CHEAPER

Another idea from Eiseman: If you or your friends travel to a state with no sales tax, pick up essentials for the group and save 8 to 9 percent.

Prepare your list in advance so shoppers know what to buy.

THINK AAA

AAA members are eligible for discounts on clothes, school supplies and eyewear from retailers such as Target.com, Gap Outlet, Dell and LensCrafters. For information, visit www.aaa.com/discounts or www.aaa.com/shopnow.

Members are eligible to win a $5,000 back to school shopping spree. Details are at www.aaa.com/catchthediscounts.

Here are some tips on greener shopping for school supplies from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Art supplies: Many contain toxic chemicals not suitable for children.

Paints should be water-based to avoid solvents and colored with natural, non-metal pigments. Avoid polymer clays that stay soft at room temperature or can be hardened in a home oven — they're made from polyvinyl chloride and often contain phthalates. Try making your own "clay" out of common baking ingredients. Note: A label that says "Conforms to ASTM D-4236" means the product is labeled as required, not necessarily safe.

Hand washing: Choose sanitizers with ethanol (ethyl alcohol) but no fragrance, and liquid hand soaps without triclosan, triclocarban or fragrance. Plain soap and water is often just as effective.

Backpacks: Look for natural fibers and skip those made with polyvinyl chloride or PVC. If natural fibers aren't an option, polyester and nylon are better than PVC. (Check the label for No. 3, the symbol for PVC, or look for "no PVC" on the label.) You may need to contact manufacturers or visit their websites if it's not on the label.

Lunch boxes: Look for those made from non-toxic materials, avoiding lead paint, PVC, BPA and antimicrobial chemicals. Some options are: cotton lunch bags, BPA-free plastic or unpainted stainless steel. Reuse utensils from home and pack food in reusable containers (such as lightweight stainless steel or No. 1, 2, 4 or 5 plastics).

Beverage bottles: Commercial bottled water is expensive, wastes resources and the water quality isn't necessarily better than tap.

Instead, give your child filtered water and other beverages in a reusable bottle made from BPA-free plastic, BPA-free aluminum or stainless steel, such as Klean Kanteen.

Markers: Common crayons often contain paraffin wax, which is made from crude oil. Look for alternatives like soy and beeswax. Avoid dry-erase and permanent markers, which contain solvents. Be wary of scented markers — scents encourage kids to sniff them, and the chemicals used in fragrances are not listed on the label. Try a pencil highlighter instead of a plastic one.

Pencils and pens: Pick plain wooden pencils (no paint or glossy coating) made from sustainable wood or recycled newspaper. Skip the scented ones.

Try to use recycled ballpoint pens.

Notebooks and binders: Avoid plastic covers on binders and spiral notebooks; they're usually made from PVC (No. 3 plastic). Opt for recycled cardboard or natural fibers instead, or look for "no PVC" on the label.

Paper products: Look for recycled paper, made from at least 30 percent post-consumer waste or PCW that isn't whitened with chlorine bleach. Or consider virgin paper made from alternative fibers or sustainably managed forests. Choose 100 percent recycled tissues and paper towels made with PCW and without chlorine bleach. Avoid added lotion, fragrance and dyes.

Paper products: Try to minimize kids' exposures to extra-strong or instant adhesives like epoxies, model and "super" glues; they contain toxic solvents. Water-based glues are safer bets, though most are made from petrochemicals. Some better options are: glue sticks, white/yellow/clear "school" glue. Children should not use rubber cement.

Cell phones: If purchasing a new phone, choose one with lower radiation or "SAR" value. Information is on EWG's cell phone database. When the phone is not in use, it should be turned off, in a backpack rather than next to the child's body.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.