Monday, August 31, 2009

How To Give School Lunches Good Grades

The school year is new, but early grades for brown bag lunches have not been promising in my home. For example, servings of leftover lasagna recently failed the lunchroom test. The pasta tasted great, but looked unappealing in a small sandwich bag, the kids said.

It's a challenge to assemble lunches that are nutritious, tasty and frugal. Aria Kagen, co-owner D'lish, a private chef company, offers these tips:

Be a cookie-cutter. Update boring sandwiches with interesting shapes. Kagen uses cookie cutters to style sandwiches in to unusual shapes. Even tuna fish or peanut butter can appear exciting when shaped into hearts or stars.

Invest in containers. Packaging counts, and attractive food containers can upgrade the taste, texture and freshness of school lunches. Kagen recommends purchasing containers in different sizes for hot and cold food, including a thermos for soup. Reusable lunch containers also deliver an eco-friendly lesson plan about recycling.

Spice it up. Pack a taco shell, re-fried beans, ground meat, sour cream and chili sauce into small, individual containers. With those ingredients, your child can put together a taco in the lunch room.

Prepare ahead. Fresh vegetables, fruit slices and green salads can be prepared and stored on Sunday night and packed into lunches as needed during the rest of the week. That menu plan will save time and money.

Add a few flourishes. Kagen uses festive paper napkins decorated with action heroes for her son's lunch. Other families slip in hand-printed notes or hand-decorated napkins into brown bags or lunch containers. "Make it an experience," Kagen says. "It doesn't take a lot of money."

Related Articles

Back to School with 'Zero-Waste Lunches'

Zero Waste Lunches: How to Make Your Own Executive Style Supply Kit

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Airports, Hotels & Places Offer Free Wi-Fi?

I am trying to fly home to South Florida from Pittsburgh. My flight is delayed due to weather in Atlanta, where I have a connecting flight. But Pittsburgh International Airport has free Wi-Fi, which is making this long delay productive.

Free Wi-Fi is important, and if I have a choice between two airports in a region, I will book the cheapest flights in airports with free Wi-Fi. I am assembling a list: Which airports, hotels, cafes and stores have free Wi-Fi? Please leave a comment, with your travel experiences.

I will also make constant updates.

Pittsburgh International Airport (If you have to be stuck in an airport, this one is great!)
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport

Hampton Inn
La Quinta
Inns & Suites

Malls & Stores
Shops of the Sunset (Coral Gables, Florida)
Whole Foods
Barnes & Nobles

Dunkin Donuts 41st Street on Miami Beach

Friday, August 28, 2009 10 Things to Avoid Buying for College Students

When I was a college freshmen, I wanted to buy every item listed on the school shopping list. But there is no need for parents or students to snap up every item on the shopping list, according to’s list of "10 Things College Students Don’t Need." Here's a sample from that list:

"1. New Textbooks. To avoid paying unfathomable new-book prices, see whether your university offers a rental program — or rent from a Web site such as, where you can save up to 85%. Order the book for a one-time fee—for example, about $60 plus shipping for a $180 calculus book—keep it for a semester, then return it with free shipping, or you could buy it. Or, head to the used-book lot. For example, searches the Web for the best prices on used textbooks.

2. Big Meal Plan. Brain food is important, but avoid loading up your child's meal account with enough money to feed the football team. It’s best to start with a low number of meals and see how much your student uses. Many colleges will give you the opportunity to replenish the meal plan midyear. You could also supplement your kid's meal plan with gift cards to the local grocery (or the local pizza joint). Or you can buy gift cards at

3. A High-End Laptop or Desktop Computer. An inexpensive laptop should meet your student's computer needs. For example, you can buy an Acer Aspire One, which has a 10.1-inch screen and weighs just 2.4 pounds, for less than $300 at Best Buy, WalMart or Target. Be aware, though, that netbooks don't have DVD drives or huge amounts of storage space, so it'll cost extra to get plug-in external drives or memory cards.

4. Printer. Here's what you can save by skipping this unnecessary item: about $50 for a printer, $30 for replacement ink and $9 for a pack of paper. For about $10, your child could buy a flash drive instead, save his 20-page term paper on it and print the paper in the campus computer lab, which you may already be paying for. Some schools include a technology fee in room and board costs—$100 per semester in some cases.

5. Cable TV. These days, you don't have to foot a hefty cable bill when your child can catch the latest movies and TV shows online., and let you download current TV shows for free. The movies offered on these sites are slightly old, but you can get a Netflix DVD-rental subscription for as little as $5 a month. "

The full list of 10 Things College Students Don’t Need.’s Back to School 2009 package

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Shopping Alarms About Kids & Money: A Grocery Store Lesson

An alarm went off when my friend Yael recently paid for her groceries. It was a basic transaction. She paid for the food with a debit card and requested cash back.

However, when her pre-school son watched the exchange of plastic for food and cash, a siren sounded. "Mommy," he shouted. "You won a prize." Alarmed, Yael decided it was time to teach him more about money.

Nationwide, other parents are finding gaps in their children's financial education. For instance, according to a recent T. Rowe Price survey, nearly 60 percent of parents feel as if they should be doing more to school their children about finances. Here are a few lesson plans:

Child labor and allowances: My school-age children get a boost when they earn money from household chores, baby-sitting or lemonade stands, and it's not just about the cash. Earning and managing a few dollars improves their common sense and self-esteem. Such lessons can begin with toddlers, with small chores and rewards.

Shopping trips: Going to the grocery store with children typically leads to higher food bills. But the short-term detour around sugar cereals and other treats can create long-lasting "teachable moments" about unit-pricing, marketing gimmicks and nutrition.

New age tools: The Internet has a wealth of finance games for kids. My daughter, for example, has spent hours at and, which offer imaginary financial systems in which children earn salaries, build homes and make virtual purchases. The money is not real, but the lessons are valuable. Other sites include: and (from the Treasury Department).

Old school tools: A game of Monopoly can last for hours with lessons about saving, spending and investing. Over that board game, my kids have become savvy about the value of budgets and delayed gratification. It's not just about paper money or color-coded blocks of real estate.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How To Get Free E-Books

During a recent bus ride, Jessica Goldstein, a fellow passenger, was staring into her cell phone. But she was not sending out text messages or checking e-mail. Classic literature had bookmarked her attention.

Goldstein, a technical writer, uses her cell phone as an electronic book gadget. She downloads free books through Project Gutenberg,, a nonprofit organization that enables readers to download free electronic copies of books onto desktop computers, smart phones or palm organizers.

"It's like going to the library on a bus," Goldstein told me as she read "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" by Friedrich Nietzche.

Project Gutenberg has a catalog of about 30,000 titles that are available for free. Additionally, the site has affiliate relationships with other sites that offer access to 100,000 free books.

Here are other resources for readers seeking free electronic books to read at home or on the road.

- Barnes & Noble. The company offers a free application that works on smart phones and desktop computers. The app can be downloaded at and provides access to free e-books.

- DailyLit ( is a service launched by a former Random House editor and a social media guru. Classic titles, such as "Moby Dick," "Pride and Prejudice" and "The Prince and the Pauper" are delivered by plain text e-mails to your computer, cell phone or other handheld devices. Each e-mail has an installment of the book and you pick the frequency of the e-mails. The service also includes a fee-based subscription for new titles, but books in the public domain are free and there are lots of them, including many titles on school reading lists.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Money-Saving Driving Tips for Labor Day Weekend

If a road trip is on your map for the Labor Day Weekend, consider these frugal, fuel-efficient driving tips from the Drive Smarter Challenge video contest:

"Decrease your speed. Gas mileage usually decreases rapidly above 60 mph. Each five miles per hour over 60 mph is like paying an additional 20 cents or more per gallon for gas.

Drive sensibly. Speeding, rapid acceleration (jackrabbit starts), and rapid braking can lower gas mileage by 33% at highway speeds.

Use cruise control and overdrive gear. Cruise control cuts fuel consumption by maintaining a steady speed during highway driving. Overdrive gear, when appropriate, reduces engine speed, saves gas, and reduces engine wear.

It’s a “drag.” Avoid carrying items on your vehicle’s roof. A loaded roof rack or carrier increases weight and aerodynamic drag, which can cut mileage by 5%. Place items inside the trunk when possible to improve fuel economy.

Turn down the AC. Operating the air conditioner on "max" can reduce mpg by 5-25% compared to not using it.

Avoid idling, which gets 0 mpg. Cars with larger engines typically waste even more gas while idling than cars with smaller engines.

Fill up before returning rental. Rental car companies charge higher gas prices if you don't fill up the tank before returning the vehicle."

Related Post:
Win $5,000 With Frugal Road Tips: A Video Contest

Friday, August 21, 2009

Win $5,000 With Frugal Road Tips: A Video Contest

Want to win $5,000 with your video camera? This announcement offers energy-saving driving tips and a chance to win money and other prizes.

"It's the dog days of August, one of the heaviest time frames for road trips – what with travel to universities across the country combined with the "last hurrah" of summer vacations leading into the Labor Day holiday weekend.

As you capture those road trips for posterity on your camcorder, consider turning them into a fun, two-minute video that can garner extensive exposure on the web and win a $5000 grand prize, VIP NASCAR and Indy race packages, new tires, gift cards, car care guides, and more in the Drive Smarter Challenge video contest --

The online video contest is a new feature of the award-winning Drive $marter Challenge fuel-efficiency campaign sponsored by the Alliance to Save Energy and 16 other diverse nonprofit, governmental, trade association and for-profit partners.

The contest runs through September 20.

Contest Details

To enter, submit a two-minute (or less) video that illustrates one or more of the Drive Smarter Challenge gas- and money-saving driving and vehicle maintenance tips, including those featured below:

Planning your road trip:

  • Get a customized map with low gas prices along the route. Getting lost while driving in unfamiliar areas could lead to an expensive waste of gas. Print a customized vacation map that highlights low-cost gas stations along your route using campaign website resources. Or navigate with a GPS system.

  • Choose the right vehicle. If your family has more than one vehicle, drive the car that gets better gas mileage if possible.

  • Watch the clock! When possible, drive during off-peak hours to reduce gas costs and stress by avoiding stop-and-go or bumper-to-bumper traffic conditions.

  • Check out other travel options. Consider trains, buses, or public transportation to your destination when possible. Explore new ways to get around at your destination. Find information on biking, public transportation routes, car sharing, walking, and renting hybrid or fuel-efficient vehicles on the Drive $marter Challenge website resources page.

Before you leave: maintenance tips

  • Inflate your tires. Keeping your tires properly inflated improves gas mileage by around 3%.

  • Select the right oil. Using the manufacturer’s recommended grade of motor oil improves gas mileage by 1 to 2%. Motor oil that says “Energy Conserving” on the API performance symbol contains friction-reducing additives. Change your oil as recommended to extend the life of your vehicle.

  • Tune up. Fixing a car that is noticeably out of tune or has failed an emissions test can improve its gas mileage by an average of 4%."

Coming next: Saving money on the road.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sales Clerk Offers Inside View: 'We're Supposed to Befriend Kids'

Do some sales clerks try to pal around with tween shoppers in an effort to get the kids to spend more money? Yes, says one reader, a sales clerk, who offers a great reply to the post: Telling My Daughter the Truth about Her New 'Friend,' The Salesclerk!

Here's one sales clerk's story:

I was hired about a month or so ago at a 'tween clothing store, and I've come to find it not so much my cup of tea. We're supposed to make "friends" with the girl and adult, or the girl[s], and try to sell them as much stuff as we can, by talking to them, or even looking at what they have, and bringing more stuff that matches/accessorizes/looks similar, and show it to them and so on.

I find it uncomfortable, personally, because while I love kids, and enjoy talking to the few people who are very friendly, I'm only supposed to be friendly enough to make the sale and make more sales while doing it, and that in itself makes me feel fake, seeing as we're supposed to make the store feel like a second home to the girls, but yet simply see them as consumers and a goal of how much money we can get them to spend?

I personally would get quite irritated with a sales person bringing me loads of stuff, and always have been that way, so I have a hard time seeing how so many people could like someone following them & constantly foisting things on them.

Just my rambling thoughts after an exhausting day at work.

-- written by MVanity

Thanks to MVanity for providing such a thoughtful comment. (@ MVanity: You make great points, and I appreciate your insider's view. Thanks for taking the time to write!)

As a shopper, I'm in the same bag as MVanity. I also get annoyed when I'm tracked through a store. But my pre-teen daughter can be flattered by the attention.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Guest Post: Consumers Union: Beware of Prepaid Card Pitfalls

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, offers this guest post on the dangers of prepaid cards:

"While prepaid cards are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to check cashers and traditional bank accounts, a new Consumers Union report finds that the cards come with high fees and don’t offer consumers the same kinds of protections as other forms of plastic payment.

Prepaid cards are reloadable cards that can be used to make payments similar to debit cards and are becoming the foundation of a second tier banking system used by a growing number of low income consumers.

Here's a link to the full report about prepaid cards.

“Consumers using prepaid cards end up paying a mountain of costly fees that can add up quickly and undermine their finances,” said Michelle Jun, staff attorney for Consumers Union. “Prepaid cards are being marketed aggressively, so it’s important for consumers to understand the hidden costs and how these cards might leave them vulnerable if lost or stolen.”
Prepaid cards are a growing business and usually bear a network logo such as Visa or MasterCard and often have the word “debit” printed prominently on the front of the cards. The Federal Reserve estimated that 312 million transactions were made with pre-paid cards in 2006 for a total value of $13.3 billion.

Consumers Union reviewed the terms and conditions of 18 different prepaid cards and found that consumers face multiple fees and other costly “gotchas’:

Activation Fees: 17 of the 18 pre-paid card issuers reviewed charged consumers a fee for activating their cards. These activation fees ranged from a low of $3 for the Walmart Money Card to a whopping $99.95 to apply for and initiate the Millenium Advantage card.

Monthly Fee: 15 of the 18 pre-paid card issuers charged monthly fees ranging from $2.95 per month for the FinanSe card to $10 per month for the Rush Card. Most pre-paid card issuers will waive the monthly fee if a direct deposit is set up. Some card issuers will waive the monthly fee if the consumer chooses the “pay as you go” option.

Fees to Get Cash: All 18 card issuers reviewed charged fees for withdrawing cash from ATMs in the U.S. On the low end, the FinanSe, SVC Revel, and Espree cards charge $1.50 per withdrawal. The NetSpend Visa card charged the highest fee – up to $2.50 for each withdrawal. Charges are usually even higher for international withdrawals.

Balance Inquiry and Statement Fees: 17 of the 18 card issuers charged fees for checking balances at ATMs, ranging from 50 cents to $1. This does not include any additional fee charged by the ATM owner.

Customer Service: Most pre-paid card issuers provide free customer service, but consumers using the Millenium Advantage card will be charged $1 per minute when they call customer service, while users of the Espree card will pay $3 for each customer service call. Some pre-paid card issuers charge customer service fees after a limited number of free calls.

Fees for Inactivity: Eight of the 18 card issuers charged fees when cards are not used after a certain period of time. These dormancy fees range from $1.95 per month for the Rush Card (after 90 days of inactivity) to $9.95 per month for the Exact card.

Overdraft Fees: A number of prepaid card issuers claim that they do not charge fees when users spend more than the available amount on their cards. However, Consumers Union found that 10 of the 18 cards it reviewed included overdraft or “shortage” fees. These range from $24.90 charged by Espree for overdrafts to $29 charged by Eufora and AccountNow.

Routine use of prepaid cards can result in significant costs for consumers as all these fees add up. For example, Consumers Union found that a consumer using the Rush Card’s pay as you go program who made three ATM withdrawals, three bill payments, eight point of sale purchases and two deposits would be charged $43.75 for the first month in fees.

Less Protection
When prepaid cards are lost or stolen and used by others to make fraudulent transactions, consumers are not protected by the same regulatory and statutory safeguards that enable other debit card users to recover their money. If a consumer contacts a card issuer about a lost or stolen debit card within two business days, the consumer’s liability is limited to up to $50 (or up to $500 if the consumer reports the debit card lost or stolen after two business days). By contrast, prepaid cards may only have voluntary protections that could be revised or rescinded at any time for any reason.

Credit Building
Some prepaid cards claim to provide consumers a way to build a credit record or include a credit line feature. However, Consumers Union found that the prepaid card issuers may report “credit building” activity to an alternative, less used credit reporting agency or may report only the payment of the card’s high monthly fees. The credit line feature may provide credit which is as expensive as costly overdraft loans and payday loans.

Finally, consumers with traditional bank accounts have peace of mind that their money will not be lost as long as their bank is FDIC insured. But consumers who use prepaid cards have no guarantee that they will be able to recover all their money in the event of a bank failure because the funds may not be insured by the FDIC. "
--Source: Consumers Union

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thrifty Reader Seeks Help: Spoiled Kids & Too Many Yard Sales!

What do you tell a thrifty mom who thinks her kids are spoiled? That scenario recently landed in my e-mail box. Here's the note:

Hi, I am concerned because I finally realized how spoiled my kids are. I've been buying them whatever they liked, although it's from thrift stores and yard sales. Because it's so cheap, I get them more than five things.

I find my 8-year-old son being un-appreciative, unresponsible and rude, and I think this could be why. Now the house is full of toys, and I don't know where to start. How to unspoil? I am overwhelmed. Do you know what I should read? How do I start, please?

Please chime in with tips, links and resources. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Free Family Entertainment: Watch the Sky Tonight

We're hitting the roof tonight for an evening of free family fun. There's going to be a meteor shower, and it won't cost a thing to share the skylights with the kids. But how can you get the most fun and education from the evening? For answers and insights, I turned to David Dickinson from Astroguyz:

"Stargazing," says Astroguyz, "is a completely free hobby. When I was a kid, we would all lay out on the lawn and watch the Perseid."

The Perseid Meteor Shower: a Q & A with Astroguyz.

"When will I be able to see the Perseids?

The Perseid meteor shower is the most well-known and dependable shower of the year; typically, 60 to 100 meteors are seen, silently streaking through the sky. This year, however, there is evidence that we may see rates as high as 200+ per hour centered around 4 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, August 12. A day or two prior or after may be worth watching as well; meteor streams are notoriously unpredictable.

Early AM is always the best time to watch, as the Earth faces forward into its orbit after midnight. Folks can starat watching after sunset, but the best results will be in the early morning. I'll probably try to get up 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. and see what I can see.

By the way, 4 a.m. will be the peak on the east coast and 2 a.m. is the predicted peak for the west coast.

What are they?

The Perseids are tiny remnants of the comet Swift-Tuttle. As it sheds material into a
stream about the sun, the Earth periodically sweeps through its wake. Dozens of comets and trails have been identified; we just happen to sweep through the Perseid trail in mid-August. Most Perseids are dust grains; even those big, bright fireballs you see are probably not much larger than pea-sized!

What will I see?

Scanning the skies will probably yield a meteor or so a minute at the shower's peak;
keep in mind that the quoted rate of 200+ an hour is an ideal rate, assuming no light pollution and a radiant that is directly over head. This year, a bright moon might prove to be a negative factor. The farther north you are, the higher in the sky the radiant will be. Also, one viewer alone cannot cover the entire sky at once; several viewers facing different directions will up your odds for success.

Is this a unique occurrence?

No; the Perseids are only the most dependable annual shower of the year.
One shower, the Leonids, occurs in mid-November and is capable of large outbursts every 33 years. The great Leonid storms of 1833, 1966, and 1998-9 were some of the greatest shows in astronomy history!

Do I need a telescope?

No, meteor showers are one event that can be enjoyed with the naked eye.
Counting and recording what you see in a given interval can even yield useful scientific data, as the modeling of meteor streams is still not completely understood. Clouded out? You can even listen to meteors via FM radio or the Internet.

In any event, its always worth looking for yourself; you never know what you might see!"
--David Dickinson,

Other frugal sky-watching tips: Grab popcorn, chopped veggies, lemonade or other beverages. My friend Myscha recommends finding a lawn chair with a reclining back. You'll get support and comfort while stargazing.
Sharon is the author of the Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money -- a coming of age memoir about money -- and a contributing writer in Wise Bread's 10,0001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Cheated By a Ferret: One Child's Lesson

My daughter feels cheated by a six-inch stuffed ferret, which recently took a $4 bite from her allowance. But I believe the furry ferret provided a long-term investment in my daughter's financial education.

The back story: While shopping at a national chain store, my 11-year-old daughter stopped to watch an in-store infomercial, which featured an endless loop of a toy ferret executing tricks. On the screen, the toy looked so cute. "It had this invisible string," my daughter explained.

"The commercial showed it doing all these cool tricks and stuff," she said, adding that the ferret was tied to the transparent string that seemed invisible from a distance.

The reality: "The string broke the first time I tried using it," she said. "The ferret worked much better in the commercial."

Her $4-plus-tax lesson: "Commercials aren't always true."

As a parent, I learned the following lessons:
  • Children (even teens and tweens) need adult supervision in stores.

  • No matter how savvy you think your kids are, there's always more to teach and more to learn.

  • Kids need decoders for advertisements, promotions and retail offers. Don't assume that your kid understands that strings are always attached. Something that is transparent to you may be a complete mystery to kids with money.

  • It's important to let kids make minor shopping and spending mistakes with their money. In the ferret situation, the financial penalty delivered more value than any lecture I could have offered.


Monday, August 03, 2009

State-by-State Guide to Tax Holidays - A Guest Post From Kiplinger's

"Sixteen states and the District of Columbia will let you skip sales taxes on school supplies, computers, clothes and other merchandise on specific dates in August. Perhaps you’ll have to cross state lines to save an extra 5% to 10% -- but the journey is worth it. and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine have put together a list of sales tax holidays, which begin in August. Here is the state-by-state guide, which includes tax holidays during other parts of the year.

* When: August 7-9
* How much: 4%
* On what: Clothing less than $100, computers less than $750, school supplies less than $50 and books less than $30

* When: August 16-22
* How much: 6%
* On what: Clothing and footwear less than $300

District of Columbia
* When: August 1-9 and November 27 through December 6
* How much: 5.75%
* On what: Clothing, footwear and accessories less than $100

* When: July 30 through August 2
* How much: 4%
* On what: Clothing and footwear less than $100, personal computers and accessories less than $1,500 and school supplies $20 or less

* Georgia shoppers also will save October 1-4 on energy- and water-efficient products.

* When: August 7-8
* How much: 6%
* On what: Clothing less than $100.

* When: August 8-9
* How much: 4%
* On what: The first $2,500 of any purchase

* When: July 31 through August 1
* How much: 7%
* On what: Clothing and footwear less than $100

* When: August 7-9
* How much: 4.225%
* On what: Clothing $100 or less, school supplies less than $50, computers less than $3,500 and software less than $350

New Mexico
* When: August 7-9
* How much: 5% to 8.5625%
* On what: Clothing less than $100, computers less than $1,000, other computer equipment less than $500 and school supplies under $15

North Carolina
* When: August 7-9
* How much: 7%
* On what: Clothing less than $100, school supplies less than $100, instructional materials less than $300, computers less than $3,500, computer supplies less than $250 and sports equipment less than $50

North Carolina shoppers also will save November 6-8 on Energy Star products.

* When: August 7-9
* How much: 4.5%
* On what: Clothing and shoes less than $100

South Carolina
* When: August 7-9
* How much: 6%
* On what: All linens, school supplies and clothing, accessories and footwear

* When: August 7-9
* How much: 8.5% to 9.75%
* On what: Clothing less than $100, school supplies less than $100 and computers less than $1,500

* When: August 21-23
* How much: 6.25% to 8.25%
* On what: School supplies and clothing and footwear less than $100

* When: August 22
* How much: 6%
* On what: All purchases less than $2,000

* When: August 7-9
* How much: 5%
* On what: School supplies less than $20 and clothing and footwear less than $100

And October 9-12, Virginia shoppers will save the state sales tax on Energy Star and WaterSense products less than $2,500.

West Virginia
* When: September 1 through November 30
* How much: 6%
* On what: Energy Star products less than $5,000 "


Sunday, August 02, 2009

Spend Less for School Supplies: Price-Matching Tips & Other Strategies

Back- to-school budgets are taking a hit this year. The average family will spend $548.72 for school supplies, down 8 percent from last year's average tab of $597.74, according to the National Retail Federation. We can cut costs even more with a few strategies.

"Advanced planning, careful shopping and a little research can go a long way in helping you stay within your budget," said Jessica Cecere, president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. Here are a few tips:

Shop at home. Before going to the mall or shopping online, take stock of the supplies in your home. There may be usable supplies from past school years. My home stash includes binders, almost-new spiral notebooks and pencils.

Use your ZIP code. Visit a store's Web site and type in your zip code to find deals in your neighborhood. In my neighborhood, back-to-school specials include a set of four glue sticks for 20 cents, compasses for a nickel each and packages of ruled index cards for a quarter each. Web sites also offer coupons that can be printed and used in local stores.

Create a clothing exchange. Have a back-to-school party. Party favors include bags of outgrown school uniforms and fall clothing, which can circulate during the party or within a circle of friends. Your cast-off clothing could fill a gap in another family's school wardrobe. It's an easy way to save money and to recycle.

Check out the dollar store. Some "dolar"r stores sell school uniform pants for $5 a pair. Other dollar stores sell pencils, notebooks and crayons. Local consignment shops and thrift stores may also have back-to-school sections with bargain prices, according to Consumer Credit Counseling Service.

Go to school. As a fundraiser, our local PTA sells school supplies at competitive prices. These sales can save time, money and gas. Some PTAs, for example, will bundle and package a complete set of supplies based on a class list or let you browse through their supplies.

Study price-match policies. Office Depot, OfficeMax and Staples have price-matching policies, and if you bring in a flyer with a lower price from a competitor, those stores will match other advertised prices.

related articles:

Spring Cleaning Uncovers Fall School Supplies

Last-Minute Back-to-School Shopping Tips:

Back to School with 'Zero-Waste Lunches'


Sharon is the author of the Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money -- a coming of age memoir about money -- and a contributing writer in Wise Bread's 10,0001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.