school_budget_storyWhen people think “thrifty” they often think “cheap, chintzy, scrimpy, stingy and tight.” They need to think “smart” instead.

The current economic climate has parents embracing previously taboo ways to keep their back-to-school budget out of detention.

“Six or seven years ago people would be mortified if you told them you bought used clothes for your child going back to school,” says Stephanie Rauterkus, Ph.D., assistant professor of finance in the School of Business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “However, in this tanking economy people are bragging to their friends about the great deals they found no matter where they found them.”

Most people think Wal-Mart or Target when you mention discount shopping. But that mindset is changing rapidly according to recent sales figures. Same-store sales are down 1.1 percent at Wal-Mart, and they are up only 1.8 percent at Target over the past year. Meanwhile, same-store sales at dollar stores are all up big by comparison:

Rauterkus, who wrote the blog 365 Days on a Budget, says she is not surprised because dollar stores are the best place to shop for the many little things you need, especially school supplies.

“A big mistake parents make is to look at this shopping event as strictly back-to-school and not as the entire school year,” Rauterkus said. “Your family will likely run out of school supplies and this may be the only time of year they’re on sale, so you should stock up now if you can.”

Rauterkus offers three tips to stay within your back-to-school budget:

  1. Know all your options. Not every deal is found at a big box store. Thrift stores are priced low and many offer additional discounts. If your child wears a uniform, check with your school to see if they re-sell previously worn uniforms.
  2. Look online first. This is a great way to compare prices and find coupon codes. Warning – beware the delivery charge if you choose to buy. Warning No. 2 – do not get suckered into buying more just for free shipping. Look for the option of buying online and picking up at your local store to avoid shipping fees.
  3. Shop with a gift card. A major benefit is that the card can be used online and in the store. Another benefit is that it forces you to stick to a set budget because you will not be able to buy anything once your money runs out.

The author Henry Miller once said, “Whenever a taboo is broken, something good happens, something vitalizing.” It is highly unlikely Miller was talking about a back-to-school budget, yet it fits. A budget is a limit to what you can buy. Breaking societal taboos about how to shop, where to shop and what to shop for expands what you can buy within your limit, Rauterkus says. That is good. That is vitalizing. That is like having recess all day long.