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(Family Features) Back-to-school season means it’s time to get back to the business of learning. This year you can ace your back-to-school shopping excursion with these time- and money-saving steps that can make getting the whole family ready for a new school year a breeze.

Start with a list.
Walking into the store without a list is an open invitation for impulse buys and forgotten items that end up costing you more time and money with a return trip. Create a thorough list by categorizing all the items you’ll shop for, such as supplies, electronics and clothing. If you want to take an extra-organized approach, try color coding items by the section of the store where you would expect to find them.

Set a budget.
Knowing what you can afford to spend ahead of time can save regret and returns after you shop. Calculate how much you’ll need to cover all the items your students truly need, then tack on some room for wants. One must-have is a high-quality backpack, like the High Sierra Access Backpack, which includes a dedicated storage area for your child’s laptop, among other features. If your total budgeted expenses exceed your available funds, consider browsing weekly circulars to keep your budget in check.

Explore your inventory.
It may be buried under a summer’s worth of knick-knacks, but digging out the supplies your child cast aside at the end of the last school year may be worth the effort. Items like scissors, rulers and protractors may not need to be replaced every year if they’re still in working condition. Assess what items you have that can be reused and those that need to be replaced for the new school year.

Cut extra stops.
Dashing all over town to find all the items on your supply list is not only time-consuming, it’s unnecessary. At stores like Office Depot and OfficeMax, you can find all the academic tools and supplies your student needs to head back to the classroom. What’s more, a store that specializes in school supplies will have a broad selection and ample stock of the essentials.

Try online shopping.
When you know exactly what you need, shopping online is a great time-saving solution. Online shopping makes it incredibly simple to keep tabs on your budget before you make purchases and easily keep track of the items in your shopping cart. If you need to hand-select a few items in person, you can always take advantage of a “buy online, pick-up in store” option. This service lets you do your shopping from home with just a quick stop in-store to pick-up your purchases.

Buy in bulk.
It may seem counter-intuitive when you’re trying to trim your spending, but if you can swing it, go ahead and buy extra items that you’ll likely need to replace mid-year. The sale prices during the back-to-school season aren’t likely to repeat during the school year, so in the long run you’ll save money and avoid a last-minute shopping trip on a busy school night in the future. Items like Stellar fashion notebooks, which give note-taking a fashionable twist, are great to have on hand throughout the school year.

Research specials and promotions.
For many stores, the back-to-school shopping season is second only to the holidays. This means you can expect widespread sales, promotions and special deals, such as “deals as low as a penny.” Some states also offer tax-free holidays near the beginning of the school year, which are honored at multiple retailers and generally restricted to school-related purchases like clothing, supplies and some technology.

Weigh quality vs. quantity.
When you have a lengthy list of items to purchase for each child, it can be tempting to cut corners and skimp on spending. In some cases, being cost-efficient is smart, but do your research beforehand to avoid selecting items based solely on price. Value and quality don’t always go hand-in-hand and if you buy an item that falls apart or breaks down quickly, you may end up spending more to replace the items later. While it may be simpler for students to use printers and other machines at school, an all-in-one Epson Expression EcoTank Wireless Printer at home can be a convenient solution when late-night homework is bearing down.

Make dollars do double duty.
While most families expect to spend a sizable amount on back-to-school purchases (nearly $700, according to a 2016 survey by the National Retail Federation), making that money go a little further can soften the blow. You can help improve education in your community by shopping at stores that give a percentage of proceeds back to local schools. Programs vary; in some cases, you can even designate proceeds to the school district of your choice.

Take more notes on smart back-to-school shopping ideas and deals at officedepot.com.

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

SOURCE:
Office Depot

Building a Successful Budget

(Family Features) Whether you’re trying to pay off bills, save for a dream vacation or create a nest egg for retirement, having a sound budget is often the first step toward bringing your financial goals to fruition. While budgeting is often associated with finding places to curb your spending, creating and sticking to a budget can be a fairly painless process with the right plan in place.

These guidelines can help you build, manage and maintain a realistic budget that will set you on the path toward reaching your financial aspirations.

Set Goals
When setting your budget, you should also set goals you want to achieve by a certain deadline, even if that’s simply having your income and expenses balance out each month. Goals can be short-term, like saving for a weekend getaway within a month; medium-term, such as saving for a down payment on a house in a year or two; or long-term, like paying off your mortgage in 15 years.

Calculate Earnings
Your monthly budget should be based on your take-home pay, so make sure to know exactly how much income you bring in after taxes and other expenses that are automatically deducted from your check, such as health insurance and your retirement plan contribution.

Track Expenses
Once you know exactly how much money you bring in each month, track your spending – every purchase, no matter how small – for at least one month to clearly see where your money goes and what expenses are required and which ones are optional.

Categorize Spending
After a month of tracking your spending, you’ve probably learned something about your habits, but you also have enough data to begin categorizing your expenses based on what is required each month and what is extra. Required expenses can include rent, insurance, student loan payments, utilities, gasoline and food. While some of these bills may change month-to-month, you can use bank statements to find an average. Extra expenses are ones you can live without, such as cable, internet, dining out, movies and more.

Write It Down
Start with pen and paper if you have to, but writing out your monthly budget and being able to track spending month-to-month is often key to sticking to your plan. Include columns for income, each required expense, every extra expense and savings, and analyze monthly where you fell short or where you could improve in the coming months. There are also computer programs and smartphone apps available to help make budgeting easier.

Stick to It
Once you’ve set your budget, be wary of temptation that could drive you off-track. Always remind yourself of your goal and know that small sacrifices will pay dividends in the future. Make decisions before you make a purchase by asking yourself if you’ll use it often or if you can do without. If you’re afraid you might be tempted, use cash or leave your credit card at home.

Make Necessary Adjustments
There may come a point when your budget no longer meets your financial needs or expectations. Rather than scrap the budget altogether, revisit it and adjust accordingly to meet your needs. Know that along the way, new expenses may arise or problems may occur that require a shift in how you reach your goals.

Find more tips for reaching your financial goals at eLivingToday.com.

Take a Holistic Approach to Retirement Planning

Although retirement is a milestone for all working adults, decades of hard work may not pay off if you haven’t planned for your financial needs once a regular paycheck stops coming.

According to research by the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI), millions of Baby Boomers stepping into their retirement years have unrealistic expectations and lack a full understanding of the danger of running out of money during retirement. However, the challenges do not stop with Baby Boomers. A recent study indicated 47 percent of Gen-Xers and more than half of Millennials believe a secure retirement is beyond their reach.

Experts generally concur that it’s never too early to begin planning for retirement, but depending on your stage of life, your approach may vary. Consider this advice from the experts at IRI to get on a path toward financially secure retirement.

Building a career
Once you have a solid budget, stick to it and set aside some money to save. Compound interest adds up over time and the earlier you start compounding, the better. Credit will also start to play more of a factor in your life, as major expenses like buying a house or car, or starting a business rely greatly on your credit.

Mid-career
This mid-career life stage is a good time to set a retirement savings goal, and now is also the time to consider hiring a financial advisor. A professional can help you explore less understood but worthwhile approaches to holistic retirement planning such as annuities. Annuities are essentially insurance contracts that come in different types and offer several options to meet a variety of financial objectives. They are a guarantee of income as you age.

Late career
At this stage, you probably have a better idea as to when you will be able to retire, but it’s important to review your savings on an annual basis and make adjustments, if needed, to stay on track.

Ready for retirement
This is the time to start making some choices, such as whether you will downsize your home and how to eliminate as much debt as possible. One of the more complex aspects surrounding retirement can be determining which of your accounts to tap and in what order, and a professional can help guide you.

Explore more resources and tools to aid your retirement planning at retireonyourterms.org.

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

SOURCE:
eLivingToday.com