Back-to-school shopping can feel like tug-of-war—your eye is on the bottom line, while your teens have their hearts set on cool clothing, new tech gear and limitless data plans. But you can bridge the gap, save money and teach your kids the value of a dollar. Set a firm budget and take inventory of supplies you have. Then bone up on our tips and let the buying begin.
Hit the summer clearance racks and let your teens choose clothes they can layer; then wait for fall, when warmer wear will be discounted. Use Shopkick (Android, iOS), a free app that offers instant rewards for walking into stores like Old Navy and Macy's and for app purchases at Forever 21 and other stores. Ibotta (Android, iOS), another free app, gives you rebates for in-store and online purchases at Aeropostale and other teen favorites. "Just be sure your kid loves everything that makes it home," says Couponmom.com founder Stephanie Nelson. "Otherwise the clothes will stay in the closet."
Teachable Moment: Give your teen cash or a prepaid card—and set her free. "Mistakes are part of learning," says Michael Minter, a managing partner at Mintco Financial. "If she buys designer jeans instead of three cheaper pairs, she'll have to wear those jeans over and over. She'll grasp the difference between need and want."
When shopping for a computer, focus on shelf life. "Ask yourself whether you need an extra computer that you'll junk after a year or two or one that has to last," says Minter. Search sites like Slickdeals.net and Dealnews.com for bargains, but don't click "buy now" until you visit a store to check durability and key-feel. Manufacturer-refurbished models can also save you big bucks, but skip extended warranties—they're not worth it.
Teachable Moment: Tell your teen how much you'll contribute and that he'll have to make up the difference for hardware with more bells and whistles. "Teens have greater appreciation for things when they have skin in the game," says Minter.
Talk This Way
While big phone companies can offer great deals, don't overlook mobile virtual network operators, which create their own plans with minutes and megabytes from major service providers. Or buy a used phone and trade in your old one for gift cards (Amazon, Best Buy and Gazelle.com will pay market value). Gazelle also offers cash.
Teachable Moment: Have your teen download Onavo Extend (Android, iOS) or Opera Max (Android), free apps that compress videos and images so he can save more data without going over his monthly limit. Warn him that he'll have to pay any overage fees, which will drive home the lesson that talk isn't cheap.