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Back-to-school buying as a single parent

We've passed the summer solstice. The Fourth of July has come and gone. Department stores are taking down their patio furniture displays and packing away the barbecue equipment. It's official: summer is already drawing to a close.

All of these signs mean many parents start thinking about back-to-school shopping. Perhaps you've been looking forward to this season for awhile. After all, school provides your family with a much-needed routine and structure - especially if you are a single parent. But back-to-school shopping can also present a worrying prospect for single parents: who's going to pay for it?

The stress of back-to-school shopping

According to Parenting.com, shopping tops the list of back-to-school stresses for 52 percent of parents nationwide. Most parents spend between $50 and $250 per child on back-to-school supplies. Several admit to also replenishing their own wardrobes while shopping for kids. So, depending on the number of children you have and how cost-conscious you are, back-to-school shopping can really put a dent in your budget.

For single parents who may be operating on one income, affording the school's list of required supplies (how much does that graphing calculator cost?) becomes a real problem. So what can they do? Here are a few tips on how to save on back-to-school shopping as a single parent:

1. Talk to your child's other parent ahead of the shopping trip.

Odds are you have some sort of parenting agreement with your ex. If child support isn't going to cover everything, talk with him or her about splitting up the costs of school supplies, new Nikes and clothes for the upcoming school year. Maybe one of you will cover clothes and the other will cover supplies. Decide on a fixed maximum amount you each will spend so it doesn't turn into a competition of who can spend the most.

2. Shop the deals.

If you're not already a coupon hawk, now is the time to become one. End-of-summer sales can be just the time to grab two or more outfits for the price of one (who cares if that shirt has an American flag on it?). Look for deals online, and take advantage of any price-matching policies a big box store might offer, especially when it comes to things like calculators and other educational gadgets. Don't forget to check garage sales or online marketplaces like Craigslist too for gently used goods.

3. Research school supply drives or programs in your area.

The Salvation Army, local churches and nonprofits routinely plan back-to-school supply drives this time of year. Every organization operates a little differently, but essentially, they gather donations of basic school supplies and distribute them to those who can't afford all of the items on their school shopping lists. A quick internet search can help you find out which organizations in your area may be planning such an event.

4. Raid your own home office.

Yes, your kids will whine about taking a perfectly fine, monochromatic notebook and "last year's" pencils to school. But you may be surprised at how many notebooks, folders, pencils, pens, erasers and Post-Its you already own. You could also use the opportunity as a teachable moment: if they take older supplies, you will be able to afford the more expensive shoes or a few more outfits than you would otherwise.

The bottom line? Back-to-school shopping shouldn't break your budget just because you're a single mom or dad. With some planning and a little foresight, you all can look forward to starting the school year off on the right financial foot.

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