As back to school shopping heads for the home stretch, this frugal father of a boy in pre-K and girl in second grade wanted to alert you to a few larger-ticket items that you might be overspending on, and provide you with some money-saving alternatives.
Buy this: Camo and Pink Camo Backpacks ($13.50 to $14.99)
Not that: LL Bean Deluxe Book Pack ($31.96)
The rate at which backpacks get stepped on, torn from lugging too much weight, or lost has put me into the cheapo corner on this decision. Spare your children the fancy and let them have fun browsing at your local Army Navy Surplus store. The backpacks are up to 50% less expensive and just as tough and ergonomically sound as long as no one's packing for a week's vacation. Plus they're cool. I've never heard a third-grader say, "Wow, you got that at LL Bean?!!" As for the backpacks on rollers (an ungodly $63.96), they encourage over stuffing, are dangerous on stairs, and they'll make your kids look like pint-sized flight attendants. (One WalletPopper with middle-school kids informs us that backpacks on wheels are terminally un-cool.)
Buy this: Walmart Faded Glory ($4)
Not that: Converse ($26.99)
Canvas sneakers remain trendy for casual wear or the gym, but don't get stepped on at the cash register. These retro favorites are still just a slab of rubber attached to a canvas upper, with minimal support, padding and durability -- just like they were in the '50s. The idea that Converse shoes would be offered for $26.99 "on sale" is a marketing travesty. If your budding scholars are too young for Madison Avenue 101, they'll appreciate your penny-wisdom later when they realized you paid $4 for their shoes, and spared the other $23 for the after-school ice cream budget.
Buy this: Asus Eee Netbook ($259.99 refurbished)
Not that: Apple iPad Tablet ($834.99)
Ask yourself: Will spending a lot of dough to enslave your older progeny in the shackles of pop culture tech worship make them write better papers? The Asus fits neatly into a backpack, weighs as much as an apple (the kind you give your teacher), and has a sharp fold-up screen and real keyboard that's great for smaller hands or larger ones with nimble fingers. It's cute as a puppy for guys or girls and attracts attention like one. I know all this because I'm typing these very words on one. My factory-refurbished one is, well, as good as new. Best of all, it spares my back when I schlep it around New York City, but you don't want to hear about my back.
Buy this: Old Navy Boot-Cut Jeans ($10 to $14)
Not that: Levis 501s for kids ($36)
Every student should have a go-to pair of jeans. You want the plain blue that go with everything. While the Baby Boomer soul in me would like every child to embrace 501s, the price tag cuts right to my budget-coddling core. Old Navy's look great, wash easily and won't get your denim-wearing charges laughed off the playground. If you're going to graduate to Levi's, wait for a super sale. They happen now and then.
Buy this: Totes Children's Rain Ponchos ($5.99)
Not that: Lands' End Kids Navigator ($29.99)
No knock on Lands' End quality and style, just a practical parenting decision. The poncho can accomplish the same as any fancy rain gear, plus it's billowy enough to protect a backpack as well. No umbrella necessary, and you can keep the poncho stuffed in a backpack for any surprise weather. Totes has a fine reputation, and at that price, the inevitably lost poncho can be invariably replaced.
Don't buy this, buy that: Saving big on back-to-school 2010 purchases