Whether you want to believe it or not -- and I certainly don't -- we're already entering back-to-school season. This retail bonanza, like the Christmas season, seems to begin earlier every year, and you have to play the game if you want to catch the sales.
Or do you? The best strategy may be to wait it out, something I'm planning to do with my kids this year. One is bound for college -- in need of shower caddies and extra-long sheets -- and the other heads back to high school. Both require the standard notebooks, folders, and pens and pencils (What happened to last year's? I'll never understand.) Here's my plan:
• Hold off on the computer. This isn't the best time to buy a new computer -- prices drop further during the holiday shopping season, particularly for Black Friday. So if you can wait, it makes sense to do so.
If that's not an option, look for a bundle deal, says Lindsay Sakraida, features director for dealnews.com. "A really great way to get a value this time of year is to look for promotions that include a gaming console, printer, or gift card. It's pretty common to see these deals with Windows-based systems." Dell (DELL) is currently running a promotion for students that throws in an Xbox 360 4GB or a $200 Dell eGift card with eligible laptops -- all you have to provide is your student email address. Just be sure to read the fine print -- a quick glance at Dell's website tells me that the promotional gift card may expire in just 90 days in some states.
One caveat to this: If you're an Apple (AAPL) fan -- like me -- you know that discounts on their hardware are few and far between. However, they do offer special pricing for students (all year round), and, through Sept. 21, a $100 gift card to the Apple Store with a Mac purchase ($50 with an iPad, though I wouldn't say that's a necessary back-to-school expense, as much as my kids might try to convince me otherwise).
• September means sales. In general, things are going to get cheaper the longer you wait, says Sakraida. "Items that are very specific to back-to-school, like backpacks and dorm furniture, will immediately be put on clearance once school starts." Retailers take advantage of the fact that parents don't want to wait. So if you're driving your kid to college -- or he or she will have a car on campus -- pick up larger items like the mini fridge when you get there or even a few weeks after. (And compare retailers' prices with those at the college bookstore -- it may have some good deals.)
• Don't settle for "back-to-school" prices. Those advertised prices look pretty good. But that doesn't mean you should forsake all your savvy shopping habits -- many retailers let you layer coupons or discount codes on top of a sale, saving you even more.
• Know what to buy now. Sometimes, it doesn't make sense to wait. Office supply stores are running huge discounts right now, designed to get you in the door. I'm not even talking cheap; I'm talking free. "About two weeks ago, the typical summer back-to-school sales began at Staples (SPLS), Office Max (OMX) and Office Depot (ODP). They tend to have free stuff after rebates, and penny, nickel and dollar sales. Historically, these weeks in July and into August are the best time of the year to buy because you'll see the biggest discounts," says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. Recently, Staples advertised mechanical pencils and ballpoint pens, both free with a rebate that can be submitted easily online.
• One last quick tip for parents: If you have an office, this is a good time to stock up for yourself as well. As I write this, OfficeMax is advertising a 10-ream case of copy paper for $14.99, after a $29 discount for their rewards program.
-- With Arielle O'Shea