MaryBeth Matzek - The Penny Hoarder

Back-to-school shopping ranks right up there with Christmas as a major budget buster for families. This year, parents with children in grades K-12 are expected to spend an average of $501 on everything from clothing and paper to pencils and crayons, according to Deloitte’s Back-to-School Survey.

But all that shopping doesn’t need to break the bank.

Here are some strategic ways for budget-conscious parents to keep back-to-school spending from spiraling out of control.

1. Start by Shopping at Home

I actually begin my back-to-school prep when the kids bring home all of their stuff at the end of the year.

I go through the folders, pencils, markers and more and figure out what's still good. I then put all of it in a big plastic bin and wait for the school supply lists to arrive.

Once I have the lists, the plastic bin is the first place I “shop.”

This year, the bin held enough pencils, pens and markers from last year to outfit both my kids for the new school year. Both their pencil boxes survived, along with their scissors and rulers.

Once we were done with the bin, I checked to see what else I may have already had around the house. For example, my son needed a binder and I had a few left from various committees I’ve served on through the years. I recycled the papers inside (which I probably should have done years ago) and he soon had a binder for language arts.

Between shopping around the house and using leftover supplies, I was able to knock off nearly half the list.

The same goes for clothes and shoes -- anything that still fits is one less item we need to buy.

2. Shop Thrift Stores and Rummage Sales

Remember the binders I mentioned above? If you don’t have any at home, check out the nearest rummage sale or thrift store.

Neither is a sure thing, but if the store has a binder or two -- or other supplies on your list -- there’s likely a steep discount. If you don’t mind gently-used clothing, these are also great places to look for kids’ clothes -- especially since they often outgrow them so quickly.

3. Check Out Office Supply Stores, Dollar Stores and Warehouse Stores

Each of these types of stores offer items you’ll need -- and since the stores aren't everyone’s first thought for school supplies, you might be able to find better deals.

To save cash on facial tissues and cleaning supplies, stop by your local dollar store. If you have several children and need to buy more boxes of facial tissues -- this year I needed to buy six for my two children -- a trip to Sam’s Club or Costco may be a better choice.

Do a little math to figure out where you can find the best deal per box or roll.

For pencils, pens and paper, try an office supply store like OfficeMax -- the prices are often just as good, if not better, than the big discount chains. Even better, sign up for the store's rewards program and you’ll earn points to use toward future purchases.

4. Shop Online

Don’t be afraid to look online to maximize your savings.

Target recently ran a promotion on online orders that you picked up at the store. I went online and picked out my kids’ gym shoes, then picked them up in the store -- saving $10.

If you do go the online route, check out Ebates.com first. Select the store you’re looking for and you can earn rebates on the amount you spend. A bonus: Ebates often has additional coupons and codes for free shipping right on the retailer’s page so you can also take advantage of even more savings.

5. Buy Generic

While picking out folders at Target, I found plain ones for 48 cents -- the one with the cute cats was $1.50. My daughter asked for the one with the cats and I said she could get it -- if she used her own money. She declined.

Generic school supplies can save you lots of cash. If your children complain about having plain notebooks and folders, suggest they decorate them with their own drawings, stickers or other options.

The same goes for all the paper and cleaning supplies on your school-supply list: Going generic is perfectly acceptable. Who cares if the tissue box is plain blue or has the characters from “Frozen” on it?

6. Remember Your Coupons

Retailers and companies each have coupons for different items on the school supply list, and often you can combine them for extra savings.

For example, I received a flyer from Target that included coupons for pens, markers and more. I cut those out and combined them with an in-store mobile coupon offering $5 off when you spend $25 or more on school supplies. This saved me $15 on $50 of supplies on that shopping trip.

One smart friend divided her kids’ school supplies into four separate carts of just over $25, then used the mobile coupon four times -- instead of just saving $5, she saved $20. Also if shopping at Target, be sure to check out the Cartwheel app -- its offers often mirror printed coupons, and you can use both at once. Don’t be afraid to double up.

As my kids have grown older, shopping for school supplies and clothing isn’t as fun as it used to be (who really wants to pick out a protractor?) -- and more expensive. With some of the tips I’ve outlined above, I hope you’ll find a few ways to save and cut down on the back-to-school shopping bill.

Your Turn: How do you stick to your back-to-school shopping budget?

Disclosure: Here’s a toast to the affiliate links in this post. May we all be just a little richer today.

MaryBeth Matzek is a mother of two and a Wisconsin-based freelance writer. When not spending time with her family or writing, she’s out trying to find the best possible deal.

Although the days are still warm and you’re in full summer mode, retailers are already preparing for back-to-school season.

You can’t walk into a store or flip through an ad without noticing the shift. Gone (or at least relegated to the clearance racks) are the shorts and T-shirts. Jeans, pants and sweatshirts have filled the space.

For parents, this time of year not only means having to shell out money for school supplies, it’s also time to reboot kids’ wardrobes and get them ready for the coming school year.

7 Smart Ways to Save on Back-to-School Clothes

But just like there are ways to save money on school supplies, there are also plenty of tricks to save when it comes to their school clothes.

As a mom of two middle-schoolers (yikes!), here are seven ways I save on getting their wardrobes ready for the new school year.

1. Do a Thorough Inventory

Before you set foot in a single store, go through your children’s closets and drawers and see what still fits and is in good condition.

My kids wear uniforms, so for me, this is a fairly easy process. I check their khaki pants and shorts and their polo shirts.

Of course, I still have to check on their non-school clothes too — the casual ones they put on the minute they get home and wear on weekends (basically athletic pants, shorts and T-shirts).

After taking inventory, figure out what the kids still need. Do they have enough pairs of pants to get them from one laundry day to the next? If not, how many more do they need? You may be surprised at how much they already have.

Psst... If they need new jeans, you can get 20% off new Levi's and free shipping on your first order. All you have to do is sign up here with your email address.

2. Set a Budget

Determine how much you can spend on back-to-school clothing. Some people already include clothes in their monthly budgets, so that’s a good place to start.

Whatever you do, make sure to have a dollar amount in mind before you start shopping. This way, you’ll prevent sticker shock — or credit card regret — later on.

3. Be Patient

Yes, it’s tempting to start looking at the new fall clothes as soon as they hit the shelves, but think about it: Does your child really need a bunch of jeans and sweatshirts right away?

Think about the weather where you live — maybe they’ll be able to make it through most of September wearing shorts. The longer you wait to buy, the more you’ll save, since stores will start having bigger sales to clear their racks.

4. Shop Consignment Stores

Depending on your kids’ ages and interests, they might not care much about their clothes or where they come from. (If you have a fashion-savvy teenager, you may not be so lucky.)

Use that ambivalence to your advantage and visit local consignment shops and thrift stores to see what they have in stock. These stores can be hit and miss, but it doesn’t hurt to look, and it can pay off with big savings.

Don’t forget to check the shoe area — you might be able to pick up a great deal on shoes that need to stay at school for gym class. When my kids were younger, I frequently found brand-name sweatshirts that looked practically brand new for under $10.

5. Check Facebook Garage Sale Groups and Online Rummage Sales

I view these sites as another form of consignment shopping — except it’s from your home.

On my local VarageSale site, I can easily search for the clothing sizes I need. Facebook garage sale groups are great, but don’t have quite the same search functionality.

As with consignment shops, these options can be hit or miss, but they’re still worth checking out. And if you have clothes your kids have outgrown, go ahead and post them to see if you can make a few bucks. It doesn’t hurt to try!

6. Shop Sales Strategically

We all want to be smart shoppers, but are we? Before heading out, make sure you have any store coupons and check your in-store app, such as Target’s Cartwheel, to make sure you’re not missing out on additional savings.

Do you prefer to shop online like I do? Always head to Ebates or another of these cash-back sites first to earn cash back from your shopping.

When shopping online, type in as many promo codes as you can. For example, Kohl’s is notorious for having multiple sales and codes available at once, so combine them to see just how much you can save on your purchase. Use online codes as well as codes from coupons in the mail.

I know it can seem like a pain, but once you get used to doing it and start seeing the savings add up, you’ll be motivated to keep trying. Or, to make things easier, consider installing one of these browser extensions that help you find the best price, add as many coupon codes as possible and earn cash back.

7. Ask Around

If you have friends or relatives with older children, don’t be afraid to ask what they do with their kids’ old clothes. You never know — they might be looking for an easy way to part with them and might hand them over for free!

I’ve received countless bags of clothes from people at school with older children — and I’ve also passed on my kids’ clothes to others. Sure, there may be some duds in there, but there may also be some treasures, too.

I always tell people that what I can’t use, I’ll pass on to a local charity. Everyone wins — your friend is able to find a home for her kids’ stuff, you get some clothes for free and a local charity gets a donation.

If your friend is planning to sell the clothes online or at a consignment store, ask if you can have first dibs. She’ll likely give you a deal since it’ll cut down on some of her running around.

Getting your children dressed to head back to school doesn’t need to break the bank. Planning ahead and thinking outside of your typical big-box retailer can help you stay on budget.

Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!

Freelance writer MaryBeth Matzek is a mom of two and is always on the lookout for a good deal.

It’s no secret having children is expensive. If your kids play sports, the costs quickly escalate.

Not only do you pay registration or team fees, but you’ll also need to make sure your son or daughter has the right equipment. And unless your children are runners, their sports of choice likely requires plenty of gear you’ll need to purchase.

For example, my 11-year-old daughter plays soccer on a traveling team. She not only needs cleats for playing outside, but also special shoes for the indoor season. She also needs shin guards and socks tall enough to go over them, as well as a couple of soccer balls.

Since she’s on a team, she needed a uniform, which cost about $75 and will last two years if we’re lucky. We also opted to buy her a special backpack to carry all her gear as part of a birthday present (another $75), and buy a used, full-sized soccer goal for $50 so she could practice her skills at home.

That’s just one sport -- and soccer doesn’t require much personal equipment. Kids in other sports, such as hockey and baseball, usually need a lot more gear: gloves, bats, helmets, a bag to carry it all in... you get the picture.

And kids grow quickly, so they may need larger sizes each year.

8 Smart Ways to Save Money on Your Kids’ Sports Equipment

Feeling the stress of a tight budget while trying to get your child ready for her season? Here are eight ways to save money on your children’s sporting gear:

1. Check with Your Child’s League

My daughter’s soccer league has a page on its website for parents to post equipment they want to sell. It’s a great way to make a little money back from gear your child has outgrown, and an ideal place to find deals on pre-owned equipment.

2. Ask Your Friends

Post on Facebook that you’re looking for a baseball helmet for your son, and you may be surprised how many of your friends, family members or acquaintances have some equipment they’re willing to give you or sell for a low price.

Many families have equipment in their garages or basements that they don’t know what to do with, and you could help take it off their hands.

3. Team Up With Other Parents

If you’re in a sport like tennis where you need a lot of balls, have one parent buy the items in bulk. Then, split up the supplies (and their cost) among the interested families.

4. Shop Rummage and Garage Sales

If your child is just starting out, he doesn’t need brand-new equipment. Keep an eye out for local rummage sales, yard sales and garage sales to see what kind of used gear you can find, such as bats, balls, gloves and more.

At one recent rummage sale I visited, a family was selling a whole box of baseballs and softballs for 5 cents each. That was a perfect purchase for a family with kids in baseball or softball.

5. Look for Secondhand Sports Equipment

Resale and consignment stores focused on athletic equipment are great places to pick up both used and sometimes new gear and clothing. They’re also great ways to make a little money back on equipment your child has outgrown.

6. Check Thrift Stores and General Consignment Shops

Many thrift stores get donations from people cleaning out their garages, so you may be able to pick up the right-sized glove for your daughter.

And don’t forget regular consignment stores. I once found a pair of cleats for my daughter at a consignment store for a fraction of what they would have cost new.

7. Look on Craigslist and in Facebook Groups

Local Facebook resale groups are quickly replacing Craigslist as the go-to place to buy and sell a variety of items, including sporting goods.

If you’re not already a member of a local Facebook group, find one and keep your eyes open for sporting gear. You can also post the items you’re looking for, and someone may have just what you need -- at a price far lower than what you’d pay in a sporting goods store.

8. Ask Whether Your Child Really Needs the Item

While this tip isn’t about where to find a great deal, figuring out if your daughter really needs every single piece of equipment right out of the gate can save you a significant amount of money.

Check with your child’s coach to see if she has extra batting helmets or other equipment the kids can use during practices and games. This is an especially useful tip for kids just starting out. My daughter played one year of T-ball before deciding she didn’t like it. I’m glad we didn’t buy her anything — she just used a glove I bought at a rummage sale for her brother, who also spent just one year playing the game.

Your Turn: How do you save money on your children’s sporting gear?

MaryBeth Matzek is a mother of two and a Wisconsin-based freelance writer. When not spending time with her family or writing, she’s out trying to find the best possible deal.

When you have a baby, especially if it’s number two, people begin to jokingly ask when you’re going to “give in” and get a minivan.

For some reason, many people equate driving a minivan with being old, uncool or a soccer mom.

But I’m here to tell you there’s no shame in driving a minivan.

We got our first minivan, a 2001 Chevy Venture, after our second child was born in 2003. My husband and I couldn’t get the double stroller or the two pack-n-plays -- let alone all the other stuff you have with a newborn and a 15-month-old -- to fit in the trunk of our car.

With the minivan, we suddenly had plenty of room for everyone and everything.

Buy a mattress or patio furniture? Fold down the seats, take it home yourself and skip the delivery fee.

Need to get your team from one game site to another? No problem; there’s plenty of room for six 9-year-olds. And yes, I’m not only a soccer mom, but a coach, too.

minivan

How Our Minivan Helped Us Save Money

The van was not only convenient, it also saved us money.

In addition to helping us save on delivery fees, it helped us save on vacations -- we could all easily pile in to visit relatives on the East Coast without worrying about airfare and car rentals.

During the past eight years, we’ve driven twice from Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. I estimate we’ve saved thousands of dollars on airfare by driving. It’d cost about $1,200 for our family of four to fly.

Once there, we saved by using our own vehicle. Since we had room, we also brought along some food so we didn’t need to spend as much eating out or buying snacks.

minivan

Moving On from the Minivan

And yet, about 18 months ago, we decided it was time to replace our trusty 13-year-old minivan.

My kids moved on to middle school, and it took twice as long to drive them there. I took a two-hour job at their school, helping in the cafeteria to make a little extra money and get a tuition discount.

If my kids had an after-school activity, I could easily make the 35-minute round trip four times in a single day. I easily filled up the van with gas twice a week, which cost between $50 and $60 each time, depending on gas prices.

Once my daughter’s sports seasons started, I needed to add in another trip to the gas station each week.

A friend made the switch from a van to a crossover and talked about how much she loved it.

The van was starting to have some mechanical problems, and we had to make a choice: either get a certified used vehicle to replace it, or spend a lot to get it fixed.

We decided to trade in the van.

At the time, I was thinking about the daily trips to school and the gas involved.

I wasn’t thinking about the extra space the van provided or how we went on a road trip nearly every summer, whether it was to the East Coast, Chicago or South Dakota.

minivan

My husband said it was my call, so I went with the car. It didn’t take me long to realize it was a big mistake.

Life Without a Minivan

Sure, the car could hold five people, but only if three of them were small children. Fitting three middle school students in the back was nearly impossible and involved a lot of whining.

Even when it was just my two kids, they complained about “being too close” together. When my mom visited, I had the honor of squeezing into the backseat between my two children.

When it came time to go on a family vacation up north, we couldn’t bring bikes or other items we’d brought in previous years. Closer to home, we couldn’t load the bikes in the back and drive to a local trail for a family ride.

I tried to rationalize the purchase by saying we saved money on gas. Turns out, that wasn’t true.

What saved us money was driving less.

This school year, I decided against working in the cafeteria, so I only need to make the school run twice a day. I work from home, so most of my driving involves going to school and kids’ sporting events.

I usually run my errands after taking the kids to school in the morning, when stores are less crowded. I also connected with another mom and set up a car pool for school pick-up, so some days I only make one trip to school.

Then, we started planning for this summer’s family vacation -- a two-week trip to Yellowstone National Park. Naturally, we’d drive there from our home in Wisconsin.

After barely surviving two-hour trips to my mom’s house with lots of arguing over who was on whose side, I told my husband the only way we could do the trip was to rent a minivan. He agreed, especially since both kids are nearly taller than me and don’t have much leg room.

I started looking into how much renting a minivan would cost for two weeks and was surprised. I kept telling myself, it’s only this once… or maybe every other year if we visit relatives on the East Coast.

But it wasn’t.

Without a minivan, we needed to:

  • Rent a U-Haul to move a piece of furniture from my grandma’s house to mine. (It’s a two-hour trip each way and I didn’t want to trouble a friend for that long).
  • Take multiple trips to the local yard waste site because everything wouldn’t fit in a single trip, like it did with the van. This meant we used more gas.
  • Stop taking family bike rides on local trails since we needed the van to transport our bikes to the trailheads.
  • Limit the number of kids we transport for different activities. You’re probably thinking -- that’s a bad thing? But you try telling a 12-year-old she can only pick two friends to come with us to a local sporting event. No wait, only one since your brother is coming, too. Or only one of you can bring along a friend since I don’t have room for both of you to bring one.

Why We Switched Back to Driving a Minivan

Enough was enough.

I finally called the salesman who sold us the car and said, “You won’t believe this, but I miss my van.”

He laughed, saying it wasn’t uncommon for people who downsize their vehicles to return to the minivan or SUV after a year or two because they miss the space.

I’ll admit, trading in the crossover so soon after buying it may not have been the best financial decision.

The trade-in value paid off our car loan, so we didn’t lose money. But we wound up dipping into our savings account for a down payment so the new monthly payments would fit into our family’s budget.

In the long run, however, I think the minivan will be a money (and sanity) saver.

When I took a closer look at the gas mileage difference between the new minivan and the crossover and, honestly, it wasn’t very much, especially since I was no longer driving to school three (or more) times a day. It seemed silly to not go back to a minivan.

Even though it’s not considered cool or hip, I pick up our new-to-us minivan next week… and I can’t wait.

Your Turn: Do you think driving a minivan means you’ve given up being cool? Do you find it helps you save money?

MaryBeth Matzek is a freelance writer and busy mom of two tweens. Follow her on Twitter at @1bizzywriter.

We Americans have a lot of stuff.

One survey determined the average U.S. home has 300,000 items. Another revealed one out of 10 Americans has off-site storage, even though the average home size has tripled in the past 50 years. Earning money by clearing out some of that stuff makes a lot of financial sense.

When it comes to selling your things online, you have plenty of options: Craigslist, eBay, Facebook garage sale groups, yard or garage sales, or consignment sites or stores.

I've been using these various methods for the last five years. But I recently came to a realization: As a freelancer, it might make more financial sense for me to donate the items to charity instead of sell them.

Making Money Can Also Cost You

Rummage or garage sales are often touted as easy ways to make money, and I've held several over the years.

But I'll be honest -- once I figured out how much time I spent getting the items ready, setting up and then sitting there, not to mention cleaning up, I realized I could have spent those hours writing for clients. I'm sure I would have earned more than the $200 the rummage sale brought in. Or, even better, I could have relaxed and spent time with my family.

Another example is the consignment store where I take my items. It’s located 20 minutes away, and I can check online to see how much money I’ve made. My current account balance is $2.50; I guess all the clothes I took in at the start of summer aren't selling. Driving to the other side of town and back right now isn’t worth the $2.50.

Then there's my recent eBay selling experience. My son is a Boy Scout, and I had some odds and ends -- think badges and neck ties -- I thought I could sell for a little cash. I was wrong.

Ebay suggested I list the first item at 99 cents, which I did, and someone bought it. But by the time I included the cost of packaging, plus eBay’s seller fee, I realized I lost money on the deal.

However, this probably has to do with the items I was selling; I’ve sold jewelry on eBay in the past and made a good profit.

Finally, let’s face it: Selling items yourself can be a hassle.

With eBay, you have to mail items off to their destinations, and with Craigslist or Facebook groups, you have to arrange a pick-up time and place. Sometimes, the meeting point is close to your house. Other times, it’s not.

And then there are the inevitable no-shows, which put you right back at the beginning. Sometimes, tracking someone down to meet and exchange an item for $5 or $10 just isn’t worth it.

Why I Choose to Donate Instead

Even though my family is solidly middle class, and we have two children and make mortgage payments (the last two are great tax deductions), we pay thousands of dollars in taxes each year because of my freelance writing business.

That got me thinking: What if I increased my family’s charitable income? That would help us come tax time, right? We already donate to our church and a few charities, so this would add to the total.

By donating the items instead of selling them, we can claim them as a charitable deduction on our taxes.

Let’s look at the clothes I took to the consignment store as an example. If I deem their value to be $30, that’s $30 my husband and I could include in our charitable deduction column at the end of the year. As the deductions add up, our overall income decreases -- which hopefully leads to lower tax payments.

Another Reason Why Donating Wins Out

Donating items to charity also has another benefit beyond lowering my tax payments and saving me time: It makes me feel good.

Our community has a great non-profit that gives clothes to needy families, free of charge. It’s nice to know someone benefits directly from our donation.

We donate non-clothing items to non-profits that sell them to support job training opportunities for the disabled or a local women’s shelter. The organizations even come to our home and pick up the donations -- another timesaver. It’s a win-win: We get rid of our stuff, and we help someone else.

Your Turn: What do you think? Is donating items to charity and claiming the tax deduction better than trying to sell the items yourself?

MaryBeth Matzek is a freelance writer and busy mom of two tweens. Follow her on Twitter at @1bizzywriter.

Heading off to college this fall? If you’re like many young adults, this is the first time you’ll have so much control over your spending decisions.

But if you’re not careful, you could make mistakes that could haunt you for years to come -- like racking up credit card debt.

Don’t be surprised if you’re among the many young adults who struggle to leave the nest and manage financially on their own. Without your parents there to pick up costs for things like food or laundry, you might be uncertain about how to spend what you have and what to do when it looks like you’re running short.

When I was in college, I struggled to pay for laundry. Even 20 years later, I’m not a fan of doing laundry and I would wait until I had no other choice. That left me scrambling for quarters to feed into the machine, and I often had to run over and buy something at Walgreens, just to ask for my change in all quarters.

Here are eight suggestions to help you get off on the right financial foot in college:

1. Make a Budget

You probably already know how much your classes and room and board cost, but what about those other expenses?

You know -- entertainment or supplies you may need from the local drug store or grocer. Don’t forget to include how much you’ll spend to do your laundry.

To create a basic budget, figure out how much money you can spend each week in these areas and stick with it. If you’re not sure how much you’re spending (which is not good!), keep your receipts and begin tracking your expenses. From there, you can put together a budget to manage your money.

2. Be Careful With Credit Cards

College is likely the first time you’ll have your own credit card -- one that doesn’t go to mom and dad.

I remember seeing plenty of people hawking credit cards during my first week at the University of Wisconsin. Fill out an application and boom -- you have your very own credit card. I’ll admit I succumbed to the sales pitch; I think I got a free Badger blanket.

Once the card is in hand, the tricky part starts. Don’t overuse it. Use it for purchases you know you can pay for once the bill comes. If you can’t pay the bill when it arrives, interest starts piling up and that $5 cup of coffee will soon cost a whole lot more.

Also, shop around and see what card will get you the best deal -- do you want cash back, earn points to cash in for discounted airfare or points to earn gift cards?

3. Use Cash

This tip is tied into the one above -- use cash whenever possible.

Buying coffee or going to the movies? Use cash instead of credit or even a debit card. This helps you visualize just how much money you have left to spend.

4. Watch Out for Extra Fees

Whether it’s your food plan or cell phone plan, know how much you’re allotted each month.

If you don’t have unlimited texting and go over the limit, you’ll be hit with extra fees. (By the way, even if your parents pay your cell phone bills, this is still good to know -- they likely won’t take too kindly to a lot of extra fees.)

The same goes for some college meal plans. Before starting school, ask about the food plan options and think carefully about just how much you may or may not be eating in the school cafeterias. Then choose the plan that best fits your needs.

5. Look for Student Discounts

Make sure you always have your college ID handy -- it could save you money at a number of businesses and on mass transit fees.

If you don’t see an advertised student special, go ahead and ask anyway. Many stores may have unadvertised deals in place for college students.

6. Enjoy Free Stuff

Many college campuses offer free or reduced-cost entertainment options. Check for flyers around campus advertising upcoming activities or look on the college’s website.

Not only do the activities give you something to do besides studying, they also won’t break your bank account.

7. Check Your ATM Network

Most students head to college with debit cards, but do the ATMs on your campus accept them without a fee?

I went to college with a debit card from a small community bank and soon discovered a $1 charge every time I used it. I switched over to a larger bank with ATMs at home and at college.

Check with your financial institution to see if there are fee-free ATMs on or near your college campus. If the options are few and far between, it may make sense to go with a different financial institution.

8. Get a Job

Yes, you’re there to learn, but students who work part-time jobs while in college learn better time management skills, which will pay off down the road.

As an added bonus, the part-time gig will bring in extra money for fun activities or to help pay your tuition. Colleges and businesses around campuses are usually interested in hiring students and offer flexible schedules.

Without proper planning, you can leave college with a lot more than a degree and student loans. You could wind up with poor spending and saving habits -- along with credit card debt -- that will make life challenging for years to come.

But by practicing good financial practices while in college, you’ll be set for life.

Your Turn: If you’re heading to college, what questions do you have? If you’re a grad, what advice could you share with incoming college students?

Freelance writer MaryBeth Matzek managed to leave college without any credit card debt.

During a tight financial period a few years ago, I finally gave in to all the ads I kept seeing from the local franchise of a plasma-buying business.

"Make $240 a month," the ads blared. As someone who's been called a "fast" bleeder by technicians at the doctor's office, I thought this would be an easy way to make money quickly. After all, I’d basically be getting paid to sit still while hooked up to a machine, right?

It wasn't as easy as I thought.

Here’s what I learned from my plasma-selling experience, to help you decide whether it’s a good option for you.

What to Expect When You Sell Plasma

Going in, I had no idea what to expect. I just focused on the money and how I could use it to buy school supplies for my kids.

It’s not hard to get started -- plasma centers advertise a lot using billboards, mailers and online and print ads, which usually direct you to a website. If you’re unsure what’s in your area, try Googling your city’s name + “plasma donation.”

I signed up online for an introductory session at a plasma center near my home. When I arrived, I filled out an extensive health history on a computer and went through through a basic physical. It took more than an hour, including the waiting time.

When it was time to give plasma, I brought along a magazine to read during the process. It was great being able to catch up on my magazine reading while reclining on a semi-comfortable chair.

The actual donation took nearly an hour -- not because it took that long for me to donate a pint of plasma, but because of the time it took waiting for the technicians. They tend to multiple clients at once, all in various stages of donation. It didn't hurt -- I'm not afraid of needles -- but the feeling of cold saline solution rushing into my veins when it was done was a bit unexpected.

After the process, I received $20 on a prepaid card. To me, $20 for two hours of time wasn't ideal, but I quickly learned the more times you donate in a week -- up to three times -- the more you can make.

The Challenges of Selling Plasma

A working mom of two children, I quickly discovered finding time to donate was a challenge. I could go online and reserve a time, but often needed to change it because something else came up and I suddenly didn't have a free hour or more to get over there.

I kept trying, focused on what was advertised as “easy” money. But after about three or four weeks of donating twice a week, I ran into trouble: My iron levels weren't high enough.

I've never been anemic, but the iron count needed to donate plasma is a bit higher than usual. Several times, after exercising or sometimes for no reason at all, my iron numbers weren’t high enough to give. On these days I was sent home -- after spending about 10 minutes filling out the computer survey you need to do at every visit and waiting another five minutes for a technician to check my iron count and temperature -- without a cent.

When I expressed frustration, one technician suggested an iron supplement on top of my regular multi-vitamin. I did the math and found one bottle would cost the equivalent of one plasma donation, so I decided to pass. (I was also worried what the extra iron would do to my sensitive digestive system.

In addition to the low iron levels, I was also rejected once because I just had some ice water and my body temperature was too low. I had to wait 15 minutes before being rechecked and given the go-ahead to donate, adding to the time it took me to earn my $20.

To make a long story short, I was only successful about half the time I tried to give plasma, so I decided to look for other ways to make extra money.

Could You Make Good Money Selling Plasma?

If you have a fairly open schedule and no fear of needles, and you haven’t traveled overseas or acquired any tattoos recently, donating plasma can be a fairly painless way to make extra money.

Before your appointment, be sure to drink lots of water -- being well hydrated is good for vein development, which makes the needle go in more easily. Eat food rich in iron, such as red meat, peas, spinach, iron-fortified cereal and poultry to make sure your level is high enough to give.

Remember to bring a good book, magazine or an electronic device to keep you occupied during the donation process. The center I visited had free WiFi, so you could even work on an online business while you wait.

Finally, before you sign up, go online or check the mail for bonus coupons that might increase your donation payment. Who couldn’t use an extra $10?

Your Turn: Have you ever sold plasma? What was your experience like?

MaryBeth Matzek is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. Learn more at www.1bizzywriter.com or follow her on Twitter at @1bizzywriter.

You might not want to think about it, but there’s no avoiding the date: April 15 is quickly approaching.

Filing taxes is a huge but necessary chore, and if you’re not careful, it can also be an expensive one. Every year, millions of people make silly mistakes on their taxes that cost them money or delays how quickly they get their refund. This year, make sure you’re not one of them.

When I went from being an employee to owning my own freelance business, I made a mistake by not having my husband immediately change his withholding status. That led to an unexpected (and large) surprise when we started filling out our 1040s and realized how much we needed to pay Uncle Sam.

Before dropping your 1040 in the mailbox or filing electronically, take the time to double-check your return for these common errors to make sure you’re not losing out on any cash.

1. Making Simple Mathematical Mistakes

It may sound fairly obvious, but simple addition errors can and do happen as people work on their tax forms. In fact, these mistakes are quite common -- in 2012, the IRS reported that it found 2.7 million math errors on 2011 tax returns.

Use a calculator to add everything up, and then do it again to make sure you get the same number. If you’re using computer software to file your return, it will do the math for you, but double-check to make sure you entered the correct numbers -- you don’t want to accidentally enter $3,000 instead of $30,000!

The IRS does double-check your math, but a mistake could cut into your refund or mean you may need to pay more in taxes. Most tax returns are processed within three weeks, but a math error could mean your return takes longer to process -- delaying your refund.

2. Taking the Standard Deduction Without Doing the Math

It’s much simpler to take the standard tax deduction, but that may not be a smart financial decision.

Under current rules, the standard deduction for a single person (or married person filing separately) is $6,100 and for married couples, it’s $12,200. Could you have more deductions than those numbers?

It’s a bit of a pain, but the only way to find out for sure which choice is right for you is to figure out your taxes both ways. Add up all your deductible expenses to see whether they’re more than the standard deduction.

Common deductible expenses include mortgage interest, real estate or property taxes, charitable gifts and unreimbursed business or medical expenses. The IRS offers this tool to help you decide which option will save you the most money.

3. Selecting the Wrong Filing Status

Did you know there are five different filing statuses? From “head of household” to “married, but filing separately,” each one means something different. If you chose the wrong filing status, you can lose out on money that’s rightfully yours.

Read over the different statuses and decide which one fits best for your personal tax situation. If you’re unsure, figure out the taxes two different ways and see which one gives you the better outcome, or speak with an accountant.

4. Forgetting to Report All Income

You know how much money you made last year, right? Well, if you have a side business or picked up a few freelance gigs, make sure to include that income as well.

Make sure to report all you income earned during the previous year. Since businesses are sending their W-9s to the government, too, the IRS will see those payments on corporate business returns. If you fail to report some income, the IRS can come after you and make you pay additional taxes in addition to a penalty.

5. Not Keeping Track of Charitable Donations

You have your receipts from your church and charities that you sent checks to, but what about the huge box of clothing you donated to Goodwill?

Always ask for receipts and keep track of all donations during the year if you plan to itemize your taxes. Remember to get a receipt for donated goods and services as well as cash, since these also count as deductible expenses. Many people wind up paying higher taxes or receive a lower refund because they didn’t fully account for all of their charitable acts.

6. Choosing the Wrong Withholding Status

This is the mistake my husband and I made. While it may seem like good news that you’re getting big refund, it may also be a sign that your withholding status isn’t correct.

Your status is basically how much money your employer takes out of your paycheck for taxes and sent on to the IRS. In other words, a part of each paycheck goes to the government to pay your annual income tax. If you don’t take out enough, you can wind up paying on April 15. If you pay too much, the government will send you a refund. Done right, everything should be evened out come April 15.

Whenever you start with a new employer, the HR folks hand over a worksheet where you put in your Social Security number and answer a few questions (such as how many dependents you may have) to help select a withholding status. Unsure of what’s right for you? Ask someone in HR or go online to learn about different witholding statuses.

No one likes doing taxes, but some simple double-checking can make sure you’re paying your fair share (and not more) come April 15.

Your Turn: Have you ever made one of these mistakes on your taxes?

MaryBeth Matzek is a mother of two and a Wisconsin-based freelance writer. When not spending time with her family or writing, she’s out trying to find the best possible deal.

Valentine’s Day is a big deal for adults, who shell out nearly $13.2 billion each year on cards, flowers, candy and gifts for their loved ones. Surprisingly, it’s also an important celebration for kids in the classroom.

After my son’s first preschool celebration, I was shocked to see what he brought home: candy, pencils, and tiny gift bags filled with stickers and other items, along with some elaborate, Pinterest-worthy valentines clearly crafted by someone more skilled than a four-year-old. Our little cartoon-character valentine cards from Target didn’t quite cut it.

In other words, Valentine’s Day has become a big holiday for kids. For parents, it can be a potential budget buster -- especially if you haven’t planned for it.

6 Steps to Finding Budget-Friendly Valentine’s Gifts for Kids

Here are six steps you can take to help your child enjoy his Valentine’s Day celebration without spending too much money -- especially on trinkets the kids will likely lose within a week.

1. Find Out What’s Expected and Allowed

If you’re unsure of what’s the norm at your child’s school -- some schools may only want “healthy” treats handed out, while others may not allow small toys that could be choking hazards -- please ask your child’s teacher or another parent.

It’s always better to ask a question rather than spending money that you find out later you didn’t need to.

2. Use What You Have

Want to give every classmate a pencil with their valentine?

Look around your house for brand new pencils. I’m not talking about those plain yellow No. 2 pencils, but other ones with designs such as balloons, hearts, animals, etc. Through the years, my kids have amassed quite a collection -- we have a full drawer of unused pencils. When we handed them out last year to their classmates, no one knew the difference.

Some valentine cards even have special holders for you to easily attach the pencils. If you prefer to make your own, here’s a cool DIY pencil-holding valentine your kids can create themselves.

3. Make Simple Gifts to Hand Out

They don’t need to elaborate, but with just some markers, stickers and sturdy paper, you and your child can make some handmade bookmarks to give to their classmates. This is a good way to use up all those stickers your child has collected.

Cut out pieces of paper three to four inches wide and write one classmate’s name on each one. Then hand over to your child to decorate with stickers, markers, etc. This idea is cost-effective and has a personal touch. Another easy idea to consider is this heart that uses a pixie stick as the arrow.

4. Visit the Dollar Store

Head to your local dollar store and look for stickers or other items you can hand out with your child’s valentine.

They don’t need to be flashy -- small sheets of stickers will be just fine. Dollar stores usually have good discounts on bags of candy, too!

5. Double Up

Thinking of giving each student some candy? Look for candy containers that also double as valentines with a “to” and “from” line on them, which saves you from buying cards as well. Fun Dip and those little cardboard boxes of conversation hearts are just two of the many options you can use as a valentine and a candy “gift.”

If you want to go a little healthier, individual bags of fruit snacks and Rice Krispies bars are another good idea for something to hand out that doubles as a valentine.

6. Don’t Buy the First Bag of Candy You See

Drugstores, grocery stores and warehouse clubs all offer deals on candy. Compare the ads to see where you can get the best price and check whether there are any coupons available, including mobile apps like Target’s Cartwheel.

Don’t forget to check the non-Valentine’s Day section of the store to see what candy they have there and if there are any deals.

A final tip that won’t help you with this Valentine’s Day celebration, but will help next year: hit the stores on February 15 and pick up pencils and stickers with hearts when they’re on clearance. You’ll save a bundle and be ready for next year -- as long as you remember where you put them!

Your Turn: How do you help your child celebrate Valentine’s Day without breaking your budget?

MaryBeth Matzek is a mother of two and a Wisconsin-based freelance writer. When not spending time with her family or writing, she’s out trying to find the best possible deal.