ScoreCard Research Monica Leftwich - The Penny Hoarder

Im always looking for ways to cut corners when shopping for my two daughters. And a recent shopping trip for back-to-school supplies was no different.

Is it me or do these school-supply lists get more ridiculous by the year? What 7-year-old needs six composition books? Or 150 gallon-sized trash bags?

Last year, I spent a little over $80 for my kids’ outrageous amounts of school supplies. I even made a point of not buying everything on their lists, just to see how long we’d make it without a teachers note home complaining about missing three-prong folders. (I never got a note.)

While families are expected to spend an average of $687.72 on back-to-school supplies this year, according to one study, I won’t be joining them.

I Bought My Kids’ School Supplies for Less Than $20

I recently discussed how I saved hundreds on back-to-school clothes by shopping in thrift stores as opposed to malls, and I followed a similar strategy for school supplies.

For only $19.05, I bought the following:

      • six composition books
      • two rulers
      • two packs of writing paper
      • one pack of multipurpose printing paper
      • four packs of generic brand pencils
      • two packs of 100 index cards
      • two bottles of hand sanitizer
      • six three-prong, two-pocket folders
      • two boxes of Kleenex
      • two boxes of trash bags

Here’s how I spent a fraction of the usual price.

I Didnt Buy Everything on the List

While I made sure to buy most of the items, I didnt buy everything.

For example, my 8-year-olds third-grade school list called for nine composition books. Yesnine. I simply could not justify a child having so many composition notebooks!

If she really needs more notebooks during the year, Im sure Ill hear about it from her teacher. Until that time comes (if it ever does), Ill save my money by not buying all the items on the list.

I Recycled Supplies From Last Year

When I cleaned out my daughters’ book bags after the school year was over in June, I found plenty of barely used pencils, crayons and pens. I simply put them in a box, ready for the following year.

Recycling school supplies helped me find nearly half the items on my 7-year-olds list right at home. I was able to cross off glue sticks, crayons, colored pencils, pencils, rulers, scissors and pencil boxes without leaving my living room.

I also made it a point to clean out their classroom desks when I volunteered on the last day of school. Besides the gunk build up, I found small packs of unused paper, binders and pens.

I Shopped at Smaller Stores

I knew everyone would be flooding to Walmart and I didnt want to fight with other anxious moms trying to get everything on their lists.

Instead, I went to a less-crowded Dollar General within walking distance of my house. Most of the items I needed cost cents on the dollar without discounts. For example, I purchased three-prong folders for less than $0.20 each and a pack of 100 index cards for $0.38.

Other stores to check for school supplies include Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and Five Below.

I Looked for Coupons Before Leaving the House

Before heading to the store, I checked its website for any coupons or deals. Before heading to Dollar General, I saw it was giving customers an additional $5 off their purchases of school-supply purchases over $20. In fact, I just saw an OfficeMax commercial promoting their $0.01 sale on back-to-school folders!

Additionally, I took advantage of the tax-free weekend. Because I had to buy some household items with my school-supply shopping, my tax came to $0.60. If I need more supplies later in the year, Ill be sure to purchase them on Black Friday!

School supplies will only get more expensive as my kids get older. I dont look forward to purchasing $70 graphing calculators for their AP Calculus classes. All the more reason to take advantage of cheap school supplies while I can!

Monica Leftwich is a working mom and freelance writer who loves to discuss topics like women’s health and single parenting issues. When she’s not working, she’s eating sushi, making spaghetti and meatballs for her kids or belly dancing. Find her at monicaleftwich.com.

Like many parents, I use to have a bad habit of making a mad, last-minute dash for back-to-school clothes.

My procrastination often resulted in spontaneous spending for the closest ensembles I could find and an outrageous bill that left me kicking myself later on. As a single parent, I simply had to monitor my pennies a lot better than that.

My daughters are 8 and 7, and what fits them in August will definitely be too small by December, so spending hundreds of dollars on new clothes is out of the question.

Here’s how I shop secondhand strategically -- and how I put together a back-to-school wardrobe for both girls for less than $40.

I Appreciate Hand-Me-Downs and Thrift Stores

Some parents turn their noses up at the idea of accepting used clothing from others because they may feel like a charity case.

However, as a solo parent, I love the concepts of “free,” “discounted” and “BOGO” (buy one, get one). I put my pride to the side for a minute and gave it a try. And when I saw how much money I was saving from thrift shopping, I was proud to call myself a cheapskate!

I Visit Different Thrift Stores

While I love Once Upon A Child, in my small town of Newport News, Virginia, there are a few other stores for children including a Boys and Girl’s Club thrift store, a few CHKD thrift stores and several Goodwills.

I try to visit these different stores at least once to get an idea of what type of items they have. A CHDK thrift store may have way more children’s items than the neighborhood Goodwill store.

Additionally, I pay attention to the sizes they carry. Do they cater to toddlers, school-aged kids or teenagers? This helps me determine which stores are most useful when shopping for my family -- and which will help me save the most money.

I Focus on Thrift Stores Close to Wealthy Areas

We all want nice things, especially for our children. I’ve found thrift stores in wealthy zip codes in my area tend to have nicer items.

Wealthy folks have the money to purchase nice items and are more likely to drop their old things at the closest thrift store. Doing a quick Google search of thrift stores near wealthy neighborhoods helps me determine where to shop first.

I Follow Thrift Stores on Social Media and Sign Up for Their Newsletters

Signing up for email newsletters, and following the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds of popular children's thrift stores like Once Upon A Child helps me take advantage of deals.

Recently, I bought all my kids back-to-school clothing at a “stuff-the-bag” sale -- everything had to fit in standard shopping bags. I left with two over-stuffed bags of used, well-kept clothes for my girls:

  • 14 shirts
  • 1 skirt
  • 1 dress
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 9 pairs of pants

…all for $38.16!

Companies tend to give special coupons and deals to their most loyal followers, so email subscribers and social media fans get first dibs.

I Get Up Early to Take Advantage of Thrift Sales

And when I don’t, I regret it. When I arrived at the store for the stuff-the-bag sale at 9:15 a.m., there was already a line down the sidewalk -- and the store didn’t open until 9:30!

Tons of other people want to take advantage of the same sales. Do yourself a favor and get there earlier so you can get your hands on the cutest hand-me-downs first!

I Take My Kids Shopping

While some older children may be less than enthusiastic about thrift stores, I say, don’t hide your thriftiness from your children. Take them shopping with you, and teach them to get excited about finding great deals!

My kids love to dabble in the toy and book sections, and because these items are so heavily marked down, buying them a “new” toy is not a huge money hassle for me. It could even spark a change in money habits for them that could last into adulthood.

These strategies make shopping for my children a breeze. It’s not a decision between clothes and the cable bill anymore!

Monica Leftwich is a working mom and freelance writer who loves to discuss topics like women’s health and single parenting issues. When she’s not working, she’s eating sushi, making spaghetti and meatballs for her kids, or belly dancing. Find her at monicaleftwich.com.

As a single parent for nearly six years, one of my biggest challenges in balancing home and finances was daycare.

Paying for bills, groceries, gas and gymnastic leotards is bad enough -- but topping it off with a massive daycare tuition of hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars a month is a serious drag.

Yearly daycare costs average around $18,000 in the U.S. That’s almost a second income for some families!

Often times, parents (especially single parents) are so desperate for daycare they’ll settle for any schmuck who calls themselves a “licensed” sitter. Even with a thorough background check, finding the right sitter for your most precious cargo is a daunting task.

Here are five ways get quality care for your kids and save a penny or two in the process!

1. Check Out Your Local Boys and Girls Club

My children have been going to the Boys and Girls Club of America for a few years now, and they’ve truly enjoyed the experience. Backed by Congressional support and partial funding, the Boys and Girls Club has been around for well over a century, with several thousands chapters across North America.

The tuition at the Boys and Girls Club is a steal: At one point, I only paid $50for the entire school year. The facilities could be upgraded a bit, but my children are safe, have a great time and the staff is friendly.

The Boys and Girls Club in my area also operates from 2 - 8 p.m during the school year. It gives me ample time to commute from work and pick up my kids without dealing with late charges.

2. Try Your Local YMCA

I’ve never taken my kids to the YMCA, but before and after school care in my area is less than $90 weekly. In fact, it’s even cheaper if you’re a YMCA member.

For example, you’re looking at $58 per week in the Hampton Roads, Virginia region. If you’re interested in knowing more, visit the official YMCA website, type in your zip code and check out available daycare programs and costs.

3. Research Licensed and Non-Licensed Daycare Providers in Your State

Parents are uneasy about releasing their kids to just any John or Jane Doe. If your state has regulations for sitters (and it should) you can check them out yourself.

I’ve found a ton of so-called “licensed” sitters on Craigslist who weren’t in the daycare registry. Check out the social services website for your state --  You can type in your city, whether you want only licensed in-home daycare providers or facilities or both, and a list will populate.

For licensed in-home providers, you should be able to view any complaints they’ve accumulated over the years as well as if those complaints have been addressed. I’ve personally found that in-house daycare providers are more willing to work with you on prices and flexibility, saving you money in the long run.

I had one in-home sitter who would occasionally run specials, such as watching one child at full price and the other for free. Until she relocated, she was my kids’ sitter for several years, as you can imagine!

For more populous states like California, Texas and New York, check out the respective child care registry sites below:

California Department of Social Services: Daycare Search

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services

New York State Office of Children and Family Services

4. Get to Know Other Parents at Your Child’s School

My oldest child was accepted into a gifted program in a new school, throwing off my schedule and daycare costs. While I was delighted she was accepted, I wasn’t excited by the extra daycare costs that came with it.

However, during a playdate with one of her friends, I got to know her friend’s mother. Come to find out, this stay-at-home mom does relatively cheap in-home daycare and will occasionally keep kids for several days overnight for parents who travel for work.

Considering my job loves to fly me to California a couple times a year, I made sure to save her number in my phone.

5. Research Prices Through Your City

The city government offers the cheapest prices for before and after school and full-day daycare in my area. For one week, your toddler can get full-day care for only $89. I remember paying well over $100 in daycare for just one kid when my children were younger.

One of my kids is in a before-school program and the other is in an after-school program; I pay just $93 a week. I pay a total of $372 a month in daycare and, considering the average monthly daycare cost in Virginia is over $500, I feel good saving nearly $200 a month.

Another thing I like about city programs is the additional services, like occasional field trips, holiday celebrations and parents’ nights out that come with little-to-no fees.

Unfortunately, you’ll likely pay daycare costs for several years. However, with these tips, you should be able to slash your child care costs a good deal.

Your Turn: Do you have any tips for saving on daycare costs in your area?

Monica Leftwich is a single mom of two little girls on a mission to help other single moms (and dads) save money and get rid of debt. Follow her blog, debtfreemommy.me, for more money tips for solo parents.