MONEY Saving

Why Parents Should Procrastinate on Back-to-School Shopping

School supplies arranged in clock face formation
iStock

If you've been a slacker thus far in rounding up your kid's back-to-school supplies, there's good reason to keep on procrastinating.

The simple reason why this is so is that very soon, almost every store will be putting kids’ scissors, notebooks, glue, pencils, and other back-to-school merchandise on clearance. For that matter, clothing marketed for the back-to-school season will be deeply discounted starting around Labor Day as well if not sooner, in order to make space for the next big seasons for retailers—Halloween and Christmas.

Don’t tell your kids about this, especially not at the start of the school year when homework and exams are about to become painful realities, but the truth is that sometimes it pays to sit back and do nothing. Many consumers are utilizing this “strategy” this summer, though it’s unclear whether they’re doing so consciously—or, more likely, lazily and obliviously. The Integer Group estimated that more than half of shoppers wait until one to three weeks before school starts to buy school supplies, and that 36% of consumers won’t do any back-to-school shopping at all, up from 31% who skipped back-to-school purchases last year.

The most prudent, responsible, cost-conscious approach for back-to-school shopping is for a parent to dutifully browse for bargains throughout the summer and scoop them up when they’re optimal. Back-to-school promotions started even before the previous school year ended, and Staples, Walmart, dollar stores, and other retailers have periodically rolled out 1¢ folders, 25¢ rulers and protractors, and other loss-leader sales in order to rev up business. For that matter, truly savvy shoppers understand that kids tend to need more or less the same supplies every fall, so they strategically snatch up pencils, notebooks, and whatnot whenever they’re at rock-bottom prices throughout the year.

The ship has sailed on the chance to do the prudent thing and buy items whenever the optimal price appears. That approach is too time-consuming and requires too much attention for the average parent anyway. This late in the game, there are two options left: 1) Turn into a whirling dervish and hit one store to buy everything your student needs in the few days before school starts; or 2) make do with what you have for the first day of school, then complete your kids’ list sometime around Labor Day.

The first option is the more responsible one, of course, and ensures that your child will have all of the required supplies on time. Yet the Integer study found that price is the most important element in back-to-school purchases for roughly three-quarters of consumers, and with this first approach, shoppers will wind up paying more than is necessary for many school staples.

That leaves us with the second (slacker) option, which is attractive not only because you can do nothing for a little while longer, but also because of a bonus in the form of saving a bundle of money. By the time Labor Day arrives, the majority of what you need to buy will likely be marked down for clearance sales. You’ll get the cheaper prices on glue, notebooks, and such without having to shop around, monitor Sunday circulars, or hit multiple stores. All in all, you’ll save time, effort, and money, with the main tradeoff being that your kid might get dirty looks from the teacher if he shows up on the first day of school with an empty backpack—or perhaps no backpack.

“Like most seasonal items, the longer you wait to buy back-to-school items, the better your chances are of scoring a significant discount,” said Lindsay Sakraida, features director at the deal-tracking site dealnews.com. Normally, clearance aisles are a hodgepodge of random, undesirable leftovers, but this isn’t the case for basics like pens, notebooks, and calculators, which are more or less immune to trends and seasonality, said Sakraida. “While sorting through the clearance section can sometimes yield limited options, it’s less of an issue with school supplies, making this an even more appealing option for cash-strapped back-to-schoolers.”

She suggested starting to look for big back-to-school markdowns a few days before Labor Day weekend. Around that time a year ago, Staples and Office Max cut prices dramatically on many items, sometimes with discounts of more than 75%. Other retailers will surely be posting printable coupons good for 20% or 25% your entire purchase over the holiday weekend, said Sakraida.

And prices will only drop from there as retailers try to clear shelf space to prep for the next season’s goods. In terms of fall clothing and school supplies alike, “look for the deals to get pretty aggressive by mid-September,” NPD retail analyst Marshal Cohen told the Wall Street Journal.

Even if your kids are fully outfitted for this school year by then, it might be wise to hit the clearance section and round up some supplies for next fall. You know prices will be cheap. And perhaps by planning ahead you’ll show your children that even the laziest procrastinators can change their ways and become more responsible.

More Back-to-School advice:
Would You Spend $60 for Your Kid’s Lunchbox?
Parents Worry More About Back-to-School Shopping Than Bullying
4 Best Credit Cards for College Students

MONEY First-Time Dad

These Are the Countries with the Best Maternity Leaves

Luke Tepper
Mrs. Tepper took off four months to take care of this guy—and was paid dearly in smiles and dirty diapers. Ken Christensen

New dad Taylor Tepper argues that America needs to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of providing paid time off to new moms.

Two weeks ago, Mrs. Tepper returned to her full-time job—almost six months after giving birth to our son Luke.

She wasn’t altogether excited about the idea of leaving Luke in the hands of someone else while she relived paler experiences like commuting. Nevertheless, Mrs. Tepper soldiered on, and we ended our four-month experiment of living in an expensive city with a new child and without the income of the chief wage earner.

Right up there with “Is it a boy or a girl?” and “What name are you going with?” is another question every new mother should be prepared to answer: “How much paid time off do get from work?” If your answer is anything longer than a few weeks, you can pretty much guarantee kind words and jealous eyes in response.

We were fortunate. Mrs. Tepper, who works as a teacher, received around two months of paid maternity leave and was allowed to take the rest of the school year off unpaid. I got two weeks paid.

Most Americans are not so lucky. The land of the free and the home of the brave is one of two of the 185 countries or territories in the world surveyed by the United Nation’s International Labor Organization that does not mandate some form of paid maternity leave for its citizens. Many are familiar with the generosity of Scandinavian nations when it comes to parents bringing new children into the world, but who would believe that we trail Iran in our support of new families?

Iran mandates that new mothers receive two-thirds of their previous earnings for 12 weeks from public funds, according to a the ILO report. In America, mothers are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave—but only if they work for a company that has more than 50 employees, per the Family and Medical Leave Act. And, for some context, more than 21 million Americans work for businesses that employ 20 people or fewer, per the U.S. Census Bureau.

The ILO report is full of unflattering comparisons that will leave American workers feeling woozy. Georgia—the country—allows its mothers to receive 18 weeks of paid time off at 100% of what they made before. Mongolia gives its new moms 17 weeks of paid time off at 70% of previous earnings. (Mongolia’s GDP is $11.5 billion, or about a third of Vermont’s.)

Lest you think paid time off for moms is a poor-nation phenomenon, Germany’s mothers receive 14 weeks of fully paid time off, while Canadian mothers can look forward to 15 weeks of 55% of their salary.

There are pockets of help stateside. Five U.S. states provide paid maternity leave: New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, California and Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, for example, mothers receive four weeks of paid leave—ranging from $72 to $752, depending on your earnings.

Meanwhile, however, the ILO’s maternity leave standard states that all mothers across the board should be entitled to two-thirds of their previous salary for at least 14 weeks.

Look, I’m not really saying that American women should defect to Iran or Mongolia or Georgia to push out their progeny. But it defies logic that we are the only developed nation not to have a national system in place that helps new families adjust to their new lives.

The benefits of implementing some compulsory system of continuing to pay women for a defined period of time after they give birth are known. Based on California’s family leave policy, which was instituted in 2004, economists found that employment prospects for a mother nine to twelve months after childbirth improved (meaning: more moms at that stage were employed after the bill than before it). Additionally, other research has found that mothers who return later to work are less likely to be depressed.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro (both Democrats) introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act last year which, among other things, would provide new mothers with 12 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds of their previous salary up to a cap. But the Act is not yet a law.

A few years ago, Mrs. Tepper was in graduate school, and I waited tables. We made much much less than we do now and enjoyed no financial security. Often when I’m playing with Luke I find myself thinking, “What would we have done if he was born then?”

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY Education

How Sending Your Child to Private School Can Save You $53,000

GOSSIP GIRL, Chase Crawford (left)
Giovanni Rufino—CW Network courtesy Everett Collection

Public school can end up being much more expensive than private school depending on where you choose to live.

UPDATED—8:15 A.M.

For most Americans, private school seems like an unaffordable luxury, or an unnecessary extravagance, depending on your point of view. One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that private school is expensive—especially compared with the competition. After all, public education doesn’t cost anything, and you can’t compete with free, right?

The problem with that logic is that public school actually isn’t free. In what might be one of America’s most regressive policies, the government divides the country into school districts, each supported by a local tax base. That means school funding and quality varies drastically depending on where you live, and homes in top school districts tend to be eye-poppingly expensive.

According to a recent Trulia report, houses in districts where even rich families send their children to public school—suggesting the quality of education is especially high—can cost more than twice the national average per square foot. That means in certain cases, private school can actually be a bargain.

To answer the question of how much going to private school could potentially save, we need the help of two fictional families: the Publicos and the Privados. The Publicos want to give their child the best public education they can, so they move to a neighborhood with one of the nation’s top public schools. The Privados prefer private education, so they move to a neighborhood with average schools (and median home prices) and send their child to prep school.

To figure out how much the Publicos will spend, we’ll use Trulia’s Rent vs. Buy calculator* to see how much living in an average-size house in a top school district for 13 years (kindergarten through 12th grade) would cost. A median-priced house in Auburndale, Massachusetts—which Trulia lists as having some of the best public schools—will end up costing the Publicos about $2,120 a month.

In comparison, we’ll say the Privados live in an average school district and buy a home that will cost the national median of roughly $998 a month over the same time period. On top of that, the Privados pay for their child’s private school. According to data from the Nation Center for Education Statistics, the average price of a year of private elementary school is $7,770, and the average annual cost of private high school is $13,030.

By multiplying the cost of elementary school by nine (grades K-8) and adding it to the cost of a four-year high school, we get an average total cost of educating a child privately of $122,050, or $782 a month. Add that to the Privados’ housing bills, and they’re up to $1,780 a month—still a few hundred dollars less than the Publicos’ monthly costs.

Over time, these savings add up. By the time the Publicos’ child graduates high school, they will have paid $52,982 more than the Privados for education and housing. Meanwhile, if the Privados stashed away those savings in a 529 college account, they’ll have a lot of extra money to help pay for their son’s or daughter’s university.

SchoolSpendingChart

Does this mean private school is always a better option for parents? Not at all. The above calculations compare one of the most expensive public school districts in the nation with the average cost of private school. The most elite prep schools can cost upwards of $40,000 a year, while some areas with great public schools are far more affordable than Auburndale.

There are also a number of factors to consider that this calculation doesn’t take into account. While private schools cost $9,388 a year in general, religious schools are a little cheaper, and secular schools are much more expensive. There’s also regional considerations, like commute times, employment opportunities, crime rate, and other neighborhood perks that we don’t have time to explore in detail.

One final thing to consider is how many children you plan on sending to school. If both the Publicos and Privados send two children to school instead of one, the Publicos actually save almost $70,000. Although, if the Privados send two kids to public elementary school and then transfer both children to a private high school, they’re back in the black, saving almost $71,000.

So with that in mind, what’s the takeaway from all this? Instead of automatically selecting public or private school for your child, make sure to give both options serious consideration. Sometimes—likely most of the time—public school will be cheaper. In other cases, a good private education may actually cost less. Either way, taking the time to get the decision right can save you thousands of dollars.

 

 

* Other than the “How long would you live there?” field, which we set to 13, and the region, our calculations are based on the calculator’s default settings.

MONEY Shopping

$10 Jeans, and America’s Fading Love Affair with Denim

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, James Dean, 1955
The 1950s: James Dean made denim iconic in "Rebel Without a Cause." Courtesy Everett Collection

Right now is a terrific time to buy jeans—partly because jeans haven't exactly been hot sellers lately.

CNBC recently cited data from the NPD Group indicating that jeans sales are down 6% year over year. What’s more, last fall, the NPD Group also reported that sales of higher-end jeans had dipped significantly, including a 40% decline on the West Coast for jeans priced at $75 and up.

The numbers may not seem like that big of a deal. But given that the average consumer has seven or eight pairs of jeans—and 25% of women own 10 or more —any drop in the sales of such a traditional, iconic fashion staple is a pretty big deal.

On top of the fact that most American closets are already clogged with jeans, another factor is the emergence of yoga pants, leggings, and “athleisure” wear as the day-in, day-out go-to choice for more consumers. “Athletic and activewear are certainly the new everyday wear and that’s happening no matter what age people are,” one analyst told CNBC.

Because consumers don’t feel compelled to buy the obligatory pair of jeans (or three) during retailers’ all-important back-to-school season, stores have been rolling out extra-large discounts to entice shoppers into squeezing a little more denim into the family budget (and closet). Target is currently offering 40% off jeans for the whole family. All jeans at American Eagle Outfitters are under $30. Rollback prices at Walmart mean some Levi’s jeans are now under $13. Hollister jeans are on sale starting at $19, while skinny jeans at H&M are down to $10, and Old Navy has gone as low as $8 for kids’ jeans during this back-to-school season.

None of this means that iconic American jeans—worn by celebrities for decades, celebrated in books like Alice Harris’s The Blue Jean—will be disappearing anytime soon. But much like what happens to the color and texture of denim over time, the ubiquity and everydayness of jeans seems to be fading. The shift isn’t merely about trends and changing tastes either: The cost of jeans, and how denim prices compare to other options, is certainly a factor.

It’s hard to say exactly when America reached Peak Denim, but it was probably not long ago, around the time that “premium denim” jeans were given list prices of $300 (and even $1,000) to see if anyone would bite, and when infomercials for Pajama Jeans were all over TV. We’ve since moved on to a period when jeans, or at least “jorts” (jean shorts) are widely mocked by the likes of Esquire and Buzzfeed.

The yoga pants craze may have been kicked off by a company (Lululemon) charging $90, but nowadays shoppers are more likely to turn to comfortable leggings. “I can wear leggings from yoga to going out at night,” one shopper explained to the New York Post. “Most people go for leggings because it’s easier and cheaper” than a pair of jeans, the manager of an American Apparel store in Manhattan explained. “Denim is just denim,” she said. “The leggings are more versatile.”

While leggings cost as little as $10, the average price paid for a pair of jeans has been measured at $34 and $39 in various studies. When you add in that the typical consumer already owns more than a half-dozen pairs, it’s no wonder that shoppers are increasingly choosing cheap, flexible leggings over yet another pair of denim bottoms. It’s also no wonder that stores are feeling forced to drop jeans prices to make them more appealing.

For a look at denim through the decades, check out the gallery below.

MONEY Saving

WATCH: How You Can Save More Money

Financial planning experts share easy ways you can trick yourself into saving more money.

MONEY Saving

Average Airfare Soars Past $500! 5 Tips to Save on Flights

Airplane shadow over farmland
Joe Drivas—Getty Images

Yikes! The average round-trip flight in the U.S. now costs $509. But with a little strategy and savvy planning, the cost of your next flight can be well below average.

According to a new Associated Press analysis, the average price of a round-trip flight within the U.S. for the first half of 2014 was $509.15. That’s around $14 higher than the same period a year ago. What’s more, soaring flight prices have outpaced inflation: Average domestic airfare has risen 10.7% over the past five years, after adjusting for inflation.

The true costs incurred by many airline passengers have been hiked even further than that. As travelers know all too well, fares have been rising at a time when fees for baggage and other basic services have likewise been added and/or increased left and right. In almost all cases, that $500-plus average round-trip flight does not cover the cost of checking a bag, or food, or perhaps even a reserved seat. For any of those services, passengers must often pay extra or utilize other strategies, such as signing up for an airline-affiliated credit card.

No wonder airline stocks have been among the best in the stock market recently, even as oil prices remain high, and the economy and consumer spending have yet to kick into a higher gear.

Unfortunately for travelers, the trajectory of airfare prices isn’t expected to change direction anytime soon. “Airlines have reduced the number of seats while more people want to fly because of the economic recovery. All this leads to higher airfares,” Chuck Thackston, managing director of data and analytics at the Airlines Reporting Corp., told the AP. “This trend in airfares is likely to continue for the near future, as the economy continues to grow.”

While the bargain airfares of the late-’90s are likely gone for good, there are still tactics well worth trying to keep flight costs down. Here are a few.

Shop beyond the usual “low-cost” carriers. In the past, the formula to find a cheap flight was often as simple as doing a quick search at Southwest Airlines’ website. If the low-fare pioneer had service on the route, it probably had a decent fare, if not the absolute lowest available. But as Southwest grew into “America’s largest domestic airline,” prices crept higher, to the point that its identity is not about cheap flights anymore. Studies have shown that Southwest often doesn’t have the best prices on flights. JetBlue doesn’t necessarily have the lowest fares either.

In fact, the title of “low-fare airline” is often misleading. Yet while Southwest and JetBlue may not have the lowest prices on a given route, they generally have more perks included in the base price of a ticket, most notably at least one complimentary checked piece of luggage. If any airline merits the “low-fare” moniker today, it’s Spirit Airlines—which indeed tends to have cheap prices for flights, but which also piles on the fees for almost anything beyond basic transportation.

All of this must be factored into your search for the cheapest fares: You can’t rely on any single airline to have the best price, and you can’t even assume that the least expensive flight will cost you less in the long run. You must shop around extensively for flight prices and add in how much extra you’ll have to pay with the help of an airline fee roundup from Kayak, Expedia, or FareCompare before figuring out the best deal.

Search smartly. Different flight search engines tend to retrieve the exact same prices and options, so stick with the ones you find most intuitive and easiest to use. The editors at Travel & Leisure are fans of Adioso.com for its exceptionally flexible low-price flight search tools and RouteHappy.com for its “Happiness” rating system, which ranks the ease of a given route (number of connections, likelihood of delay, etc.) rather than focusing strictly on price. Hopper.com has also drawn accolades for its combination of flexible searches and data available about pricing history. Somewhere in there, you’ll hopefully find a happy medium with the route and price that works for you.

Be flexible with dates (and maybe even destinations). This piece of advice is a classic because it works year in, year out. Matt Kepnes, author of the Nomadic Matt blog and several money-saving travel books, explained in a TIME post:

A minor tweak in your travel plans can save a bundle, especially if you’re buying tickets for a whole family. Fly midweek instead of on the weekend; fly with stops instead of direct. Small changes can save you hundreds of dollars—multiplied by the number of people traveling. I recommend using airfarewatchdog.com; it sends out alerts when airlines have sales. Two other sources I often use are Kayak’s Explore tool and Google’s flight search, which both allow you to browse the cheapest fares to anywhere in the world from your home airport.

Track flight prices. Airfares can and often do change daily, or even multiple times daily. Instead of conducting searches just as frequently, let a flight-tracking service such as Yapta do the work for you. Plug in your dates, route, and a price threshold, and you’ll be alerted once a fare meets your criteria. You can also keep tracking fares after a flight is booked, to see if and when prices drop so low that you’re entitled to a partial refund.

View airfare-booking guidelines as just that—guidelines. It seems like a new study comes out every few months or so with a rule about when flights should be booked in order to get the best price. You might be instructed to book on a Tuesday, or to book exactly 49 days or 54 days before departure, or to book as far in advance as possible. Could one of these strategies yield the best price on the flight you want? Well, yes, it could.

Then again, it probably won’t. Flight prices change far too often, far too quickly, for far too many reasons for any single rule to hold true across the board. These and other guidelines are nice, but they’re riddled with too many exceptions for them to be truly useful. You’re better off taking such steps as tracking fare prices (see above) and consulting fare predictors like the one offered at Kayak for insight as to when the lowest fare is within your grasp.

MORE: Everything Changes for Southwest Airlines Today

TIME How-To

5 Cash-Saving Tech Tools

Saving money is gratifying—plain and simple. And technology can make lining your pockets even easier.

These five apps and websites help you put more dollars where they belong: in your wallet or bank account.

Find the Best Price: InvisibleHand

invisible hand
Invisible Hand

This free browser extension for Firefox, Chrome and Safari tells you if the flight, hotel, rental car or product you’re looking at is available for less money on another site. When the tool finds a cheaper deal, it shows you a narrow yellow band at the top of the screen with a drop-down list of competing prices.

For instance, in this screenshot from Amazon, InvisibleHand found the same new TV on eBay for less money—and with free shipping. The service also includes a feature that will alert you to any available coupons for wherever you happen to be shopping.

Also appreciated: You’ll never see InvisibleHand unless it’s working.

Price: Free at getinvisiblehand.com

Save On In-Home Health Care: CareLinx

carelinx
CareLinx

Hiring in-home care for a loved one can be expensive, so this online marketplace promises to save families up to 50% over traditional agencies. It connects you directly with nursing assistants, medical assistants, nurses and the like.

The service charges a 15% fee, which covers the cost of time tracking, secure online ACH payment processing, payroll tax services and a dedicated family advisor that helps families navigate the process of hiring a caregiver. The company also runs background checks on caregivers and provides professional liability insurance that covers property damage and injuries.

Price: Hourly wages plus a 15% service fee; available at carelinx.com

Get Free Off-Airport Parking: FlightCar

If you live in Los Angeles, Boston, or San Francisco, the FlightCar service will let you park for free in a special lot—and earn you some extra cash while you’re away.

FlightCar rents out your car to other vetted FlightCar members while you’re away. Your take is anywhere from $0.05 to $0.40 per mile, depending on the make and year of your car and how many miles a renter drives it. Included with the service: A free car wash, $1 million in insurance, and a black-car chauffeur to the airport.

If you’re traveling to any other FlightCar city, a web app will text you information about nearby cars available for rental. The service will be expanding to Seattle next, with other cities to follow.

Price: Free, with the opportunity to make money while you travel; available at flightcar.com

Get Free Stuff: Yerdle

yerdle
Yerdle

This iOS app and website is a store where people barter for free stuff using virtual currency. If you have stuff lying around the house that you don’t use or no longer enjoy, you can offer it on the site for a certain number of “credits”—everyone gets 250 to start. A coffee mug typically goes for around 25 credits, while a Patagonia jacket might run around 650.

It’s similar to eBay in that you can set it up as an auction or set a price for buyers to “get it now.” Once someone accepts your offer, Yerdle sets you up with a UPS label. Credits will appear in your account as soon as you drop the package off at a UPS store. Shipping payments are facilitated through Amazon Payments.

Price: Free, except for shipping in the event you can’t do local pickup.

Reduce Your Interest Rates: Credit Karma

People with high credit scores get lower interest rates on their loans and credit cards, but boosting your score takes time and know-how. Credit Karma is a free web-based service that gives you insight into your TransUnion credit score, the factors that affect it and tips on how to improve it.

If you have a low score, for example, it will suggest products that can help raise your score, such as low-limit credit cards that will increase your limit as a reward for a good payment history. You can also connect your bank and credit card accounts to track your spending.

The platform includes several helpful calculators, such as one to help you determine if you can afford a home and one that figures out how long it will take to repay a debt. Companion apps are available for iOS and Android.

Price: Free at creditkarma.com

This article was written by Christina DesMarais and originally appeared on Techlicious.

More from Techlicious:

MONEY Saving

You’re Giving Away Money By Shopping Before This Weekend

140728_EM_Shopping_1
Getty

No fewer than 15 states offer a remarkably no-hassle way to trim a few percentage points off back-to-school purchases, most with deals starting this Friday.

Every year around this time, states host sales-tax holidays, in which the usual sales tax is waived on a wide range of purchases. In most cases, tax-free purchases are limited to back-to-school items such as computers and traditional school supplies like notebooks, protractors, and pens, but clothing, footwear, and accessories are typically on the table as well.

What’s more, the tax is waived on online purchases as well as sales in traditional brick-and-mortar stores, and there’s no actual requirement that the items being purchased are for back-to-school prep, or even for kids. It would be too hard to police any such requirement, so instead most states simply limit purchases to a flat dollar amount—for instance, any article of clothing priced at $100 or less, typically.

Let’s be honest: The savings represented by these events isn’t all that spectacular. Most participating states have sales tax rates of 4% to 6%, so that’s the extent of the savings. Big whoop, you might say. But when the tax holiday is combined with terrific sale prices—and virtually every retailer has back-to-school promotions going on right about now—the net amounts paid by shoppers can be true bargains. Why not get an extra 5% or whatever off what is already a good deal, on stuff you absolutely need to buy? To do so, all you have to do is wait a few days.

There are those who say that sales tax holidays are gimmicks for exactly the reason hinted at above. The argument is that the holidays don’t promote more spending as much as they encourage shoppers to strategically postpone spending, with no net increase in purchases whatsoever. What’s more, while sales tax holidays play well in terms of politics, critics say they are questionable at best in terms of local economic stimulus, and that they cost states and municipalities millions in much-needed revenues. States such as North Carolina have dropped their annual sales tax holiday tradition because of this argument, though shoppers did still get to take advantage of a “Better Than Tax Free” sales event at a North Carolina outlet mall last weekend.

Gimmick or not, if you need to buy any of the many, many items eligible for tax-free purchase, you might as well wait until Friday, or whenever your state has its sales tax holiday. Failure to do so is tantamount to unnecessarily paying an extra 6% or so.

Resources including Bankrate and the Federal Tax Administrators site list the basic details, and below are the states with sales tax holidays starting this weekend. Check the links for all of the fine print about what is and isn’t included in your neck of the woods.

Alabama: August 1-3, limited to $30 per book, $50 for school supplies, $100 on clothing, and $750 on computers

Florida: August 1-3, limited to school supplies of $15 or less, $100 per clothing article, and $750 for computers and accessories

Georgia: August 1-2, limited to $20 school supplies, clothing priced at $100 or less, and computers capped at $1,000

Iowa: August 1-2, limited to footwear and clothing priced up to $100

Louisiana: August 1-2, sales tax is waived on purchases of all items for personal (rather than business) use, priced up to $2,500.

Missouri: August 1-3, limited to school supplies of $50 per purchase, clothing and footwear priced up to $100 each, computer software up to $350, and computers or accessories up to $3,500

New Mexico: August 1-3, limited to school supplies up to $30 per item, clothing and footwear up to $100, computer hardware up to $500, and computers up to $1,000

Oklahoma: August 1-3, limited to clothing and footwear up to $100 per item

South Carolina: August 1-3, with sales tax exemptions for all clothing, footwear, school supplies, computers and electronics, college dorm supplies like pillows, blankets, and shower curtains, and even delivery charges on all of the above

Tennessee: August 1-3, limited to clothing, footwear, school and art supplies priced up to $100 each, as well as computers up to $1,500

Virginia: August 1-3, limited to school supplies up to $20, and clothing and footwear of $100 or less per item

And here are a few more states offering tax holidays a little later this summer:

Texas: August 8-10, limited to clothing, footwear, backpacks, and school supplies up to $100

Maryland: August 10-16, limited to clothing and footwear priced up to $100

Connecticut: August 17-23, limited to $300 on clothing and footwear

Massachusetts: Lawmakers in the Bay State have promised shoppers will get a tax-free weekend sometime in August, but they haven’t gotten around to settling on a date yet.

MONEY Saving

Verizon Smart Rewards, and Dumb Rewards Programs You Should Skip

140724_EM_VERIZON
iStock

Verizon's new rewards program, which requires users to receive targeted ads if they want to get any benefits, is a case study for why you shouldn't sign up for every reward program on the planet

On July 24, Verizon rolls out a new program called Smart Rewards nationally. All customers who sign up as members—and, more important, who also enroll with Verizon Selects, a targeted advertising program—accumulate points for doing things like registering for paperless billing, autopaying their bills, and connecting a tablet to their account. Points are redeemable for things like retailer gift cards and perks such as the ability to “save up to 40% on brand name merchandise,” according to Verizon.

By now, we should all be well aware that there’s a tradeoff for membership in any such rewards program. Namely, that rewards come at the cost of giving up our data and privacy. Verizon’s program, while not all that different from many others in the marketplace, stands out because it’s especially invasive, allowing the bots to track members’ locations, web browsing history, and app usage, among other things. What’s more, the program’s rewards, which mainly consist of discounts on merchandise rather than cash back or discounts on, I don’t know, say, … your monthly Verizon bill! seem pretty lame.

So are the program’s meager benefits worth the sacrifice? We asked a few rewards program experts for their thoughts on the topic, and on the state of rewards programs in general. Here are some key takeaways consumers should think about before absentmindedly signing up for any old rewards program.

Rewards programs aren’t designed to reward you. “What’s most important to understand is that these are marketing programs,” said Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor at Consumer Reports who covers loyalty and reward programs. “They’re just another form of advertising. They’re designed to get you to spend more.”

That happens either when you spend more often because you’re a member, or you buy things you wouldn’t have after they’re brought to your attention—again because you’re a member—or both.

Forget the garbage about getting only ads you want. To consumers accustomed to being spammed with irrelevant ads, the idea of receiving deals and offers specifically tailored to your interests sounds appealing. While some targeted advertising efforts indeed seem, well, on target, the reality is that once the door is open, “you’re going to be pestered by all kinds of marketers,” said Blyskal. “And you’ll have no idea how exactly these companies and marketers got your information.” The result is that you’re likely to be bombarded by ads for products and services that you weren’t shopping for, and/or that you have no interest in whatsoever. And the result of that is increased annoyance, increased spending on stuff you otherwise wouldn’t have bought, or both.

“If you read Verizon’s Privacy Policy Summary, that means you’re subjecting yourself to telemarketing, e-mail marketing, postal mail marketing, and door-to-door calls,” said Louis Ramirez, senior editor at dealnews. “You can opt out of some of these, but I’m sure it won’t be an easy task.” (A representative from Verizon reached out to clarify that Smart Rewards and Verizon Selections are entirely optional for customers, and “that it’s easy for customers to change their privacy choices at any time, and we encourage them to review and consider them on a regular basis.”)

The rewards are rarely as rewarding as promised. “Every program has more than one catch,” said Ramirez. Among the many catches are that the rewards are harder to use or less valuable than they seem at first glance, and that the “rewards” come in the form of discounts or “special offers” that are readily available elsewhere on the web, without the requirement of joining a rewards program. Verizon Smart Rewards, for instance, promises that members who are redeeming rewards points for discounts on merchandise are guaranteed that they’ll get the lowest price available; if not, they’re eligible for a refund of both the points used and the price difference on the item.

“They’ll say they have the guaranteed lowest price, but it’s up to you to shop around and make sure that’s true,” said Blyskal. “You’ve got to do the work. And we all know that you won’t do the work. As soon as you trust a marketing company, you’ve lost half the battle.”

It’s not easy to correlate points to dollars. The best rewards programs give members easily understood discounts or cash back on items that they’d be buying anyway. When you get a CVS receipt giving a flat $5 off your next $25 purchase, that’s a solid, comprehensible value. (There may be some other hassles involved, including the fact that the rewards may expire quickly, and that you’re apt to wind up buying something you wouldn’t have just because you’re trying to use the coupon, but those are different issues.) Likewise, consumers like the simple value provided by supermarket rewards programs that give discounts on gas based on the amount spent in stores. (Though this structure can also result in customers buying stuff they didn’t need in order to secure the discount.)

What’s truly frustrating are the rewards of undeterminable value because there are so many unknowns involved. Is $5 off a $25 gift card at a retailer you think of as a ripoff worth jumping at? Is 40% off a blender that you had no inkling to buy before seeing the offer a good deal? As Ramirez pointed out, “Verizon states in their FAQ that every point you earn has no monetary value.” Sometimes, the reward structure is so complicated that it may be best to not even bother wading into the fine print. “Sometimes there’s a fee involved to be a member, or for some other part of the program,” said Blyskal. “The benefits are hard to measure.”

“Sorting the worthwhile from the worthless can require time, effort, and an exhaustive (and expensive) amount of trial and error,” wrote Brad Wilson of BradsDeals.com in a post about rewards programs. “No one wants to toil away in a customer loyalty program that doesn’t effectively reward their loyalty.”

Working the system is harder than you think. “There are people out there who are really good at working these programs,” said Blyskal. “They look at them like games, like bingo.”

Being good at this game takes up a lot of time. In fact, some reformed extreme couponers (remember that craze?) have said that maximizing every little offer in order to snag every freebie or deal under the sun is, in fact, “a waste of time.”

To figure out which of the thousands of rewards programs out there are worthy of your membership, it’s necessary to look at oneself—and one’s spending inclinations—in the mirror. If you’re the type who wants to win at everything, and who therefore may be tempted to nonsensically spend hundreds of dollars in order to “win” $25 off, tons of rewards programs would absolutely love to have you as a member. Likewise, it may seem fun to regularly be presented with tempting random offers, but if you’re the type who frequently bites on such deals, rewards programs and targeted advertising schemes could be bad news for your bank account.

The key is to make sure that you’re working the rewards program, and not the other way around. Sign up for rewards programs when the benefits pay off in a clear and practical way, with rewards for things you would be buying even if the program didn’t exist. Don’t go overboard. Don’t buy all sorts of things you don’t need. Understand that with every rewards program, there’s a tradeoff for every little reward you receive. And understand that however rewarding the programs seem to you, they’re far more rewarding for the retailers that run them.

MONEY First-Time Dad

What Adam Smith Taught Me About Child Care

Luke Tepper
The mental health of this child's parents depends on their division of labor.

The best parenting book you've haven't read was written by a childless British philosopher who's been dead for 200-odd years.

It’s 1 p.m. on Sunday, and a thick fog of panic begins to set in. Luke has just woken from his mid-morning nap and will need to go back down for a light snooze in three hours. If we miss that window, he’ll become too tired by bedtime and will holler for an extra hour before finally going to sleep for the night; and by the time he does, Mrs. Tepper and I will be hollowed-out shells of our normal selves.

But this afternoon is not an unscheduled pocket of time to be frittered away perambulating around Prospect Park. We have work to do.

Our mission is to retrieve a second-hand high chair (which combines a feeding seat with “a sophisticated pneumatic lift system” according to the ad), stop by the hardware store for air conditioning accessories, and buy groceries for dinner.

That’s just half the battle. Before we even get into our car, we must pack Luke’s diaper bag, collect a few of his favorite teethers and jam his apocalypse-proof $800 stroller into our trunk. This is all while entertaining the tyke so that he doesn’t cry, and detaining our dachshund behind the kitchen gate (which is intended for toddlers, oddly enough). Remember, we are just two normal humans with only four arms.

Here’s the really amazing bit: We got it accomplished. Like, all of it. Luke even passed out right after the clock struck 4 p.m. How? Well, it had a lot to do with Adam Smith.

In his masterpiece The Wealth of Nations, the economist discusses the benefits of division of labor with the example of a pin factory. Instead of each employee making a pin all by himself, each worker does one specific task, and in doing so the factory becomes much more productive.

“One man draws out the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth cuts it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head…”

Smith goes on to say that this system is efficient even for smaller factories with only 10 employees.

“Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of 48,000 pins, might be considered as making 4,800 pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently…they certainly could not each of them have made 20, perhaps not one pin in a day…”

Now, raising a child is not like making a pin. (For one thing, you don’t have to change a pin’s dirty diaper.) But splitting up chores, errands and responsibilities is a major reason why we still resemble functioning adults.

This wasn’t always the case. When Luke was first born, Mrs. Tepper naturally took charge. While I was absolutely terrified that one false start on my part would forever limit his boundless potentiality, Luke’s mother stepped up to the plate. She could pack his travel back while holding him in one arm faster than I could unfold his stroller.

She put him down for his nap, picked him up when he awoke and fed him. Even with the bottle, she was simply better at it than me. She was the superstar, and I was the benchwarmer.

Now, five months on, we’re more of a team. I developed my own rhythm with Luke, and now Mrs. Tepper isn’t the only one who can feed, bathe and clothe him.

Before we left that Sunday morning, Mrs. Tepper and I passed Luke between each other like a basketball. She pirouetted, diaper bag in hand, and I slid Luke gracefully into his stroller with three toys dropped onto his lap. It was an efficient, domestic dance that set the tone for a stress-free afternoon of chores.

Thank you, Adam Smith.

__________

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly.

More First-Time Dad:

Why a Maid is a Better Investment than a Divorce Lawyer

Why You Should Get Up From Your Desk and Go Home

Baby Clothes are Cheaper than Therapy

Why I’ll Send my Infant Son to College Before I Buy a House

Why Does my Baby Need Two of Everything?

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