TIME Gadgets

Top Tech for Back to School

Back to School time is upon us. The yellow buses are all being tuned up and hosed down, the classrooms are getting that final coat of paint and the teachers are finalizing their lesson plans. It’s also the time for you to make sure your kids have all the supplies they need for a successful and happy school year.

These days, though, you need more than just a new pair of jeans, a handful of pencils and a new Trapper Keeper to get your kids ready. Here are our picks for the best – and most affordable – back-to-school tech.

Laptop: Acer Aspire E1

Acer

These days, a sturdy, reliable computer is a must when it comes to homework, research projects or just keeping in touch with friends from school. For these simple tasks, we recommend the budget-friendly Acer Aspire E1 Windows laptop.

Why the Aspire? First of all, we like the 15” size, which has a big enough screen for comfortable viewing, but still lends itself to better battery life, better portability and a lower price tag. We also like the Core i5 processor (for plenty of power), the 4GB of RAM (expandable to 8GB if needed) and the 500GB hard drive. Plus, it gets high marks from reviewers for long battery life and good performance for the price, and a respectable four stars on Amazon.

You can find the Acer Aspire E1 for $466.77 at Amazon.

Travel Mouse: Microsoft Arc Touch

Microsoft

Most laptops come with a capable touchpad, but they can be too touchy when there’s a lot of typing to do. That’s why we recommend the highly portable Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse.

The curious design of the Arc Touch Mouse is actually its best feature. It’s flexible, allowing you to flatten it when not in use for easy storage. Flattening also turns off the mouse, so you won’t waste the battery. The traditional mouse wheel is replaced with a small “touch scroll strip,” while the magnetic Nano transceiver easily stores on the bottom of the mouse when not in use. BlueTrack technology, meanwhile, allows the Arc Touch to work reliably on just about any surface – even carpet or rough wood.

The Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse is available for purchase at Amazon.com for $39.99.

Tablet: Sony Xperia Z2

Sony

Not every student needs a laptop. A tablet can be a better bet if your child needs to take notes or do some word processing and web-basesd research. Plus, a tablet can do double duty as an entertainment device. For a sturdy, solid device that best mixes work with play (and isn’t an iPad), we like the 10.1” Sony Xperia Z2 Android (4.4 Kit Kat) tablet.

The waterproof and dustproof (IP55/58) Xperia Z2 is just 0.24 inches thick and 15.5 ounces, giving it a sleek and easily portable design that’s great for going to class or around the house. It packs a powerful 2.3 GHz quad-core processor and 3GB of RAM for demanding gamers.

Sony.com is currently offering the 16GB version of the Xperia Z2 tablet for $499.99, which includes a free charging dock for a limited time.

Smartphone: Motorola Moto G

Motorola

Here’s a pretty common problem: Your teen is finally the right age for his or her first cellphone, but the thought of a $650 device being stolen from a locker or left on the field after practice has your heart racing with panic. What’s a parent to do?

We like the off-contract Moto G 4G ($99 off-contract at Verizon; $219 unlocked at Amazon) – it’s the perfect nexus of power and value. It’s a full-featured 4G LTE phone that runs the most recent build of Android. The device has Gorilla Glass for scratch resistance, and is water resistant enough to handle a few spills in the cafeteria. Kids, meanwhile, will appreciate the selection of $14.99 OEM shells that allow you to easily and seamlessly change the color of the phone to suit any style.

Portable Charger: myCharge Hub 9000

myCharge

If you send your kids to school armed with a phone “in case of emergency,” then it’s important to make sure his or her phone has enough juice when it really counts. That’s why we like the myCharge Hub 9000, Techlicious’s pick for the best portable battery charger.

The myCharge Hub 9000 has micro USB and Lightning connector jacks built in, so there’s no need to clutter backpacks up with easily tangled cables. The 9000 mAh battery charges in just five hours when plugged in to a standard electrical outlet, storing enough power to recharge most smartphones four to six times.

You can find the myCharge Hub 9000 at Amazon starting at $116.99; 3000 mAh and 6000 mAh versions are also available at a lower cost.

Backpack: Tylt Energi+

Tylt

Obviously, no back-to-school list would be complete without a backpack to haul all those books (and gadgets) to and from class. For tech-focused older students, we like the Tylt Energi+ backpack. It’s an attractive carry-all that doubles as a mobile recharging station.

The key feature of the Tylt Energi+ is its powerful 10,400 mAh lithium-ion battery and two USB ports, which allow your kids to charge their power-hungry devices as they move around from place to place. The backpack has a hard-lined pocket for sunglasses, a specially lined laptop pocket that fits and protects computers up to 15 inches, a side hydration sleeve and plenty of secondary tech pockets for phones and tablets. And yes, the 1,450 cubic inch backpack has plenty of room for books and pencils, too.

The Tylt Energi+ is available at Amazon for $128.99, and direct from Tylt.com for $199.99.

Headphones: UrbanEars Humlan

Urbanears

Most kids are experts when it comes to getting dirty. That means their tech gadgets get dirty, too. And while it’s easy to wipe down a sticky smartphone screen or a set of laptop keys, cleaning a pair of headphones can be incredibly difficult.

Incredibly difficult, that is, unless you own a pair of UrbanEars Humlan over-the-ear headphones. The colorful, stylish Humlans quickly disassemble, allowing you to throw the ear covers and headband in with the laundry. Humlans also come with a “Zoundplug,” which allows a friend to plug their headphones in and share the tunes.

You can find UrbanEars Humlan headphones in a wide variety of bold colors for $45 each at Amazon.com. For younger kids, you may want to check out the Etymotic Research EtyKids Safe Listening in-ear headphones ($39.99), which limit sound volumes to kid-safe levels.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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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.

TIME Gadgets

The 6 Best Back-to-School Bags

Heavy textbooks may be on the way out, given the increased use of tablets, e-readers and other tech for students, but the weight of those laptops, tablets, chargers and other items adds up quickly. Choosing the right bag to carry your gear is key.

Whether you’re hiking across a big college campus or roaming the halls of your high school, you need a bag that’s functional as well as fashionable — after all, you’ll be lugging it around most of the day. We found half a dozen bags designed to carry the load and protect your electronic gear. Find the one that best suits your style.

1. STM Aero Small Laptop Backpack

STM

If you’re looking for a lightweight backpack, the Aero Small Laptop bag fits the bill. Padded shoulder straps give it a comfortable, secure fit, and the water-resistant micro ripstop polyester means no worries if you get caught out in the rain. This isn’t a very bulky backpack, yet it safely holds up to a 13-inch laptop as well as chargers, books, headphones and everything else you need to carry.

It has two side pockets: one for your water bottle and the other for an umbrella on rainy days. I particularly like the organizers and key ring on the inside so you don’t have to dig through all the pockets — and there are many — looking for where you stashed your keys.

Price: $79.99 at Amazon

2. Ogio Lisbon Tote

Ogio

If you prefer a tote-style bag, the Ogio Lisbon transports your gear safely while still looking stylish. Its interior padded compartment can accommodate up to a 13-inch laptop with space for textbooks and notebooks, as well as organizer flaps for small, easy-to-lose items such as pens, chargers or even lipstick.

A zippered, padded pocket on the exterior securely holds a tablet or small devices, and two outside pockets provide room for items like keys and snacks. The bag is made of lightweight nylon and comes in a variety of colors. I particularly like the mesh water bottle pocket located on the outside of the bag — easy access for hydrating on the go.

Price: $99.99 at ogio.com, $94.50 at Amazon

3. WaterField Designs Muzetto Leather Bag

 Black Muzetto
WaterField Designs

When you’re in the market for something a little more upscale, look for the WaterField Muzetto Leather Bag. Made of soft, supple leather, it feels and looks sophisticated enough to wear out to a party after class is over. The bag is styled more like a messenger bag and holds either a tablet or laptop in vertical mode.

The adjustable shoulder strap feels comfortable and doesn’t fall off the shoulder when you’re walking. I appreciated the open sleeve on the part of the bag that faces your body, perfect for tucking away gym clothes or a light sweater. An inside zipper compartment reveals pockets for your phone or other small items that you might prefer to keep separate from your laptop.

What I like about WaterField Designs’ bags is you can custom order the size you want in any particular color combination. So if you only need room for an iPad or 10-inch tablet, choose the smaller (and less expensive) portable size. The 13-inch version seems to be the sweet spot if you have a MacBook or similar laptop and still want some room for pads, books, chargers and even a snack or two.

Another thing I really like about this company is the fact that the bags are made in the USA.

Price: Starting at $209 at sfbags.com

4. Tylt Energi+ Backpack

Tylt

If you can’t seem to make it through the school day without charging up your devices, the Tylt Energi+ Backpack will suit your high-powered needs. It’s a backpack with a battery built right in, turning you into a mobile charging station for all your devices. You get two USB ports for charging phones, one higher amp USB port for charging tablets and a 10,400mAh battery to recharge them all. Keep your device tucked into an external pocket, if you like, and simply route the cables to the battery inside. The battery itself will fully charge in seven to eight hours.

The inside of this backpack is roomy with a soft, lined laptop compartment than can hold up to a 15-inch laptop. A tablet pocket provides access to your device without making you open the entire backpack. This bag is loaded with pockets for snacks, water bottles and even a change of clothes if you’re headed to the gym.

Price: $199.99 on tylt.com, $129.99 at Amazon

5. Hex Outpost Cloak Backpack

Hex

If you call Seattle or a similarly rainy climate home, the Hex Outpost Cloak Backpack will keep your electronics safe and dry. Sure, it holds a 15-inch laptop and has tons of pockets for other gear, but I love the water-resistant exterior and the interior drawstring liner underneath the top flap that keeps rain from trickling in.

Hex products don’t come in bright, fun colors. Instead they focus on form and function with details like leather zip pulls and surplus-grade web straps in a handsome slate grey canvas. Another nice touch: Magnetic snaps provide easy access without your having to open and close the buckles on the straps.

Price: $99.95 at shophex.com and Amazon

6. ChicTech Leather Wristlet with Phone Charger

ChicTech

After a full day of classes, it’s time to head off to your job or internship or a night out with friends. You don’t need your backpack with all your school supplies, but you would like something to carry your phone, some money and credit cards, your keys and maybe some lip gloss.

The ChicTech Leather Wristlet holds all those items. Even better, you don’t need to worry about draining your phone battery while you’re out. The wristlet offers a built-in 4000mAh charger—enough juice to fully charge even the largest phones—with micro-USB, 30-pin and Lightning tips; simply charge your phone as you carry it with you.

The wristlet comes in purple, pink, black, ivory and red.

Price: $79.98 at qvc.com

This article was written by Andrea Smith and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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MONEY Shopping

Parents Worry More About Back-to-School Shopping Than Bullying

Chewed Pencil
Chip Forelli—Corbis

Students themselves, meanwhile, are most stressed about having to wake up early for school in a few weeks.

The back-to-school prep period is a particularly stressful time of year for parents and children alike. According to a survey that was commissioned by the coupon site ebates and is being released this week, nearly all of the adults and teens polled said that the start of the school year was stressing them out in one or more ways.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the teenagers surveyed overwhelmingly said that they were most concerned that school would mess up the leisurely (lack of) schedule that they’re enjoying over the summer. The top two named sources of stress for teens were “Waking up early to get to class” (cited by 69% of those polled) and “Getting too much homework” (64%). Rounding out the top five were “Not liking my teachers” (42%), “Not having the right clothes” (32%), and “Not fitting in” (31%).

The top back-to-school stress point for adults, on the other hand, was “Shopping for clothes and school items,” cited by 56% of those surveyed. The stress of shopping outranked hectic student schedules (50%), helping with homework (38%), bullying at school (31%), and bad teachers (29%).

At first glance, the results indicate that students and parents alike seem to be saying that shopping and having the right clothes are of higher importance than potentially huge problems like bullying and subpar teachers. Are most of us really that superficial?

Maybe, maybe not. A closer look at why consumers are so stressed about shopping shows that the big concern essentially comes down to money rather than pressure to be up on the latest fashion trends. According to data released last week by the National Retail Federation, “the average family with children in grades K-12 will spend $669.28 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, up 5 percent from $634.78 last year.” The typical family with a high school student is expected to spend even more, $682.99.

Given the hefty back-to-school bill parents are facing and the fact that, for example, students are now expected to arrive at school in possession of 18 items on a classroom checklist, on average, no wonder shopping is stressing so many families out right about now. More than half of parents said that their No. 1 concern about back-to-school shopping was simply not being able to afford everything they’re expected to buy.

What’s more, it must be pointed out, many of these stress points are related. Parents and kids worry about shopping and clothes at least partly because they’re concerned about bullying and fitting in at school. And bullying and bad teachers, while possibly disastrous for the student experience, are far less common, one hopes, than the problem that seemingly every middle-class family budget confronts: affording all the stuff our kids want and/or that our kids’ school requires.

Nine out ten Americans in the ebates survey said that they’ll save during back-to-school shopping via coupons, discounts, and sales, among other methods. Retailers understand that consumers are primed to look for back-to-school deals at this time of year—in fact, many stores launched back-to-school offers before the last school year even ended—and virtually every Sunday circular is filled with school-related sales and deals lately. So no matter what your student needs to prepare for the fall, there’s almost no reason to pay full price.

If you’ve held off so far from making some or all of your back-to-school purchases, there’s good reason you might want to wait a little longer. No fewer than 16 states are offering sales tax holidays this summer, with the vast majority waiving sales tax on various back-to-school purchases for a few days around August 1.

TIME Education

Teachers Turn to Crowdfunding to Open Preschools

Teachers and parents in Chicago are turning to crowdsourced online funding to open preschools

+ READ ARTICLE

In Chicago, VOCEL – a small education non-profit for children from under-resourced communities – is behind one of the first initiatives to use crowdfunding to open a preschool, the AFP reports.

“Many for-profit organizations have used crowdsourcing in the past several years to get off the ground, to spread their ideas among a wide crowd, and we thought why couldn’t we do this for a non-profit?” Jesse Ilhardt, director of education for VOCEL, told AFP.

VOCEL started a $70,000 campaign online, asking the public to contribute funds for a preschool center in Chicago. To learn more about crowdfunding in education, watch the video above.

MONEY Kids and Money

How I Bargain-Hunted My Way to a Deal on Summer Camp

Students bowing after on-stage performance
A great camp experience doesn't have to be expensive. Cue the applause... Dirk Anschutz—Getty Images

This is the fourth of a five-part "mommy blogger" series on affordable summer childcare. Here, Lisa Carey of Money Saving Parent shares how she was able to give her kids the camp experience, without the typical camp price tag.

Summer time has officially arrived, which means that many working parents are now frantically looking for fun and affordable summer child care. The words “camp” and “affordable” aren’t often used in the same sentence, but I’ve found summer camps can be inexpensive—if you deal hunt.

But first, let me address the alternatives: In-home childcare in my area of Houston runs $10 an hour for two children. Sure, I would love to have someone here at home to watch them and make their lunch and take them to the pool, but based on a normal 40-hour week I would be paying $400. That’s $4,800 for a 12 week summer. Daycare in my area ranges from $900 to $1700 a month. Multiply that by two, add on summer field trip fees, and I may as well quit working for the month, because I will be spending most of my income on child care costs.

If you can believe it, my husband and I have found that summer camps not only helped us save over these other options, but provided our kids with some really great experiences.

My first secret: Checking discount deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, which sometimes offer summer camps with steep cuts off the regular price.

For example, my daughters really wanted to attend a robotics camp, and unsurprisingly technology camps are expensive. In our case it was $399 a child for a camp that ran from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. I wasn’t going to fork over almost $800 to send my two girls there for a single week, but I still wanted to give them the chance to try out something they were interested in, especially something in the math and science field.

So I started searching for a cheaper option, and that’s when I found a Groupon discount promotion for the program. We were able to save over 50% with our online coupon, cutting our costs down to $318 for both girls, or less than the sticker price for one child.

My second secret: Look to local churches and schools, which often host some of the least expensive camp options and yet as part of their mission provide volunteers, teachers or paid personnel who have training and experience.

A local church offers an amazing music camp for just $90 per week per child, from 9 am to 3 p.m. My children not only enjoy the music experience but also learn during special sessions: One is taking a guitar class while the other is learning set design and production. At the end of the week, the camp puts on a performance for friends and family in the evening, so that everyone can attend. I may have to pack their lunch, but the total cost of this particular camp is only $180 for both girls, saving me more than $200 in weekly summer childcare expenses over a sitter or upwards of $500 vs. a daycare.

Both camps offer additional hours both before and after the camp for a nominal fee, so parents who don’t have a flexible schedule can still take advantage of these opportunities during the summer. Most camps will offer this option, just be sure to check how much extra it will be to make sure it’s still a good deal.

This is my fifth year using summer camps instead of traditional child care and baby-sitting options. Not only do I save money each month, but the children also get the opportunity to pursue a number of different activities that we may not have the time or the budget for during the school year. Now that’s summer fun!

__________

Lisa Carey is a mom to four children ranging in ages from 7 to 27, a freelance writer, social media maven and blogger. You can find her saving for tomorrow and living for today on Money Saving Parent. She also shares parenting tips in her Houston Family column on Examiner.com.

Watch for other topics this week on affordable last-minute child care:

MONDAY: Hiring a college kid

TUESDAY: Bartering with family and friends

WEDNESDAY: Going to the YMCA

FRIDAY: Negotiating with your boss for flex time

MONEY Kids and Money

How to Barter with Friends and Family to Save $$$ on Summer Child Care

woman carrying milk bottle and wine bottle
The bottle is for the baby; the wine is for the babysitter. (Once she's off-duty, of course.) Inspirestock/Corbis

The second of a five-part "mommy blogger" series on affordable summer childcare. Here, Elissha Park of "The Broke Mom's Guide to Everything" explains how she chopped her expenses by 70% with a babysitting swap.

After paying just under $8,000 a year for summer daycare for five years—and that’s with my nearly 50% discount as a preschool teacher—it was pretty amazing how quickly my husband and I found a use for all that money once our son went to kindergarten in the fall of 2012.

So, when summer rolled around last year, the thought of having to lay out an enormous sum every week for 12 weeks for some kind of childcare was thoroughly overwhelming.

Determined to find a way to save money, I explored my options. First, a nanny: But at around $400 a week in my area of Hartford, Conn.—or a total of $4,800 for the summer—that was way too expensive with only one child. Then, camp: But I quickly realized that choosing an array of programs to mix and match was out of the question, too. Since the times varied, I would have to find transportation to and from, as well as after-camp care for some of them.

So what did I do? I ended up going right back to the daycare where my son had gone before (and where I happened to work), and I got a little creative by leaning on some friends.

The daycare has a weekly fee for the summer of $292 a week—already much cheaper than the nanny, and with my discount it comes to about $150 a week—plus, a “program fee” of around $300 to cover the costs of busing the children to all of their special activities.

In order to cut costs over the summer I ended up asking—okay, maybe begging—for help from my sister-in-law (a stay-at-home mom) and my good friend (a teacher who is home for the summer). I talked them both into taking my son for a day each week, by bartering my own baby-sitting services on the weekends and making sure to always bring something in thanks when I came by with my son. This included wine, baked goods and, of course, cash if they were going out somewhere with my son. Absolutely anything I could think of that would show my appreciation of this help that they so kindly bestowed upon me.

Since my son was only at the center three full-days, my costs came down by another $60 (though if I didn’t have my discount, this move would have saved me $100). Plus, the daycare even pro-rated the summer “program fee” since he was going to be missing some of the special activities.

A well-placed vacation and a perfectly timed week-long visit from the grandparents further reduced what I ended up paying by the end of the summer. Total outlay: about $1,000.

Best of all, my bartering plan was not only good for my wallet; it was also good for my son. I liked the idea that instead of being at a camp all the time he was able to spend extra time with his cousins and my best-friend’s daughter who is close to him in age. And on the weekends he got to be with these good friends as well, since my baby-sitting service was in full swing. My son got to have a special summer with lots of family and friends nearby.

And now that summer is upon us again, I fully plan to engage help from my friends and family for a second year to continue this tradition.

_________

Preschool teacher Elissha Park blogs at The Broke Mom’s Guide to Everything. She has a 7-year-old son with whom she loves going on day trips around her hometown of Hartford, Conn.

Watch for other topics this week on affordable last-minute child care:

MONDAY: Hiring a college kid

WEDNESDAY: Going to the YMCA

THURSDAY: Finding a good deal on camp

FRIDAY: Negotiating with your boss for flex time

MONEY Kids and Money

How I Saved $900 On Summer Child Care (No Camp Required)

College student teaching child to cook.
A camp counselor won't help get dinner on the table; a college-aged babysitter might. Rainer Holz—Corbis

The first of a five-part "mommy blogger" series on affordable summer childcare. Here, Anna Luther of "My Life and Kids" shares how a college student saved her money—and restored her sanity.

During my first summer as a working mom, I booked my kids—then ages 2 and 3—for camp after camp after camp. There were sports camps and animal camps and water camps and cooking camps and maybe even a camp about… camp?

Who knows.

I didn’t really care—I was just looking for a different camp for each of the weeks I needed to fill.

Then I spent the next 40 million hours of my life trying to coordinate drop-offs and pick-ups and back-ups for the evenings when my husband or I might need to stay late for a meeting—or for the random days that the camp was dismissing at noon instead of 5. And then I spent all summer long in a blur of camps that all seemed to run together. I could never quite remember which one my kids were supposed to be at, and whether I needed to pack a lunch or a swimsuit or tiger-print t-shirts.

It was hectic.

And expensive. I think I shelled out something like $6,600 that year, and that was with my mother-in-law picking the children up to avoid after-camp care costs.

So the following summer, I did a very daring thing. I ditched the camps altogether and decided that my kids were going to have a summer at home. I hired a college student from nearby Ohio University in Cincinnati, whom my husband found through a coworker, and paid her $12 an hour. It turned out to be the best decision we ever made.

Here’s why:

My kids got to be at home—where they were able to take bike rides and nature walks, play with sidewalk chalk, run through sprinklers, eat dripping popsicles on the back porch. It was summer, and they were leisurely doing all of the playing that they should be doing.

My house was cleaner than usual. When we hired our college sitter, light housecleaning was included in the job description. So when the kids were eating lunch, she’d clean the kitchen for me. When the kids were doing their chores, she was picking up toys and vacuuming the floors. I never asked her to clean a toilet—although how awesome would that be!?—but walking in the door after a long day at work and finding that things were a little neater than when I left was amazing.

Oh, and did I mention that she also folded the kids’ laundry each week and helped them put it away? It was like I had died and gone to laundry heaven.

Dinner was started. I know, I’m starting to sound totally spoiled here. Our college sitter would also start dinner prep for me. While the kids munched on a little appetizer, she’d chop the veggies or mix together the casserole. And the meal would be ready to pop in the oven when I walked in the door. No more rushing home to starving kids and realizing that I had forgotten to plug in the crockpot. Again.

I saved more than just my sanity. Not only did I no longer have to worry about getting my kids dressed each morning for camp or about what damage feeding them hot dogs every night would do, but I pocketed about $900 that summer with the arrangement over what I’d spent the previous year.

My advice: If you’re trying to find a way to keep multiple kids cared for this summer, try a sitter. It’ll save you hundreds, get your life in order, and restore your sanity.

Need some help finding your Mary Poppins? I’ve always found the best baby sitters through word-of-mouth. My husband and I let everyone know we’re looking for a summer sitter. But if we can’t find someone on a recommendation, we turn to Care.com. We sign up for the online service for one month (about $40) when we’re looking for someone and create an ad. You can put in specifics about your family, what you’re willing to pay and even note if you would like help with light household tidying. People can then answer your ad or you can search the site for registered sitters, complete with background checks.

Before we hire anyone, I like to meet with them to get a sense of who they are and to see if my kids like them. In the past, I’ve had sitters I thought were great, but then my kids thought they were the worst, so now I always make sure my kids are there when I meet a sitter for the first time. This gives me a chance to see them interact with the kids, and if they’re awkward or uncomfortable, I know it’s not going to work. You just kind of have to go with your gut feeling about someone.

Making that daring move to a sitter a few summers ago really was the best decision—especially because now that I have three kids, I can only imagine what my bill and schedule would be like if I’d stayed with all those camps.

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Anna Luther is a social media consultant and the founder of My Life and Kids, where she strives to make you feel better about your messy, crazy, fabulous life. She lives in the midwest with her husband and three kids, ages 3, 5, and 6.

Watch for other topics later this week on affordable last-minute child care:

TUESDAY: Bartering with family and friends

WEDNESDAY: Going to the YMCA

THURSDAY: Finding a good deal on camp

FRIDAY: Negotiating with your boss for flex time

MONEY Shopping

School’s (Almost) Out! Just In Time for Back-to-School Sales

BSIP SA / Alamy—Alamy

If you thought now was the time to relax and celebrate the end of the school year, J.C. Penney, Walmart, and Lands' End have a back-to-school sale for you.

Last summer, retailers raised eyebrows by rolling out back-to-school sales in early July, within a week or two of when kids escaped the clutches of teachers, principals, and algebra homework. “In seven and a half years, I’ve never once seen so much emphasis put on back-to-school before July 4,” National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis told AdAge at the time.

Fast-forward to June 2014, and retailers are at it again, pushing back-to-school sales earlier than ever. Consumers are getting the message that the time to purchase gear for the upcoming school year is before the current school year has ended. Like, now.

J.C. Penney began promoting back-to-school sales last weekend, according to Consumerist. Walmart already has a back-to-school web page for student fashions, backpacks, and other school gear, as well as another page devoted to back-to-college apparel and tech. Target just introduced a college registry program, so that students can try to get other people to buy them stuff. Apple’s back-to-school promotional deals are expected to be announced any day now. And Lands’ End? It started zapping customers with e-mails a couple of weeks ago, pushing the idea that early June is a fine time to buy school uniforms that kids won’t wear until around Labor Day.

It’s totally understandable why retailers try to move back-to-school shopping earlier and earlier each year. Families generally have finite resources they can allocate to back-to-school fashion and paraphernalia, and once the pencils, protractors, glue sticks, notebooks, and a few new outfits are purchased, their back-to-school expenditures are done (in theory). Retailers want to beat the competition to the punch, before the family’s back-to-school budget is depleted.

“Retailers are going to do what they can to try to get consumers into the stores to shop, but the fact of the matter is they might not have much luck,” Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, explained to CNBC. “There aren’t any parents that I can find who have even thought of back-to-school shopping, because for most kids, they haven’t even gotten out of school yet.”

Still, even if shoppers don’t actually buy back-to-school stuff in June, the enticements may get them thinking about their needs for the upcoming school year. Panic sets in for a lot of overwhelmed parents, and they’re more apt to want to cross all of their children’s back-to-school items off their list as soon as possible. How can you relax on a summer vacation when you know there will be dorm rooms to decorate and Number 2 pencils that need to be purchased?

What’s more, early-season promotional efforts are limited mostly to the digital world. It’s much cheaper and easier for a retailer to send out an e-mail blast or put up a back-to-school web page than it is to rearrange shelves and create promotional sections inside thousands of stores. That’ll happen soon enough, of course, during the especially puzzling period when you’re likely to encounter Fourth of July, back to school, Christmas in July, and plain old summer sales in your local megamart, perhaps mixed in with the odd early Halloween aisle.

Of course, retailers risk some customer backlash by taking the expansion of shopping seasons too far. So-called “Christmas creep,” the phenomenon in which the Christmas shopping season kicks off in September and Christmas ads air within a few days of Labor Day weekend, has caused many an observer to groan in exasperation.

When the calendar says one thing and retailers are telling consumers something very different via sales and promotions, the result can be jarring, even off-putting. Yet retailers assume shoppers have short memories, and they hope that whatever bad feelings a too-early sale produces are outweighed by deals that are just too good to pass up.

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