Savvy shoppers can mine tax-free weekend

Modest back-to-school savings are easy; achieving solid discounts takes strategy

Staff WriterAugust 1, 2010 

  • The tax-free weekend begins at 12:01 a.m. Friday and runs through 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

    Qualifying purchases made during that time will be exempt from the 5.75 percent state sales tax and the additional county tax, which ranges from 2 percent to 2.5 percent, depending on the county.

    That means you can start shopping at 24-hour stores such as Walmart early Friday. Or, you can shop till the very last minute on Sunday. Though that may seem like something for night owls only, going early or late will definitely help you avoid crowds.

    Some stores and malls are extending their hours. Check with your favorite store or see the ads in this week's paper.

    Among the qualifying items:

    Clothing, shoes, costumes, diapers and uniforms that cost $100 or less per item

    Sporting or recreational equipment such as ballet or tap shoes, gloves, goggles, helmets and ski boots that are $50 or less per item

    Computers for $3,500 or less (keyboards, monitors and computer mice are not exempt unless they are purchased as part of a CPU)

    Computer supplies such as printers, personal digital assistants, printer paper and ink $250 or less per item

    School supplies including calculators, binders, markers and rulers at $100 or less per item.

    To view the full list of tax-exempt items, visit: www.dornc.com/taxes/sales/salestax_holiday.html.

  • Coupon Queen

    Sue Stock covers retail for The News & Observer. The paper's coupon queen, Sue holds classes twice a year on saving money using coupons. Keep track on her blog takingstock .newsobserver.com

The state's back-to-school sales-tax holiday appeals to two of our most primal desires: to stick it to the tax man and to score a bargain.

That's why the annual holiday has been such a hit with shoppers even as they acknowledge the savings aren't necessarily all that dramatic.

"We might save $20, if we saved that much," said Debbie Welch, a Raleigh mom with a 14-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. "It's the deals that we go for more than anything."

And that's really the crux of it for shoppers.

Now - nine years after the first holiday - they know that how much you rack up in savings depends largely on what you buy. But even for those who don't plan to buy big-ticket items such as computers, the weekend can pay off in other ways.

With a 7.75 percent tax rate (5.75 percent state tax and 2 percent in most counties), basic school supplies don't garner much of a savings. In Wake County, spend $40 on pencils, notebooks and folders and you'll save $3.10.

Outfit your child with new clothes and shoes and the savings are juicier. The average family will spend $261.65 on clothes and shoes, according to this year's National Retail Federation back-to-school survey. The savings on those purchases, if made during the tax-free weekend, will be $20.28.

And if you were to buy, say, a new Mac laptop computer for $1,199, your savings are more substantial: $92.92.

Maximize savings

Over the years, many shoppers have learned how to work the holiday to save the most.

This year the opportunities to parlay the tax-free weekend into bigger savings could be especially lucrative. Retailers, still digging themselves out from the recession, are anxious to make the most of back-to-school sales. Drug store chains, department stores and the super stores such as Walmart and Target are aggressively competing for the $21 billion that shoppers are expected to spend on back-to-school this year.

Department stores such as J.C. Penney, Sears and Belk usually offer store coupons that will save shoppers 15 percent or more, in addition to any sale prices they encounter. In addition to those types of promotions look for:

Penny deals: Office supply stores such as Staples, OfficeMax or Office Depot often offer items like pencils, crayons and pens for a penny to get shoppers into the store.

BOGOs, short for buy one, get one: Many retailers will offer these deals, which equate to getting each item at half-price. (At some stores, you may have to buy two to get the discount.)

Free after rebate: This year, many stores with rebate programs are offering free-after-rebate deals. This means you purchase the item at the store but then receive a rebate of your purchase price through the store's loyalty program. This week, for example, Walgreens is offering Crayola markers for $3, but they will be free after a $3 instant rebate through the store's Register Rewards program.

Note that these typically come in the form of store credit, so you will need to spend your savings at that same store on a future date.

Here is what some Triangle moms who are veteran back-to-school shoppers had to say about the annual retail ritual:

Lynne Lewis subscribes to the philosophy that you should stock up on basic school supplies when you see them on sale to make sure you are always paying a good price.

The North Raleigh resident has three boys - Corey, 12, Cameron, 9, and Carter, 6 - and daughter, Courtney, 3.

She keeps a big plastic bin full of school supplies in her home and adds items like pens, pencils, notebooks and folders to it when she finds them cheap.

"Things like pencils go on sale several times a year," Lewis said.

"Before [my kids] come to me, they go to the Tupperware bin. ... If there are five folders in there, you pick whatever you want. Knock yourself out. But that way you paid 15 cents and not $1.99."

Shopping this way frees Lewis up to scout for good deals on larger items such as backpacks and lunchboxes when the tax-free weekend rolls around. She often buys shoes and other more expensive items then as well.

If she does venture out on the tax-free holiday, she makes sure she's in the stores early.

"You couldn't pay me to be at Walmart at noon with 8 million people," she said. "Shoot me with a gun. You kind of feel like it's a little bit of a safety hazard."

Welch, the mom of two teenagers from Raleigh, relies more heavily on the tax-free holiday and especially likes the rebate programs at retailers such as Staples, Office Depot and OfficeMax.

"I have to purchase an expensive calculator for my daughter for back-to-school," Welch said. "It's a TI-84 calculator, and of course my daughter wants it in pink."

The calculator retails for about $120, but Welch found it at Staples last week for $99 after a discount and a Staples rebate.

It wasn't worth it, she said, to wait for the tax-free weekend, because the calculator might have been full-price then.

"It's all just a matter of timing now more than anything else," she said. "My attitude is if I can get a good deal now, I'll do it."

Jennifer Absher is a frugal mom of four daughters,ages 6 to 13. The Wake Forest resident says she "pinches pennies till they cry."

Like Lewis, Absher picks up basics like glue sticks when she finds them cheap, not waiting for the tax-free holiday. Recently she bought a bunch of glue stick two-packs on sale at Walmart for 25 cents apiece.

"My first year with [a child in] kindergarten, they wanted 20 glue sticks, and I said, 'Are you kidding me?'" she remembered. "Nothing was on sale by the time the list came out, and I spent a fortune on glue sticks that year."

Try Goodwill, Craigslist

Absher also frequents thrift shops like Goodwill and uses Craigslist to find other items her children need, especially clothes. This year, one daughter is attending Franklin Academy, where uniforms are required.

"The only things I bought brand new was two pairs of shirts and two polos," she said.

Absher found many of the khaki pants and polo shirts she needed at Goodwill. During the tax-free holiday, she'll buy only what she can't find through her thrifty methods, such as tall-size jeans for her 5-foot-11 daughter.

Along with keeping your list handy, Absher also offered this advice on shopping the thrift stores:

"Don't give up. A lot of times people say, 'I don't find anything.' Well how often do you go? Once a month? I'll go every day. There will be nothing for days, and then all of a sudden I had the mother lode of uniforms."

sue.stock@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4649

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