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College Ready: sharing what I’ve already learned (part two)

17 Aug

We spent one full day and shopped til we dropped, hitting three major stores to get the bulk of what we needed. We scored deal after deal.

Earlier this week I shared Part One of my College Ready posts. I don’t know it all, I don’t even know as much as other people know, but in a short time, I’ve learned a lot that I can at least share out. Those who need to know can add it to what they’ve learned, save it for later when they need it, or toss it.

Here’s what I’ve learned: college is expensive, and college needs are expensive. We hear a lot about tuition, room and board, and books all being expensive, but what people don’t really talk much about is the huge expense of getting a student ready to live on campus. Not everyone lives on campus, but if your student is going to, start early saving some money for dorm expenses if you can, and start saving coupons and watching for deals. Get those deals when you can and put them aside if you have to. Shopping for something big like this is like a sport. You need a strategy. Here is our strategy.

Many people know that Bed Bath & Beyond prides themselves in being a go-to for college dorm shopping. (And no, I don’t make any commission off of these posts from them.) When you tour dorms there are often BB&B advertisements in the rooms which have been outfitted by the local store, and you see their ads often on social media, television and in print. Their coupons arrive in the mail regularly: 20% off one item, $5 off your total purchase over $15 and $10 off your total purchase over $30. You can even order all of your dorm room supplies online and have them shipped to the local BB&B near your school so that you can pick them up when you arrive for move-in day.

My advice is simple: save every single coupon. Don’t ever throw them away. They have expiration dates on them but they don’t actually expire. They¬† will accept them forever, and they let you use more than one per shopping trip. Take every single one of them with you if you choose to shop at BB&B for college dorm needs. More importantly, save every coupon to every store that you get during this shopping time and make the most of the deals that pop up as you see them. You may not realize you need something and you don’t want to throw away a good deal.

We opted to first use any store gift cards our daughter had received as graduation gifts towards her college shopping needs. We advised her to save any visa gift cards for books, since we had a little bit of money put away for shopping already, and to save any Amazon gift cards as well, unless we found something cheaper on Amazon (which we didn’t).¬† We would combine any gift cards with coupons and then after exhausting that option, we’d use the money I’d put aside from January to June with coupons next. This would not touch the money in her savings account at all, which would be saved for when she was living at school.

She had the most in gift cards at BB&B, then at Target, and although we did not have a gift card to At Home, it was my birthday in August and I’d received a “15% off your whole purchase” coupon. She signed up for their loyalty program and received a “10% off your whole purchase” coupon too, but we didn’t need it. Additionally, we visited Five Below, where everything is $5 or less, and looked to see what we could get there since she had a small gift card there and they have some cute dorm decor items. We planned to save our trip to Walmart for last because although it’s slightly cheaper than Target or BB&B, we would be paying entirely out of pocket with no coupons or gift cards at all, and it ended up being cheaper for us to shop with gift cards and coupons first, exhausting all of those before Walmart.

You can make money-saving magic happen with your coupons if you’re strategic.

Just in our BB&B shopping alone, we saved $100 in coupons (we used a total of 14 coupons in two visits, six one time and eight the next time, and we have some left if we need them) and we used $150 in gift cards, only paying $165 out of pocket total-and only on the second trip-the first trip was totally free. We got the bulk of what we needed there, from a comforter set to all of the under the bed, next to the bed and above the bed storage items. We also got a few decorative items there. We saved $21 at the At Home Store with my birthday coupon, and used $30 in Target gift cards before paying anything out of pocket at either store.

Since we don’t know if we’re 100% correct in everything we’re getting, we are saving every receipt. At BB&B they also told us to save all the packaging for returns as well. A good friend once said to me, “You know, it is possible to over-shop,” and I can totally see how that can happen. There is SO MUCH out there and there are so many suggestions of “must haves.” I tried to look at several lists and compare them to each other, and to listen to other people’s advice as well as knowing what we already had or didn’t have before we shopped. If I saw something come up on every single list and it matched up with what other people told me we’d need, it definitely went on to our list as well. If it was something we already had at home and could spare, we tried not to duplicate. We looked at her room layout to see what we thought would fit, and where. Some things just seemed over the top, or extra. We tried to balance having some cute decor items with having the more functional items first and foremost. Some nice-to-haves are okay, but the must-haves had to come first. We were lucky too, that a friend gave us her daughter’s memory foam mattress pad, which everyone now calls a “must have,” but which is very expensive. (Those didn’t exist when I went to school, I had a foam egg crate topper.) I found this type of shopping to be very similar to when we outfitted our RV for the first time. Function was first and foremost, space-saving was key, and money-saving was of the utmost importance.

So now, we wrap up, picking up the last few little things over the next week or so and then start to pack up and move on out. We’ll see how well we did once she moves in; how on the mark we were, what we still might need or what needs to be returned. Keeping our fingers crossed that we are more on the mark than off!

Fingers crossed…

 

 

College Ready: sharing what I’ve already learned (part one)

15 Aug

What exactly do they need?

They say you don’t know what you don’t know, and that is so true for so many situations throughout life. As a mom to a new, soon-to-be-on-campus college freshman, that saying could not be more true. As an educator to the core, I feel the need to share with others what I’ve learned so far along the way so that I can help other parents the way that others who’ve gone down this path first, have also helped me. Last fall, I wrote an article called Navigating a family’s first senior year. I feel like I am now ready to write the next article in that series.

So, here goes. I’m separating this information into two blog posts so that it’s not too long or too overwhelming.

Here is what I’ve learned so far, that I think is worthy enough to pass along to you.

First and foremost: ask around. This process is all new since we parents went to college, if in fact we parents went to college, as not everyone does. Social media is new, technology is new, online ordering is new, memory foam is new, HIPPA is new, it’s all new. Everything. So other than remembering what my dorm looked like and my basic needs, lots of other stuff isn’t the same. Ask those who have done it before, and research. Read blog posts, read other people’s experiences-good or bad-and then take from them what you wish, and discard the rest. That’s the same advice I always have for new moms: Everyone will give you a ton of information, so listen and use some and politely ignore the rest. We are parents who are starting all over again at the new mom and dad thing, just in a different way. Beginning I’m not sure when, but really focusing this past school year, I did just that. I read, I researched, I asked and I listened, and I made lists.

I also began to put a little bit of money aside after Christmas. This sounds obvious, and it’s way easier said than done, believe me, I know. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was putting money aside for yet either, but I knew we’d be needing it, and I was right. It wasn’t for the college fund, and it wasn’t her savings account money for living on during college, it was different money. Each time I got paid, I’d put some random amount into her checking account from mine, whatever I thought we could spare at the time, and she’d move it over into her savings account. I’m sure that it made me lacking some other money somewhere else for something else, but it allowed me to have a stash ready, designated for expenses for whenever we needed it.

“What is this money for?” she’d ask.

“I don’t know yet,” I’d answer. “But I know it’s going to be for something.”

In the spring, the college deposit was due. Some of the money went to that. In July a small registration fee was due for a September activity, so some of the money went to that. The rest would be spent on dorm supplies when we shopped. (That will be in my next post.) These were things a college loan wouldn’t necessarily cover, they didn’t fall under tuition or room and board, but they were needed, and they were costly, and they had to be done. I wish now that I’d put more money aside, starting sooner, as I found the last month of senior year to be extremely expensive with all of the graduation events (she had three different ceremonies) and clothes/shoes/jewelry needed for each, as well as for her prom, and even things like the meals we hosted for family after the graduation events and the party itself, so keep all that in mind as you go forward.

Additionally, throughout the year, I started picking up random things and putting them aside in her college laundry bag that we’d given her already for her 18th birthday, filled with a few college-ready gifts. Soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, laundry and dish detergent etc., all went into the bag during the year, even more frequently as the spring approached. At my CVS, any time I saw a “buy one, get one half off” deal, I’d buy one for us and throw the “get one half off” item into her bag. If I saw something on clearance she’d need, I’d grab it and throw it into her bag. By the summertime, her bag was full, having started off half-full at her birthday.

This is a great gift for recent high school grads who are going to be living on campus.

Before the summer even hit though, I asked people whose kids had “been there” already, what she’d really need. I got two great tips that I want to pass along to you. I used them both as graduation gifts for her and for others.

The first is a gift they need to have, but you hope they won’t actually need. The mom of student finishing her freshman year recommended a well-stocked first aid kit. She listed off a bunch of items kids need that they don’t necessarily want to go to the health services building for, like a band aid or a cough drop, but that they don’t always think to have. I loved this idea. We get sick all the time over here, and have a ton of bumps along the way too, so I decided to definitely do this as a gift for my own daughter, as well as some close family members. I bought $3 buckets at Target that I found in the “under $5” bins, and I filled them. I did generic things everyone needs, like a digital thermometer and band aids and cough drops, cotton balls, ice packs, etc., much of which can be found at a Dollar Store, for just $1 each. Several things came in multi-packs of individual items, like a three-pack of hand sanitizer, which I’d break up into three individuals for three gifts. For my own daughter I added in additional items, or full-sized items, some more costly, like the certain sunscreen she uses, or a big tube of stain stick, and bug spray. I filled the bins and wrapped them in cellophane with a ribbon (all found at the Dollar Store too) and gave them out.

My daughter took off on that idea, and for her own friends, she gave them buckets as well, but filled them with school supplies (markers, pens, pencils, paper clips, ruler, white out, etc.,) and threw in some band aids and cough drops as well, all for under $20 a bucket, including the bucket. We wrapped them the same way and they made great gifts.

This reminded me that she also needed her own school/desk supplies, so we later made her a bin of those as well. Everything we always have here, on hand throughout the school year, she’ll need there.

This was a fun gift to make and to give.

The next great gift idea, I received from a co-worker whose son was about to graduate college as my daughter was graduating high school. I was stumped as to what to give her for gifts at the time we spoke. Her son had also attended an out of state school, so she had given him gift cards for places that were in the city where he’d be attending school. I thought that was a fun idea, and since our daughter’s school was out of state, but not too far away, one of my best friends and I took a day’s ride up and back, grabbing a bunch of little gift cards to places that were near her school. Some were to places that we don’t have here, but we also spotted some places that we do have here, so I continued to shop for gift cards even after that day trip. Some spots were less expensive, so we got $10 gift cards and some were more so we got $15. One place was a sit-down restaurant she likes, so I got a $25 gift card there.

I filled out the front sections for our gift cards, and she filled out the rest for others she’d received.

Once I had them all, I decided to get a cute organizer from Target for her to keep all her gift cards in, as I knew she’d be getting more from other people and she had been saving a bunch at home as well. I added in restaurant menus if they had them, and figured she could throw in coupons to the places she had gift cards for, if she had any.

This was a great gift, a fun day trip for me, and it made me more familiar with the area in which she’d be spending her time. My friend was my co-pilot that day and she kept a running list of local places we saw so that as time goes on, if someone were to ask me what she needs for a birthday gift or a holiday gift, I can say, “There’s a CVS right next to her campus, get her a gift card there,” or to any other place I now know is up there. If we want to add to her collection ourselves for gifts in the future, we can.

There are so many great gift ideas out there, and I know that there are different philosophies on gifts. Some feel that helping to pay for college IS the gift and that’s what they give. Others take a big trip as a gift or send their child off on a trip with someone else as their gift. For us, this worked out well and it made for a fun afternoon after graduation when she opened her gifts. They weren’t expensive to pull off, and during a super-expensive time of year, that was a blessing in itself. It was just enough and will last her throughout her school year(s). They were fun, but they were functional too. Even the gift card holder can be re-purposed in the future. The labels can be labeled over, and the hashtag sign is on there with removable tape. I really tried to think ahead and be practical. (By the way, in case you’re not sure, HANGRY is a combination of Hungry and Angry, which is a popular word with kids now, but also didn’t exist before. I’ve also witnessed Hangry with my own kids, and it’s real and a perfect description.)

Stay tuned for my next post, and I’ll pass along anything I can about dorm room shopping that I’ve learned so far. I’m not a pro, and we’re not even to the point of moving her in yet, but I’ve already learned a ton and I will pass it on.