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A tax-free weekend game plan: Tips to maximize your savings

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With one day left until the state's tax-free weekend, I'm putting the finishing touches on my shopping game plan. We don't have any big-ticket items on our list this year, so we'll be concentrating mostly on clothes for my 13-year-old daughter.

We did a wardrobe check earlier this week and discovered that after wearing the same size for two years, she's suddenly grown out of pretty much everything.

I'll be taking my own advice, shopping off hours, hitting consignment shops and thrift stores first, then moving onto the traditional stores. I'll arm myself with any coupons I can find and head for the clearance racks first, then the sales racks.

With the help of Centsible Saver readers, I’ve compiled a list of the best tips to help you formulate your shopping game plan for the tax holiday with an emphasis on maximizing your savings and minimizing the headaches of shopping among the throngs:

Think big: As in big-ticket items. If you need a new computer, the savings on tax is considerable. Shoes, backpacks and sports gear are other pricey items that have good potential for savings.

Never pay regular price: As Scott Seifer,  a software consultant from Raleigh pointed out, a 6.75 percent sale is just not that big of a savings by itself. Since retailers typically offer their wares for at least 20 percent off on a regular rotating schedule, it might be worth it to hold out for a better deal. The only exception: if you’re buying something like a new Apple iPad that has a standardized price, a 6.75 percent price break is a deal.

Pre-order: That’s what Paul Mahoney of Holly Springs did to save big bucks on a MacBook Pro for his 18-year-old daughter, who is headed to Appalachian State University for her freshman year.

He figures he saved about $140 by calling the school bookstore, picking out the computer and arranging to have the order processed this weekend.

You only have today to take advantage of this option but you might want to file the idea for next year.

Shop online: Many readers wrote in to say they love taking advantage of this crowd-free option. A couple of points to remember: You must send your order to an address in North Carolina to get the tax break and you must place your order within the 72-hour tax-free time period. Many readers also reported scoring extra savings by routing their purchases through a savings portal such as ebates.com.

Do your homework: Before you go, study the circulars and check retailers’ online sites to find the best possible deals.

Use coupons: Once you've studied up on the deals, be sure to clip or print out any coupons you find. Check deal sites, such as wow-coupons.com, couponcabin.com or retailmenot.com for additional coupons or coupon codes to use online.

Know the rules: Be certain the items you're buying qualify for the tax-free savings. Clothing items, for instance, can't be more than $100. But, you can use store coupons and discounts to bring down the price of an item so that it does qualify for the tax exemption. Use a 25 percent off store coupon, for example, on a $125 dress and the dress qualifies.

Take inventory: You’d be surprised at what you might find in the bottoms of your kids’ backpacks or shoved in the backs of desk drawers. Do they really need a new pair of scissors every year?

I made my daughter Caroline, a rising 8th grader, shop her closet, her backpack and our school supply bin. We were able to find all but five items on her supply list.

Make a list: Write down everything that each member of your household needs. Cross things off as you go. Be sure you have your kids' school supply lists. If you don’t, call the school or check the school website. If that fails, check Target and the office supply stores. Many of the schools send their lists to the retailers.

Shop clearance: Right now is a great time to buy shorts and other summer clothing items on clearance. In our warm climate, those are back-to-school clothes. You also might want to consider buying items for next year, such as bathing suits and sandals.  Either way, you’ll know you're getting a good deal. Saving the sales tax will make the deal even sweeter.

Buy quality: You'll have less to buy on your list next year. My daughter's backpack is a good example.  As much as she would have liked a new one, she'll be using the same one I bought her three years ago. I paid a little more, even on clearance, but it's still in good shape. Oh, and avoid the trendy products with the latest popular movie and TV characters on them. What's hot this year is pretty much guaranteed to be so out next year.

Shop consignment stores and thrift shops: Erika Hess, an Apex mom with two preschoolers, did the bulk of her tax holiday shopping last year at Kid 2 Kid, a consignment shop.

“They sent me an email that basically said, ‘Hey, don’t forget us on tax-free weekend.’ And they actually sent a 15 percent off coupon.”

Hess is hoping for another coupon to arrive in her inbox this year. The way she looks at it, she’s tripling her savings by buying used, using a coupon and avoiding the sales tax.

Be prepared: Much like you would on Black Friday, wear comfortable shoes and bring a fully charged cellphone, a large reusable shopping bag to hold your purchases, a snack and a water bottle.

Map out your shopping route: Save time and gasoline by grouping your shopping trip, planning to make one big circle before heading home.

Find a babysitter: If you've got smaller kids, this is crucial. As Daire Roebuck, a Raleigh lawyer and mom, put it: tax-free weekend is no time "to wrestle with a 2-year-old." Older kids can be a help, fetching items from the shelves and trying on clothes so you don't have to return them later. Margie Huddleston, a stay-at-home mom from Fuquay-Varina, likes to take her kids along, turning shopping into a treasure hunt of sorts. She also thinks it's important for her sons to see the way she bargain shops and uses coupons. "I've used it as an opportunity. They see us saving money," she said.

Shop early or shop late: Friday morning and Sunday evening are likely to be the least crowded shopping times. Saturday at the big-box stores is bound to be chaotic.

Set a budget: Then stick to it. Avoid getting caught up in the hoopla. It’s not a deal if you can’t afford it.

Sunday is a whole new opportunity: If you don’t find what you’re looking for on sale Friday or Saturday, take a look at the new sales circulars in Sunday’s newspaper. There will be a whole new round of sales.

Be on the lookout: Stores that don’t sell items eligible for the back-to-school tax break will often create their own sales. Furniture and tire retailers typically offer to pay the sales tax for customers to drive traffic to their stores. Other shops turn the tax-free weekend into a tax-free week, opting to pay the tax for customers for the first four days. This year, New Balance stores in Raleigh and Durham and Mobley’s Shoes in Raleigh have been offering early deals.

Check your receipt: It’s best to do this before you leave the store. Only the store can refund your money if you are accidentally charged sales tax. The state Department of Revenue cannot refund your sales tax.

Don’t fret if you miss out: As the back-to-school season winds down, prices will drop. If you can wait it out, the school supplies and other back-to-school items will be on the clearance shelves by Labor Day.


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Knowing the rules

I noticed that a $125 dress would not qualify for tax-free, but a 25% off coupon would make the dress qualify.  I have a 20% off coupon for the $125 dress and was wondering if that would work too.


Yep. That should work

Yep. That should work because the dress would be $100 exactly.

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