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Back-to-school shopping guide

From backpacks to cars and for grade school to grad school, we've got you covered

Last updated: August 2013

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Shopping & personal finance

School-supply shopping on the cheap
Back-to-school shopping is the second-biggest spending spree of the year. The average parent with kids in grades K-12 will spend $688.62 on supplies, clothing, and electronics for the new school year, according to the National Retail Federation. But you don’t need to fork over nearly that much if you allow yourself enough time and keep to a budget. Use our money-saving strategies.

How to handle a college student’s money needs
Your child is heading to college this fall. After you’ve figured out the big spending issues—tuition, room, meal plan, and fees—you need to consider how your scholar will handle spending on everyday expenses, such as toiletries, supplies, laundry, travel, activities, and entertainment. Here are some smart ways to handle transferring funds and teach your child how to manage money.

How to insure your college student's stuff
College students take a lot valuable stuff with them to school: computers, printers, TVs, bicycles, cell phones, digital music players, and more. So it's important to protect your kid's possessions against loss. Several insurance options exist, and the one you choose depends on where your son or daughter goes to school and the type of coverage you want.

Best everyday products for college students
When children are in elementary school, teachers typically send home a list of school supplies that parents should buy. When they go off to college, students need some of the same everyday items but this time you have to come up with the list. Keep in mind that students will be moving into unfurnished spaces and will want familiar things such as paper towels, tissues, batteries and laundry detergent within easy reach. The experts at Consumer Reports scoured our labs and found some extraordinary everyday products.


Buy the best backpack for your child
Students enrolled in every grade from pre-K to a Ph.D. program need a sturdy backpack that fits. It's best to try one on in the store whether you're shopping for a designer backpack at Bloomingdale's or a kiddie pack with a cartoon theme from Target. If the backpack doesn't sit comfortably on the shoulders, your student can end up with back, neck or shoulder pain that persists into adulthood.

Electronics gear & computers

Best electronics gear for college students
For college students, one harsh reality of dorm or small-apartment living is that space can often be severely limited. Their budgets are also unlikely to be too grand, which means that no matter how much an undergrad wants high-end name-brand electronics, that gear might not be worth enduring an endless diet of cheap supermarket ramen noodles. Check our suggestions for the space-starved, budget-minded student who doesn't want to compromise on quality electronics equipment.

The right computer for any student
Need a new computer for the new school year? We’ve got suggestions from models we've recently tested that will suit students of all types, whether you’re in search of a great value, a portable powerhouse, or a fully loaded, family-friendly desktop.

Word to the wise: You can save some money by checking school websites for buying programs. And even some manufacturer's sites—Apple's and Dell's, for example—sell computers for students at a discount or provide bonus products.

Discounts on computers and other electronics
Being a student can be expensive, but it can also get you deals on computers and other electronics. Some are just for college students, but others discount for K-12 students too.

Small appliances & laundry

Best small appliances for college students
Colleges are pretty consistent about what you should bring to campus—linens, laptops, and a yearn to learn—but they vary on what’s allowed in the dorms. Some prohibit any high-heat appliance such as toasters, coffeemakers, and popcorn makers; other campuses permit them.

Colleges usually allow dorm residents to buy or rent a refrigerator, but students who like to make their own Pop-Tarts and coffee should check the college website. Of course, the rules are different for students who live off campus. Here are some of Consumer Reports’ top-rated small appliances for small spaces.

Laundry tips for college students help them take a load off
With all the studying and, ahem, extracurriculars that are part of campus life, doing laundry is the last thing college students want to do. Still, unless you're going to pay to get it done or wait until an upcoming break to wash your clothes at home (who has that many pairs of underwear?), it's a necessity. But if you don't do it right, all kinds of problem can ensue.

Best cars and car safety

Tips for safe carpooling
As summer winds down, kids will soon return to school, complete with hectic schedules and extra-curricular activities. For many families, dealing with the logistics of an active child means sharing transportation duties in a carpool. But not every parent adheres to safe practices when it comes to strapping young children into safety or booster seats and that can put your child in danger. Likewise, many are content to buckle a child in an adult three-point belt before they are large enough.

Smart car-packing tips for heading back to school
After endless trips to stores to stock up on back-to-school supplies and dorm essentials, you’re ready to send your child off to college. Of course, it never looks like a lot of stuff until you try to fit it in a car. College necessities don’t just include clothes and toiletries, but bigger items such as computers, electronics, furniture, and small appliances. The challenge is to pack your car safely in a way that doesn’t interfere with visibility and secures all items so they don’t become dangerous projectiles. Use our tips on how to pack up your car for a back-to-school road trip.

Best new cars for teens
If you are looking to buy a new car for your teen driver, there are some good options that are safe and reliable, and won’t break the bank. Plus if you buy one this summer, you can take advantage of model-year-end deals on 2012 vehicles before the 2013s arrive in showrooms.

Our list also highlights models that perform well in our testing and government and insurance-industry safety tests, plus have average or better predicted reliability, based on our subscriber surveys. (Consumer Reports maintains reliability Ratings on our website going back 10 model years.) Making selection easier, all 2012 cars offer standard electronic stability control, a proven lifesaver that is especially beneficial to less-experienced drivers.

Best used cars for teens
Most parents look for a used car when shopping for their teen to save money, but although you may need to make compromises to stay within budget, don’t skimp on safety. Make sure the vehicle you buy has advanced safety features such as electronic stability control and curtain air bags, as well as good crash-test results. (See our guide to teen driving safety.)

Choosing a car for a young driver will usually involve compromises among budget, desirable features, and the wants of an image-conscious teen. The best bet is to buy the newest, most reliable model with the most safety equipment you can afford. Do not even consider a car without antilock brakes. If you can reach a little deeper and get a car equipped with multistage advanced front air bags, side and head-protection curtain air bags, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control, so much the better. The lifesaving assistance those systems can provide is worth every penny in an emergency situation and can be especially beneficial to an inexperienced driver.

How to choose the best GPS navigator for back to school
As families prepare to send their students off to college, most have a mile-long shopping list filled with essentials for independent living. One great gift that may not be on the radar is a GPS navigator to help the student get around campus area and back home safely.

Does your child use a booster seat when carpooling?
Most parents routinely strap their young school-aged kids into boosters, even for a 1-mile trip to the supermarket. But when it comes to carpooling, parents are a lot less consistent in their use of booster seats, according to a study published online in January 2012 by the journal Pediatrics.

School bus safety tips for motorists
Riding the bus to school is a safer mode of transportation for children than driving or walking, but the real risk for injury is from motorists who don’t follow the proper laws and procedures when driving near a bus. Here are some rules to make sharing the road with buses safe for everyone.

Health advice

6 back-to-college health tips
Staying healthy at college is no easy task between busy schedules, limited budgets, and lots of germs. Here are six ways to maintain your well-being when you head back to college.

Healthy food choices for students on the go
Raiding the refrigerator is a cinch when you want a late-night snack at home. But when you’re living in a dorm without a full kitchen, it can be slim pickings. Fortunately, there are plenty of good, healthy choices that take little or no preparation and can be easily stored in a dorm room or compact refrigerator. Here are some breakfast foods, snacks, and frozen entrees that received high marks from the food testers at Consumer Reports.

How to get rid of lice
For parents, back to school means packing lunches, getting kids out the door in the morning, and countless other tasks big and small. For students, the return to the classroom brings the joy of seeing friends as well as the burdens of homework, class projects, tests, and more.

And for parents and kids alike, back to school can also include one major nuisance in a tiny, sesame-seed-size package: head lice, which are wingless insects usually transmitted by head-to-head contact. If you notice your child scratching his or her scalp a lot, especially behind the ears or at the back of the neck, check for head lice.

There’s a chance that the itching could be caused by eczema, dandruff, or an allergy. But if it is a case of lice, it will not clear up on its own, so treat it right away.

Make healthy school lunches your kids will love
You won’t necessarily save money by packing lunch for your kids—school cafeteria fare is pretty cheap. And the lunchroom offers choices that can be just as nutritious as anything you pack. Ah, but will your child choose the salad bar and an apple? Or is he more likely to grab the chicken nuggets with a side of fries? Making lunches at home can help you keep control of your kids' school-day meals and also ensures that picky eaters will have something they like to eat.

Sure, the do-it-yourself approach takes time. But we have good news: By following the guidelines below, you’ll not only shave precious minutes off of your lunch-making routine, you’ll also get new ideas for healthy, palate-pleasing meals—plus expert tips on food safety and cool gear to transport lunch to school in style.

6 tips for keeping off the pounds during college
According to a recent study in the journal Social Science Quarterly, most first-year college students don't gain the "freshman 15." But they do pack on some weight, typically about three pounds. Those numbers, like student-loan debt, grow over the four years of college: Men add on about 13 pounds; women, about 9 pounds. Here you'll find easy solutions to common dietary problems faced by college students.




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