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Your guide to back-to-school shopping

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

Last updated: August 2015

Whether your kids are starting kindergarten or taking their first steps into college this fall, send them back to school with the right gear and most helpful advice. Our guide will help you get the best deals on electronics equipment, small appliances, new and uses cars, and much more.

Electronics gear & computers

5 cheap laptops for college students
Need a budget laptop to take to college? We combed our computer Ratings to find some of the best cheap laptops—those in the $375 to $650 range. It's not always easy to find a budget laptop good enough to get you through college, but the models we found should do just that.

Trick out your dorm room
Surround yourself with our high-rated tech to get the most out of your semester. Whether it’s for cramming a paper the night before it’s due or to take a study break, these electronics are affordable and could help reduce some of the stress of school.

5 best laptops and tablets for back to school
Back in the days when all kids needed for school was a pencil and a notebook, buying decisions were pretty easy. After all, a pencil is a pencil, whether you're learning simple addition or calculus. Not so with computers, where the laptop or tablet you buy for your college student will be wildly different from what a young child needs.

Small appliances & laundry

The best sheets for college dorms
College students will be off to campus in the coming weeks and are shopping in earnest to furnish the rooms where they'll be spending the next nine months. Towels? Check. Pillows? Check. Sheets? Not so fast.

Best small appliances for college students
If you are among the parents packing college students off to school for the first time, you may be tempted to equip their dorm rooms with all the creature comforts of home, including small appliances to satisfy their needs. But before you do, check the university’s website for what to bring and what not to. (Of course, students living off-campus can bring whatever they need.) Here are some affordable, top-rated small appliances from Consumer Reports tests.

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.

Shopping & personal finance

How to get the lowest prices on textbooks
Many students head to college every fall distraught over how much they will have to pay for textbooks and supplies. The College Board estimates that students attending a four-year public college will have to spend an average of $1,200 annually. That's because an accounting textbook can easily cost $270. A human anatomy and physiology textbook can cost well over $200.

Back away from back-to-school stocks
It feels as if summer vacation has barely started and the back-to-school ads are already showing up in flyers and on television. As you rush to meet the needs of your kids—buying everything from pencils and paper to smartphones and laptops—plenty of stock-market pundits are touting something else: back-to-school stocks.

3 easy ways to prevent theft on campus
Back in the day—that is, in the 1970s—college students didn’t have a lot of valuable stuff in their dorm rooms. Sure, there was a bevy of stereo gear ideal for blasting the latest Grateful Dead bootleg cassette, but a would-be thief wasn't going to easily slip out of a dorm schlepping a pair of giant speakers.

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.

Save when shopping online for dorm supplies
Brace yourselves for back to school spending. According to a poll conducted by the National Retail Federation, out of 6,400 adults with college aged kids, nearly 30 percent plan to spend more on supplies for back to school season this year than they did last year. And much of that shopping will be done online, according to another poll, this one by Prosper Insight’s & Analytics which surveyed some 6,500 consumers on the matter.

Discover fails to provide sufficient student loan customer service
For the past two years, Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has been collecting stories from students and families about their personal experiences when it comes to taking out loans to pay for college. Unfortunately, most of those stories have not been pretty.

Ways to save with student discounts
With the start of school just around the corner, you may be fretting about how much you'll have to spend on clothing, electronics, and other back-to-school must-haves. Luckily, if you or your child is a college student, many stores and services offer discounts that make purchases more affordable.

3 foam mattresses that are easy to ship
When your child is heading off to college, your shopping list expands beyond the usual supplies to also include towels and toiletries. But if off-campus housing is in the plans, you may need to buy something else, a mattress. Here are a few good choices from among Consumer Reports' list of top mattress picks.

How to go to college for free
Starbucks made headlines when it partnered with Arizona State University last year to finance four-year college degrees for employees. Through a combination of ASU grants, federal grants, and Starbucks kicking in the remainder, eligible employees of the coffee giant are able to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees for the school's online degree program.

Best cars and travel safety tips

How to get to school safely
The new school year is upon us and children are settling into their fall routines. High on the to-do list is working out which mode of transportation the kids will use to get to and from school. Depending on where you live—city, suburb, or country—and how far away from school you live, some transportation choices can be safer or more practical than others. Find out which will work best before school starts, if possible, and always have a backup plan in mind. Here are tips to keep the kids safe no matter which you choose.

10 great used cars for teens under $10,000
Choosing a car for a teen driver requires making tough financial decisions just as college bills loom on the horizon. The temptation, and often the necessity, is to buy an inexpensive older model. But going too cheap has trade-offs that could jeopardize the safety of your child.

New federal safety rule for electronic stability control misses the bus
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has enacted a new rule that would require electronic stability control, or ESC, on many types of heavy trucks, including tractor trailers and intercity buses. The rule has the potential to save many lives. But much to our dismay, school buses were exempted from the requirement.

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.

Health advice

The HPV vaccine and three others that every college kid needs
Making sure you’re fully vaccinated is critically important for college students—especially if you’ll be living in a dorm or other shared space. That’s because large groups of people in close proximity provide the ideal conditions for spreading diseases—including those that are vaccine-preventable. "Vaccines can keep students from contracting serious illnesses and keep them from missing classes," says Sarah Van Orman, M.D., the head of university health services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Whooping cough alert: Get a booster before school starts
The words “whooping cough” conjure up a bygone era of gravely sick babies and desperate parents hoping their feverish, hacking children make it through the night. The devastating disease, called pertussis, is characterized by several weeks, or even months, of low-grade fever and incessant bouts of rapid coughing that have a "whoop" sound (you can listen to it here) as the child tries desperately to expel thick throat mucus. At its worst, the disease can bring on pneumonia and, due to lack of oxygen during the coughing spells, even seizures and death.

Will you be able to help your college-age child in a medical emergency?
Early one October morning, Sheri E. Warsh, a mother of three from Highland Park, Ill., stepped out of the shower to a ringing phone. On the other end, her 18-year-old son’s college roommate delivered terrifying news: Her son—270 miles away at the University of Michigan—was being rushed by ambulance to a nearby emergency room with severe, unrelenting chest pain. “I was scared out of my mind, imagining the worst,” Warsh said.

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.

   

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