Back-to-school isn't just for kids anymore. Some of the hottest deals of the year happen in the final weeks of summer. You'll find deep discounts on items you could use as much as any high school or college student, including computers, printers, and small appliances. August and September are also prime bargain-hunting months for cars because dealers have to make room on their lots for next year's models. And if you're able to get away on a vacation, it's a great time to save on airfare, hotels, and other travel services.
Pick your spots, though, because not every end-of-summer deal is a steal. More retailers and service providers are trying to get in on the action with phony sales or bait-and-switch tactics. Below, we tell you which deals are for real, and which could leave you out in the cold.
Don't forget to check our coverage of the best time to buy things, which provides a monthly snapshot of the best deais.
New car models often debut in the fall, so you might find discounts of 15 percent or more in August and September on leftover models. Buying a year-end closeout model makes particular sense if you plan to keep the vehicle for five years or longer. Otherwise, you'll lose out on the trade-in value because cars see their biggest depreciation in their first year. Check out our free New Car Preview for a list of cars that have been redesigned for 2015.
Because dealerships lose money the longer they hold on to a vehicle, they might try to cover their losses by pushing unnecessary extras, such as corrosion protection or an extended warranty. Buy a car with good predicted reliability and skip such extras.
Hot tip: The Toyota Camry, one of our highest-rated midsized sedans, has been updated for 2015, though the changes are largely cosmetic. So you might save upward of $4,000 on the 2014 model without compromising on performance. One caveat: The Camry was updated midyear to improve its crash protection. Be sure to get the "2014.5" model, as noted on the window sticker.
After Labor Day, prices drop on airfare, hotels, and theme parks—luggage, too. Monday and Tuesday are usually the best days to snag cheap airline tickets. Sign up for e-mail price alerts to help stay on top of the offers. And if you can travel during a 24- to 48-hour window rather than on a specific date, your chances of landing a great deal will go up.
As for the best destinations, "Hawaii rarely experiences bad weather, and you'll find many airlines and hotels offering 40 percent off for September travel there," says Courtney Scott, senior editor at Travelocity. Hotels throughout the Mediterranean slash prices in late September and early October, after most tourists have gone home. Check out Italy's Amalfi Coast and Spain's Palma de Mallorca. For travel in October and into November, deals abound in Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, and other Caribbean hot spots. November hurricanes are rare in the eastern Caribbean, but still consider travel insurance.
Hot tip: Shop at Costco? You can find great vacation deals—say, 20 to 40 percent off peak prices—through its travel service. After Labor Day, an all-inclusive four-night stay (with meals) at the Hard Rock Hotel in the Dominican Republic will be discounted to $789 per person.
You'll find deals on patio furniture, lawn mowers, camping equipment, and other outdoor gear in August, but if you wait until September, prices might be slashed in half. Perennials, shrubs, and trees also see deep discounts, though make sure you choose species that can be planted in the fall.
Hot tip: Last winter's heavy snowfall caused a run on snow blowers in many parts of the country. This year's shipments will start to arrive in late August. Keep an eye out for deep teaser deals, which retailers use to get the attentionof customers who still have summer on the mind.
Computers are often reduced 30 to 50 percent, and cell phones are discounted 20 to 30 percent during back-to-school season, says Dan Butler, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation. Many of the top Android smart phones have already been introduced for the year, but if you're an Apple fan, it might make sense to wait. Its new models typicallu come out in early fall, and we're anticipating major hardware updates.
Paper, pens, tablets, and backpacks are also on sale in August. So are wardrobe basics: Blue jeans, khakis, white shirts, socks, and underwear are all 20 to 25 percent off, and you'll see even bigger discounts on sneakers.
With millions of students heading back to college, towels are marked down 20 to 30 percent—same with sheets, although usually on the twin sizes. Coffeemakers and small countertop microwaves are on sale, too.
Hot tip: Some states drop the sales tax on clothing, footwear, and certain school supplies for several days in July or August to coincide with back-to-school shopping. The exemptions and spending caps vary widely, so check your state's department of revenue or tax web-site for details.
Manufacturers usually introduce new cooktops, ranges, and wall ovens in early autumn, ahead of the busy holiday cooking season. To make room, retailers discount older models in August and September. Floor models might be reduced by up to 50 percent, saving you hundreds. But inspect them closely for wear and tear. If you find dings or missing parts, try to negotiate the price even lower.
Hot tip: When it comes to deals on large appliances, Best Buy beats Home Depot, Lowe's, and Sears, and rivals regional players Abt Electronics and HHGregg, according to our report on the best places to buy appliances.
Related information: Before you buy new appliances, learn whether you should repair or replace them.
Home centers often push home-improvement products over the holiday weekend. "Paint is on sale because manufacturers know that consumers have that extra day to get projects completed," says Debbie Zimmer of the Paint Quality Institute. You might also see deals on cordless drills and other power tools.
Mattresses are another popular Labor Day sales item. But so-called blowout sales can be misleading because retailers will often issue huge markups that make "50 percent off" sound better than it is. Salespeople, many of whom work on commission, will also steer you toward a pricier model. In our latest survey, the Original Mattress Factory was tops for service, price, and selection.
Hot tip: Home centers traditionally run Labor Day promos on many paints that do well in our Ratings. At Home Depot, we've seen $5 off gallons of top-rated Behr paint; Lowe's has had the same discount on recommended Valspar paint.
Want to get a jump on your holiday shopping? Most bike manufacturers launch new models in early autumn, so you'll see discounts on older models of 10 to 40 percent in late summer. The best deals are in cold-weather climates where snowfall puts an end to the bike-riding season.
Late summer is also the time to look for discounts on action camcorders, because current models will soon be replaced. And look for teaser sales on new models of digital cameras and wireless speakers.
Hot tip: China, dinnerware, glassware, and flatware are often 25 to 50 percent off during the popular wedding months of September and October. Even if you're not shopping for newlyweds, this is a great time to replace chipped dishes, missing platters, and other items that will help make your holiday table sparkle.
Back-to-school is a stressful time, especially if it involves shopping for school clothes with sulky adolescents. That's why more spas have started discounting massages and facials by 20 to 50 percent in August and September, says Lynne McNees, president of the International Spa Association.
Hot tip: Check the Facebook page and Twitter feed of popular spas in your area. The industry sees a lot of last-minute cancellations, so companies often post deep discounts on social media to help fill the openings.
Not all products and services are cheapest at the end of summer. Here are five categories in which it pays to wait:
Cruises. January is the start of "wave season," when cruise lines offer their deepest discounts— as much as 65 percent off—for the coming year.
Fall/winter clothes. Retailers do their first markdown on sweaters, coats, hats, and scarves around Labor Day, but unless you wear a hard-to-fit size, wait for more markdowns to follow, the best being right after Christmas.
Furniture. February is when last year's sofas, sectionals, and the like go on sale, because new lines arrive after the High Point Market trade show in April.
Gaming systems. Most new games are released right before the winter holidays, often with free add-ons, such as a controller and subscription membership. The systems and accessories might also be bundled for the holidays.
Refrigerators. Manufacturers introduce new models from May through July, making spring the best time to find a deal on older ones.
This article also appeared in the September 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.