10 Ways Military Families can Save Money on Back-to-School Shopping

(DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp)

Photo by David H. Lipp/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

August and September mean one thing for kids across America: It’s time to head back to school!

But for many military families living on a tight budget, back-to-school translates into pricey shopping trips and unwanted penny-pinching. Luckily, we scoped the Internet and rounded up 10 tips to help military families save money as their kids get ready to hit the books.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user leecullivan

1. Take advantage of the tax-free weekend (if applicable) in your state. While the participating states and rules vary, you can usually purchase clothing and school supplies up to a certain dollar amount completely tax-free. Check out this list from the Federation of Tax Administrators to see if your state is participating.

2. Wait to buy fashionable gear, like lunch boxes and pencil cases, until a few weeks into school. Chances are, kids will want to buy what ever the latest fad is and you don’t want to end up spending double to make them feel like they fit in with the crowd. (Tip via http://couponing.about.com/od/apparelarticlesnews/a/backtoschool.htm)

3. Commit to packing lunch this year. You can even incorporate the task as part of the post-dinner cleanup. Packing a lunch not only saves bundles over the course of the year, but also allows you to know what’s going into your child’s mouth (for the most part). Here’s some brown-bag lunch ideas to get you started. (Tip via http://www.parenting.com/article/10-back-to-school-shopping-tips-that-save-money)

(via Flickr Creative Commons user  crossettlibrary)

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user crossettlibrary

4. Scope out coupon websites and newspaper ads before you head to the store. Although clipping coupons or searching the Web for discounts seems tedious, the savings each provides really adds up. While newspaper coupons vary by location, we found six coupon websites and blogs that should help you save on your next big shopping trip:

5. Host a hand-me-down party and swap clothes and supplies with friends. This is a great way to recycle gently used school supplies, clothes, backpacks and shoes that your kiddos might have grown out of over the past year. Invite friends with children who are younger and older, and ask them to bring a bag of their gently used hand-me-downs to trade with other partygoers. You can donate any leftover items after the party. (Tip via http://www.parenting.com/article/10-back-to-school-shopping-tips-that-save-money)

6. Recycle “grown up” office supplies lying around the house by letting the kids decorate them. Before you head to the store, take a look at what office supplies you might already have. Then, let kids unleash their creative energy by adding drawings, photos and other trinkets to folders, binders and pencil cases that might be lying around the house unused. (Tip via  http://couponing.about.com/od/apparelarticlesnews/a/backtoschool.htm)

(via Flickr Creative Commons user Melissa Collins)

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Melissa Collins

7. Buy school supplies for the entire year now. You won’t see these low, back-to-school prices again until this time next year. (Tip via http://everydaysavvy.com/back-to-school-savings-tips-and-sale-information/ )

8. Aim for durability. While better quality brands might be pricier up front, many of these products will last longer, saving you money in the long run. (Tip via http://everydaysavvy.com/back-to-school-savings-tips-and-sale-information/ )

9. Look for deals at garage sales and on Craigslist. People are constantly selling gently used clothes, office supplies and even furniture at garage sales and on Craigslist. You’ll never know what deals you can find. (Tip via http://www.parenting.com/article/10-back-to-school-shopping-tips-that-save-money)

10. Plan a trip to your local outlet mall. This is a great way to stock up on brand name clothes for the school year. Keep winter clothes in mind when you’re shopping as well.

With You All the Way Hits Germany

We recently completed our spring portion of the With You All the Way tour. We spoke to about 15,000 kids, all of them overseas. This portion of the tour had somewhat of a bittersweet ending. The good news is that we get to rest a little bit over the summer. The bad news is that we are going to miss being around this brave group of kids for a while. Plus, a number of bases we visited are closing or consolidating, which means big changes for the military and many of the families.

Trevor RomainWe were in three cities in central Germany, Weisbaden, Heidelberg, and Stuttgart. The Heidelberg area is home to two elementary schools, Manheim Elementary school and Patrick Henry Elementary school. Manheim Elementary is closing its doors this year. Due to the army drawdown and plans for realignment in Europe, schools and bases are closing down. It has been open since 1946, and in the early nineties it had about 2,000 students. Today, there are only about 200, and those kids will be moving somewhere else next year. In fact, many are having to move now, back to the states. Many more know they are moving soon, but don’t know where they are going.

We spoke to one little girl, who towards the end of the presentation, finally had the courage to say something. Her dad was currently deployed, and she  and her mom were having to move to Colorado in the next couple of days. She was petrified, and rightfully so. I can’t imagine have my family be uprooted to a somewhere far away while I was deployed to Afghanistan and not able to offer any help. However, because the little girl had the courage to speak up, we were able to offer some assistance and expedite shipping of her USO family empowerment pack so she could have it for her travels.

Patrick Henry Elementary school is also going to close soon. These families are really in a state of flux because they know they are going to have to move but don’t know when and don’t know where. Living in this state of uncertainty is causing much stress on a lot of families. We had two great presentations at Patrick Henry. The kids were so engaged and had plenty to say. One thing that stood out in particular for me though, was a shy little girl in the back who had the courage to raise her hand.  We ask the kids what they learned during the video portion of our presentation. So she felt the need to say something. I asked, what she learned and very quietly but confidently said, “You don’t have to be in a special group to be special.” Wow, I hope everyone can learn from that.

Trever Romain consoles a young girl during his With You All The Way tour in Vicenza, Italy, recently.

We spent our last couple of days in Stuttgart. We had no idea how big Stuttgart was. There is about 5 million people in the city and surrounding area. Stuttgart is a beautiful city. It is where old meets new. Buildings that are 700 years old living happily with very modern buildings. We went to a school called Patch Elementary, on the Patch military base, which is a large army base. We had some really good presentations again. But we want to leave you with one email we received from a mom. It really makes us feel good about what we are doing and how important the work the USO is doing for military families:

 Dear Mr. Romain.  Thank you for coming to Patch Elementary School in Stuttgart.  My son did not stop talking about your visit all the way home in the car.  Then something happened when we got to the house.  You see my husband was hurt and he lost part of his leg and my son seems ashamed and angry about what happened. He always wanted to take his anger out by himself and stay locked in his room alone and did not want to deal with his dad.  And it was so hard for my husband.  He said that kind of pain was worse than his injury. Today when he came home my son wrote a letter to his dad and said he loved him and wanted to help him get better. I’m not sure what you said to him but thank you and Mr. Woody and the USO for your presentation and for helping our kids on the bases.  You just don’t know how much it means to us. I cannot thank you enough for your help.

Trevor Romain, Performer, Author & USO Supporter

USO Wishbook Gifts for the Military Child

Today is the last day of the Month of the Military Child. Here at the USO, we do our best to provide programs and services that ease the unique burdens military children face daily – to provide ways to stay connected to parents when gone for long periods of time. Help us continue to provide these important services by purchasing one of these gifts for a loved one in your life today!

Growing Up Brave
Deployment can be a challenging and confusing time for a child. This $25 kit gives them the tools they need to help cope with this challenge and keep them happy and healthy. It includes a coloring book, a specially-made DVD to answer the questions they often have and a journal.

Family Fun Day
Our military families go through lots of hardships during their service. But at USO centers, they have a chance to relax and have some fun together. For $50 you can make a Family Fun Day at a center possible and give a little something back for all their sacrifice.

Bedtime Stories
The hardest hit members of a military family are often the youngest. For $50 you can help by giving our service men and women the chance to read them a bedtime story through United Through Reading’s Military Program, record it on DVD and send it back home.

Operation Basic Boot Camp

It’s not very often that military children get a chance to see what their parents do on a day-to-day basis. The USO of Metropolitan Washington gave more than 75 children that opportunity and then some. On July 20, 2011 at Fort Belvoir’s Castle Park, USO Metropolitan Washington hosted the first-ever “Operation Basic Boot Camp.” After checking in, the kids had 30 seconds to change into their new t-shirts and meet their drill instructors for a day of fun and challenging activities.

Their  instructors were no joke and the kids gained valuable insight and appreciation into their parents’ lives: “I learned that my parents have been working really hard and what they do is no joke,” says Bryce Hairston, 12.

Both of Bryce’s parents served in the Air Force for more than 20 years and his mother is still active duty.

Once the children were finished with PT, they welcomed Elaine Rogers, president of USO-Metro; and Col. John Strycula, Fort Belvoir garrison commander; for a few words of advice.

Strycula emphasized teamwork and wanted the youth to learn what their parents go through on a day-to-day basis. He also reminded them to stay hydrated because safety always comes first.


Military Children Go Through Boot Camp at Fort Belvoir: MyFoxDC.com

After lunch, the children separated into groups for some team-building activities, face painting to help them blend in with their surroundings, and ended the day with a competitive game of Capture the Flag.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Bryce Hairston said, “At first, I didn’t think I could do it. But, once the drill instructors started yelling at me, it really motivated me to believe I could do it.”

All participants received certificates stating their completion of the first USO-Metro Operation Basic Boot Camp. With the incredible success of the 2011 program, event plans are currently underway to expand. – Joseph P. Scannell, New Media Intern

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families 2012

New character Katie tells her friends she is moving during the 2011 Joining Forces: Sesame Street/USO Special Event. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families – a free, traveling USO tour based on Sesame Workshop’s award winning Talk, Listen, Connect initiative – made its debut in July 2008 to help families deal with the unique challenges children of military parents face. For almost four years the tour has visited multiple states and countries, spreading their messages to troops and their families.

The tour is heading back out to the United States this April with some new wheels! The half-hour show focuses on the challenges of deployments and their impact on military kids. During the performance, Elmo and his Sesame pals will help Katie – a military friend relocating to a new place – open up about her fears and excitement in dealing with change and making new friends.  Created exclusively for this tour, Katie was first introduced last April by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Biden at a Joining Forces rally in Ohio.

But before these fuzzy, furry monsters get on their way, Sesame Street and the USO are reaching out to their fans via Facebook for help naming their new tour bus! Visit Facebook.com/SesameStreetForMilitaryFamilies to submit ideas for bus names and be sure to stay tuned to Facebook.com/theUSO for voting on the top picks!

Stop by USO.org/Sesame to learn more and see where the tour is heading next!

Op Thanksgiving Eagle – “Brings A Beat To Our Military Children’s Hearts”

‎”Mrs. Fink–I loved your songs. Your beat is in my heart.” – Sammy, Kindergarten, Wetzel Elementary School, Baumholder. Father is currently deployed and in danger’s way. (The Assistant Principal led Sammy to me after the show so he could share his powerful words with me.)

Operation Thanksgiving Eagle at the USO Warrior Center in Germany

Be still my heart. Sammy and I then hugged, and had a priceless conversation about the power of music. Yes, with a five-year-old. I told him his words were the highlight of my day, and were worth traveling to Germany to hear.

The 450 students at this morning’s two performances at Wetzel ES were stellar. The principal, Ms. Simmons, and her assistant principal lead and educate these children lovingly and enduringly. Their students are 100% Army (so of course we wove the Army anthem into the script!), and over 90% currently have a parent deployed and in harm’s way.

Debbie Fink plays during the Operation Thanksgiving Eagle Tour at Vogelweh

As Ms. Simmons said (I am paraphrasing), “there’s a specialness to these kids. What they are dealing with is beyond the call of duty. They do their best, and are simply–special.” The assistant principal shared how she feels so privileged to work with them, and to help them with all their individual and collective needs. Looking at the upside, she shared that these are happier times right now, because the majority of their deployed parents are coming home before the New Year.

Yet, I wonder, how does it feel inside a child’s heart to see “all” the other parents come trickling home, when yours does not? Don’t we all remember a time when our parent was the very last to pick us up from school, or didn’t pick us up that time at all? Multiply that by a million, and that’s my civilian guess for how it feels. Add to this the possibilities that such a child might feel jealousy, anger, or resentment for the classmates whose parents DO come home. And top that off with those kids who then may feel badly or ashamed or embarrassed that this is how they feel, when they “should” feel happy for their peers’ long-awaited-for family reunions.

It’s comforting to know that these brave Wexler students are in a school environment that understands them, supports them, comforts them, and stands by them. It’s comforting to know that as Sammy holds the beat of our OTE performance’s music and message in his gentle heart, that he is in a space which will one day soon place drumsticks in his hands. May Sammy’s heart continue to sing; may his soul continue to dance; and may his father soon return home safely to swoop Sammy up and swing his son in his strong, heroic arms. – Debbie Fink, Acclaimed Author, Educator, Speaker & Performer

See more updates from the tour at Debbie Fink’s Facebook Page. Note: the child’s real name was changed to Sammy for reasons of confidentiality.