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Kids, cover your ears: Back-to-school season has arrived! (Cue dancing parents.) For many families this means wrapping up final vacations and starting to navigate the seemingly endless list of tasks to complete before the yellow bus pulls onto your street to officially start the 2018-2019 school year. This often involves shopping for school supplies, clothing and other essentials to ensure your kiddos are fully equipped on day one, and there’s no shortage of ways to make the most of this from a points and miles standpoint. Today I’ll go through my favorite strategies for maximizing your back-to-school purchases.

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A couple of quick disclaimers before diving in: While some of the tips below are universally available, others are targeted or may vary depending on where you live, what cards you have or other factors. Keep in mind too that some are stackable but others aren’t; for example, you may not earn bonus miles through an airline shopping portal if you use a discount code not listed on the portal itself (see below for additional details). It’s important to do your research to determine which of them apply to each purchase you make.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the best ways to maximize your back-to-school purchases!

Credit Card Welcome Bonuses

One of the quickest ways to boost your balance of points and miles with a given program is by signing up for a new travel rewards credit card. Many of these cards offer significant welcome bonuses after spending a certain amount of money in a given timeframe, so if you’re expecting a decent chunk of purchases in the next few weeks, you might as well earn a big haul of points or miles! We’ve even published a guide to the best travel rewards cards for families, and here are a few of my favorites:

Just be sure that you understand the various application restrictions for the major card issuers before applying, especially Chase’s notorious 5/24 rule.

One final suggestion: If you apply and are immediately approved, you may want to call the issuer and see if they’d be willing to expedite delivery of the card. Some premium products do this automatically (my new Ritz card arrived just three business days after getting approved, just before the card was pulled for new applicants), but many will simply mail the new card via standard mail in a plain white envelope, which generally takes 7-10 days. Getting a new card for back-to-school purchases doesn’t help much if it doesn’t actually arrive until after school begins!

Credit Card Bonus Categories

When you really think about how many everyday items can be considered office supplies, you realize the spending potential you need to maximize. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Need some office supplies? There’s a card for that. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Another great strategy for maximizing your back-to-school purchases is to ensure you’re utilizing bonus categories on cards currently in your wallet. There are a handful of cards that immediately come to mind along these lines:

  • Ink Business Cash Credit Card: This card offers 5% cash back on up to $25,000 of combined purchases at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services each account anniversary year. If your kids need pencils, crayons, markers or anything else in the “office supplies” category, visit your nearest Staples or Office Depot and pull this card out of your wallet. Keep in mind too that the cash back points you earn can be combined with points earned from cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve to boost their value and enable them to be transferred to partners like Hyatt and United.
  • Chase Freedom: Another part of my perfect Chase quartet, this card is currently offering 5% cash back at Walgreens (along with gas purchases and Lyft rides) up to $1,500 through the end of September. Like with the earnings on the Ink Cash, you can also convert these to full Ultimate Rewards points if you have the Sapphire Reserve or Sapphire Preferred; see this post for additional details.
  • The Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card from American Express: If you’re all about efficiency, consider picking up some school supplies on your next trip to the grocery story. The Amex EveryDay Preferred offers 3x Membership Rewards points on your first $6,000 of purchases at US supermarkets each year, and you can boost those earnings to 4.5x points if you have 30+ transactions each month.

Unfortunately, many stores (especially clothing retailers) don’t typically fall into the common bonus categories, so your best bet is to either use a new card to work toward a welcome bonus or use a card that offers a solid return on everyday (non-bonus) spending.

However, maximizing your earnings may not always be the best bet…

Credit Card Protection

Cards like the Amex Platinum offer an array of protection for your large purchases.

If you’re looking at making a large purchase like a computer or tablet for your older kid(s), you may want to consider using a sub-optimal card (from an earning perspective) that offers stronger protections for those purchases. There are four major perks that would apply to these purchases:

  • Purchase protection: This covers eligible purchases against loss, damage and/or theft within the first few months. Many cards offer this particular benefit automatically, including the Citi Double Cash Card. Check out Katie Genter’s guide on the best cards for purchase protection for additional details.
  • Extended warranty: Many products come with a published manufacturer’s warranty, but it seems like things always go wrong right after they expire (or is it just me?). If you use the right credit card for purchasing these products, however, you’ll typically get an extra year or two of coverage for no charge. Once again, Katie Genter has an excellent guide for cards with extended warranties, so check that our for more information.
  • Return protection: While hopefully a rare occurrence, there may be times when a merchant doesn’t allow you to return an item, at which point this coverage will kick in, typically covering claims up to 90 or even 120 days after purchase.
  • Price protection: This one allows you to obtain a refund for eligible items if you find a lower price within a certain time window after purchase, though many restrictions do apply (and this benefit is being scaled back due to huge increases in claim numbers).

With each of these perks, the details vary from card to card and issuer to issuer, including how long you have to submit claims, the amount of coverage provided and excluded items. Be sure to carefully check your policy to make sure you’re protected!

It’s also worth noting that both Citi and Chase have recently trimmed these benefits on certain cards. However, just in time for back-to-school, American Express recently implemented expanded coverage for both purchase protection and extended warranty. These changes just took effect on August 1 and apply to any personal or small business card, so if you have a card like The Blue Business℠ Plus Credit Card from American Express or The Platinum Card® from American Express, you’ll enjoy enhanced protection for your back-to-school purchases!

Online Shopping Portals

Getting back to the earning site of the equation, another way to make the most of your purchases is by buying online through a shopping portal. By starting at these sites and then clicking through to a specific store (rather than visiting the store’s site directly), you’ll be eligible for bonus earnings on top of the regular credit card points or miles you’d earn for the purchase. These portals fit into a few different categories:

  • Cash back: Sites like Ebates and Mr. Rebates give you cash back for shopping at hundreds of retailers.
  • Airline miles: Many large carriers (including Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest and United) partner with many retailers to offer bonus miles on purchases. You may even find a specific back-to-school bonus on certain sites.
  • Hotel points: Hilton Honors and Choice Privileges are the two major hotel programs with their own online shopping portals.
  • Credit card points: You can earn bonus points with Chase, Barclaycard and Wells Fargo for many popular sites.

My recommendation is to start with an online shopping portal aggregator like CashBackMonitor to compare the various earning rates across the different sites before choosing which would be best.

Bear in mind that going through an online shopping portal can be stacked with category bonuses that you’d receive on the card anyway. For example, at the time of writing, Staples is offering 4% cash back when you click through via the Shop through Chase page:

This is in addition to the 5% you’d normally earn on office supply purchases. As noted earlier, if you also have the Sapphire Reserve or Sapphire Preferred, this is the equivalent of earning 9 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent. Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, that’s a return of 18.9% on your back-to-school purchases!

Amex Offers

Another option for discounts or enhanced bonuses for back-to-school is the Amex Offers program. This is open to virtually all personal and small business Amex cards, including the Amex Platinum and Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express. Unlike the strategies mentioned above, these offers tend to be targeted, so you probably have a unique set of offers in your account. In addition, if you have more than one American Express card, you’re virtually guaranteed to have varied offers among those accounts.

For any offers that apply to online purchases, you can still click through a shopping portal and earn bonus points, since the credit or bonus points are given directly to you by American Express. The portal won’t have any idea that there’s an Amex Offer associated with your purchase.

Tax-Free Holidays

If you’re willing to brave the crowds of back-to-school shoppers in stores, try to schedule your trips around tax-free holidays in your home state. The Federation of Tax Administrators has a great page with information on when these fall for many states, including applicable restrictions and links to state-specific information, so check that out for more information.

Here are some examples of 2018 holidays:

  • Connecticut: From August 19 – 25, most individual items of clothing and footwear priced under $100 are tax-free.
  • Maryland: From August 12 – 18, qualifying apparel and footwear priced at $100 or less (per item) are exempt from state sales tax. As of 2017, this also includes the first $40 of a backpack or bookbag purchase.
  • Texas: From August 10 – 12, most clothing, footwear, school supplies and backpacks priced at less than $100 are tax-free.

If you missed the window for your state, be sure to bookmark this page for next year!

Discount Codes and Offers

A final way to save this back-to-school season is through the simple method of the coupon. You may see some mailers come to your house with these offers, but it’s even easier online, as chances are quite good that there is some type of promo code out there for you to find. Some may be advertised right on the retailer’s homepage, like this one for eBags:

Others might be listed right in the shopping portal through which you are shopping, like this one for The Container Store through the American AAdvantage eShopping site:

Some stores may give you a one-time discount code for signing up for email updates, like Bed Bath & Beyond:

Finally, a quick Google search for “(Insert store name here) promo code” will bring up results on sites like Coupon Cabin or RetailMeNot.

The big disclaimer here is that most shopping portals include language like this when you click through to a retailer’s site:

“Not eligible on purchases made with coupon or discount codes that are not found on this site.”

Despite this clear, unambiguous language, I’ve found the actual enforcement of this restriction to be hit or miss at best, so you may wind up earning bonus points or miles nonetheless. Just be prepared to miss out if you use a code that you found elsewhere.

Bottom Line

Getting your kids ready to go back to school can be a stressful and expensive proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. By carefully strategizing with credit cards, online shopping portals and other methods for discounts or bonuses, you may find yourself much closer to your next vacation than you thought. I’ve already employed literally every one of these to maximize my back-to-school purchases (my daughter starts pre-school this year), and I certainly hope they can help you as well!

(Ok kids, you can uncover your ears now.)

Featured image courtesy of asiseeit/Getty Images.

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