Savvy Consumer: Looking for deals on school supplies

Texans will once again be able to save on sales tax on their back-to-school shopping today through Sunday -- and don't forget school supplies will be exempt again, along with clothing, shoes and backpacks.

Last year was the first time that 27 school supplies, from binders to writing tablets, were on the list of qualified items, joining clothes, footwear and backpacks valued under $100. Lunchboxes and calculators also made the new list.

The state comptroller estimates that the state and local sales tax savings to families will be $8 million on school supplies alone, compared with $9 million last year.

In total, the comptroller estimates Texans will realize $59.3 million in tax savings this weekend, a significant decrease over the $65.7 million last year.

This is the 12th straight year of the sales tax program, which has been dropped in several other states because of the economy. The savings started at midnight today and run until midnight Sunday. For a complete list of tax-free items, go to

Despite the lower savings estimates in Texas, retailers nationally are hoping for better back-to-school buying this year than last, which was a down year because of the recession, according to the National Retail Federation. This year, the average American family is expected to spend around $600 on clothes, shoes, supplies and electronics, about $50 more than last year.

Total spending for kindergarten through college is estimated to reach $55.12 billion this year, making it the second-biggest consumer spending time of the year behind the December holidays.

Back-to-school sales are already up over last year at the Super Target in south Arlington, said Jeramiah Nelson, a store manager.

"We're expecting a bigger crowd this weekend," he said. "We always have a full staff on hand for this because a lot of parents come in with their school's list and have no clue where to find the items."

With extended hours from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. on all days but Sundays, when the store closes at 10 p.m., this store is a test for the chain. Most Targets close at 10 p.m. during the week and 9 p.m. on Sundays.

While the tax savings of up to $8.25 for every $100 spent this weekend is a nice incentive, there are more ways to maximize your back-to-school savings this year, and it doesn't all have to be done in one weekend.

Back-to-school shoppers are increasingly turning to their mobile phones while in the stores to be more informed, according to a recent survey by Deloitte.

Nearly 3 in 10 consumers surveyed said they plan to use their mobile phones to get price information, view a retailer's advertisement or obtain discounts, coupons and sales information.

In the same survey, nearly one-third of respondents said they would use social networking to find out about promotions, browse products, and read reviews and recommendations. Citi Cards recently developed a cellphone app called the Citi Shopper that uses a GPS to identify items on your list at the closest stores with the best offers and the best ways to optimize rewards on your Citi credit or debit card. The app , which is still in beta testing, is available for the iPhone, BlackBerry and Android.

"We found that 85 percent of our customers' transactions are still in a physical world" as opposed to online, said Kurt Weise, senior vice president at Citi Cards. "At the same time, we understand that people are using their mobile phones more often."

Weise says that other apps do some of the tasks of the Citi Shopper but that this is the first app to combine location with deals and credit card awards.

Shoppers don't need to own a Citi card to use the application, which can be found at

Other options include signing up for your favorite retailers' text messages, Facebook pages, tweets and iPhone apps.

Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.