Use your cards to rack up back-to-school savings

Back-to-school clothes, dress shoes, college textbooks and computers can take a big bite out of your family budget, but by smart shopping with your credit cards you can stack your savings.

Total spending for back-to-school and back-to-college supplies will reach $75.8 billion in 2016, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey. That’s up from last year’s $68 billion.

Back-to-school shoppers are more upbeat about their financial situation, a Synchrony Financial survey finds. And this is expected to increase back-to-school retail sales this year between 3.2 percent and 3.7 percent.

You’re going to be making the back-to-school purchases anyway, so why not use your credit cards to get the most value — and rewards — for your dollars?

Here are three ways to maximize your rewards and ring up back-to-school savings:

1. Bonus cash-back categories: A handful of cards have 5 percent bonus categories that change every quarter. Check your card issuer’s cash back bonus categories to increase your back-to-school savings.

For example:

Discover: “If you have the Discover it Card and Amazon Prime, you might want to check for back-to-school supplies,” says Holly Johnson, a co-founder of, a personal finance and savings site. “From July through September 2016, is one of Discover’s 5 percent cash back bonus categories. If you’re able to get a good deal on supplies, free shipping, and 5 percent back on your purchase, that’s a pretty sweet deal,” she says.

Chase: With the Chase Freedom card, purchases at wholesale clubs, such as Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s, are in the 5 percent category through the end of the year. And if you’re eating out in a college town while moving your child to campus, restaurants also are in this quarter’s 5 percent cash-back category.

Citi: If you’re renting a vehicle to move a student to college and staying a night or two in that city, Citi’s 5 percent cash back quarterly category (currently Hilton and car rentals) may come in handy.

U.S. Bank: If users of U.S. Bank’s new Cash+ card were really planning ahead, they could have selected two 5 percent cash back categories for the quarter — retailers, car rentals, whatever might help you save the most on your family’s spending ahead of the school year.

2. Online shopping portals: Use your card issuer’s shopping portal to earn additional cash back, points or miles on the same school supplies and computers you’d purchase in stores. You may even get free shipping on your order.

Johnson says: “If you have a Chase credit card that earns Ultimate Rewards, make sure to check in with the Chase shopping portal before you head out to stop for back to school.

“The deals change all the time, but you can frequently score an extra 2 to 5 points for every dollar you spend at certain office supply stores,” she says.

“As of this writing, Staples, the Apple Store, and Office Depot are offering an extra 2x points,” adds the mom of two girls, ages 5 and 7. “Walmart is also offering an extra 2x points for every dollar you spend.”

Matthew Coan, founder of, also is a fan of playing one’s cards right for added back-to-school and year-round savings. There is also “savings you can ‘add’ to your cards,” he says, citing Amex Offers and BankAmeriDeals, which let cardholders select discounts from stores to add on their cards.

For instance, American Express cardholders who’ve synced their cards with Twitter can get a one-time Amex Offers $30 statement credit by spending at least $150 at The Container Store through Aug. 31, 2016.

3. Tax-free holidays: Several states have these holidays. During these “holidays,” you’ll save the cost of state sales tax on select back-to-school purchases. How much you can save varies by state (California has the highest state-level sales tax at 7.5 percent, and Oklahoma is lowest of states with a state sales tax at 4.28 percent, according to the Tax Foundation).​

Check if your state has a tax-free weekend (with dates and what’s covered) on the map, but note, too, that your city, county or district may not be participating. Make a list of your family’s back-to-school needs, and note what’s covered by your state’s program.

Want to avoid a mob of moms and dads snapping up school uniforms, pens and notebooks at stores? Shop online. Stack your savings via your cash back cards and online shopping portals.

An added bonus perk for new Discover cardholders: Discover will double cash back earned during the first year for new cardholders. How does this help cut your back-to-school bill?

“Current card members can get the 5 percent cash back bonus while shopping for back-to-school items, and new cardholders would get 10 percent with the Match program,” says Derek Cuculich, Discover’s manager of public relations.

Bottom line: Budget-minded moms and frugal fathers can use their cards to save on purchases for back to school and year-round. Making the most of tax-free holidays, online shopping portals, card-linked shopping discounts and cash-back bonus categories can add up the savings — and reduce the size of your back-to-school bill.

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