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Time to sharpen your pencils, shoppers. Not only are parents shopping for back-to-school needs early and comparing prices, they might want to also try to figure out on which days they want to buy. Eighteen states have tax holidays that can help back-to-school shoppers stretch their money — and for shoppers in Georgia and Mississippi, the tax savings start Friday and end Saturday.

Retailers love the tax-free days, because they draw shoppers in. But tax holidays have been criticized as the triumph of good politics over good policy; in fact, last year North Carolina eliminated its tax-free shopping days in favor of a tax cut.

Still, if you’re shopping for back to school, the savings may be worth considering. But, as when shopping with any discount available, it’s still important to remember that spending more than you would otherwise because you are “saving” so much doesn’t really save you anything. Still, if you are buying bookbags, paper, calculators and other supplies on your state’s list of tax-free items, your savings could be significant, depending on how high your state taxes are and how much you spend. If you’re buying a laptop, or if multiple children need new shoes, timing your purchase for tax-free days could be worth it.

Here are some tips for making the most of the tax-free days.

1. Carefully read through your state’s listing of what will be tax-free and make sure you understand the rules. Most states have maximum prices for clothes, for example. You might discover that shoes costing $99 are tax-exempt, but those over $100 are not.

2. Make a list. What do you need, really? Many discount stores post lists of what’s required by various schools. Check a list before you go shopping to see what you already have (or what your child might use as a hand-me-down). Paying no tax on something you didn’t actually need to buy isn’t saving.

3. Look at ads and check out loss leaders. If crayons or glue are going for a penny, think about buying some. Those things run out, and a fresh supply will be welcome. (Remember how good brand-new crayons felt in your hand?) Those can also be purchased to donate later. You don’t need a tax holiday to do this, either.

4. Have a budget. Know what you expect to pay, and have an idea of what things should cost before you go. Tax-free isn’t the best deal if you find the same item at a clearance price elsewhere. Be educated about prices, and remember what you can afford and what you planned to spend.

5. Know how you are going to pay. When you’re not paying cash, it’s easy to forget how much you have spent. It can be helpful to think it through ahead of time rather than reach into your wallet and try to figure out which credit card makes the most sense while someone is waiting impatiently in line behind you. The card can matter because if you plan to pay off your balance immediately, you may want to choose a card that gives you maximum cash-back rewards, for example. In a case of rotating categories that earn cash-back bonuses, you may want to check those categories before you shop. For example, Chase Freedom has 5% cash-back categories, but they rotate each quarter, so you’ll need to double-check the rewards calendar to make the most of your cash-back bonuses. If you’re trying to build or rebuild credit, pay attention to your cards’ balances relative to credit limit, and choose a card with “room” for your purchases. (If you know where you’ll shop, you may be able to save a bit more by buying a discounted gift card ahead of time from GiftCardGranny, Raise or similar services.)

Be careful not to let school expenses pull your finances off track, particularly as we move toward the end of the year, which tends to be associated with higher spending. It’s good to keep in mind that when you decide last year’s bookbag will suffice until backpacks go on sale, and make it a priority to keep your credit healthy (and you can get a free credit report summary on Credit.com), you’re contributing to your kids’ financial education. And, hopefully, that will last even longer than a laptop.

Alabama – Aug. 7-9

Arkansas – Aug. 1-2

Connecticut – Aug. 16-22

Florida – Aug. 7-16

Georgia – July 31-Aug. 1

Iowa – Aug. 7-8

Louisiana – Aug. 7-8

Maryland – Aug. 9-15

Massachusetts – Aug. 15-16

Mississippi – July 31-Aug. 1

Missouri – Aug. 7-9

New Mexico – Aug. 7-9

Ohio – Aug. 7-9

Oklahoma – Aug. 7-9

South Carolina – Aug. 7-9

Tennessee – Aug. 7-9

Texas – Aug.7-9

Virginia – Aug. 7-9

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