Sales tax holidays can be confusing

Why everyone hates back-to-school — and why you shouldn’t

Nobody likes back-to-school shopping. Especially this weekend, which in nine states will approach Black Friday-levels of madness.

Parents will spend an average of $672 on back-to-school shopping this year, according to The International Council of Shopping Centers, which exists and has members in 100 countries. Leaving out electronics cuts the number by more than half. Either way, it’s still up from last year’s spending. (It’s also higher than last year’s Black Friday spending, where consumers spent an average of $407.)

But unlike Black Friday, you don’t have to line up at 4 a.m. to get the best deals. You just have to figure out what they are — the definitions can be tricky — and maybe when they are, if your state isn’t exactly consistent on tax holidays.

Who gets tax holidays

Only 16 states have at least one tax holiday this year, since North Carolina ditched its long-standing holiday last year.

Massachusetts still hasn’t decided when its holiday will occur, even though they definitely want it to happen next weekend or the one after. Talk about short notice. (UPDATE: Legislators decided in the final hour it would be the later weekend, Aug. 16 and 17, according to The Associated Press.)

On the other end of the spectrum, a handful of states, like Louisiana, have multiple sales tax holidays. There’s the regular back-to-school season one, another for hurricane season, and something called the Second Amendment Weekend Sales Tax Holiday. Which includes a sales tax exemption on crossbows and ATVs.

Meanwhile, lucky consumers in a few states, like Alaska, never have to pay state sales tax.

The tax holiday map

Where do you fit in? In the map below, we’ve compiled the most reliable tax information available — from state tax departments — about what you can save on and when.

Click on your state for a quick overview, then check out the source link that appears in the lower right for the full details. We hope it helps and entertains. You can also click-and-drag to then reposition the map and check out other states. (While you can do that to get to Alaska or Hawaii, there’s no need. The former never charges sales tax, and the latter always does.)


Key to the tax holiday map

Everybody stresses about back-to-school

Besides maybe the retail executives, nobody loves school shopping season. Nearly all parents and teens stress about the actual shopping, according to a new survey of roughly 2,000 of them by coupons site Ebates.com. Stresses range from dealing with the crowds to dealing with, well, each other.

“More than half of American parents (55 percent) rank not being able to afford everything their kids want as their No. 1 concern about back to school shopping, while 37 percent of teens worry that their parents can’t afford to buy the clothes they’re asking for,” says Ebates. Of course, it also says far more teens are worried about having to wake up early for class (69 percent) and the amount of homework they’ll be getting (64 percent).

Sacrifice or savings?

Compare and contrast these snippets from two recent surveys. First, the Ebates one mentioned above…

The survey also found that 90 percent of Americans save on their back to school shopping. While almost half of adults plan to spend their back to school savings on their kids (48 percent) or invest it in a college fund (27 percent), more than a quarter plan to spend the money on shopping (27 percent). Family oriented parents will spend it on vacations (26 percent), and those in need of home remodeling spend it on home repairs (21 percent).

Now this from another coupon site, RetailMeNot, which surveyed more than 1,000 parents…

3 in 4 parents have spent less on something for themselves specifically because of their child’s education costs. And more working parents than non-working parents (78 percent vs. 68 percent) have spent less on items for themselves due to school fees. The top items parents have cut back on for themselves include clothing or shoes (56 percent), dining out (55 percent) and vacations (49 percent).

We don’t know who’s got it right, but we do know there’s plenty of wiggle room in most participating states’ laws for grown-up purchases. While Massachusetts and Louisiana’s holidays fall during the back-to-school season, they’re designed to offer much broader tax benefits.

And “clothes” can often be a strangely broad category. In Iowa, Maryland, and Mexico, for instance, lingerie is specifically spelled out as tax-exempt. Some states consider accessories like sunglasses, wigs, and handbags clothing, while others specifically exclude them. In general, it’s a great time to buy a new computer, laptop, or tablet.

Then there are the states offering energy efficiency tax holidays. Tax-free looks much nicer on those four-digit purchases.

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