DAVID SLADE: Unexpected deals during sales tax holiday

Bridal dresses and tuxedos are tax-free when you buy, but rentals are not included.

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Amid lackluster predictions, local retailers are gearing up for the back-to-school rush.

South Carolina's truly strange back-to-school sales tax holiday weekend begins Friday and runs through next Sunday, offering a tax exemption on all sorts of things that have nothing to do with school.

As with many tax breaks, the best opportunities to save money have less to do with the stated purpose of the law (saving on school supplies) and more to do with what the regulations actually say. The state gives up nearly $3 million in annual revenue on this tax holiday, so you may as well get your share.

It's nice to get a tax break on pencils and bookbags, but they aren't expensive to begin with, and they go on sale frequently. Besides, many public schools require supplies to be turned in prior to the tax holiday weekend.

I've already bought my son's required school supplies and turned them in to his school. Had they been tax-free, I would have saved less than $10.

The real tax holiday deals will be found on big-ticket items that rarely go on sale.

For example, brides-to-be would be well-advised to buy their wedding dresses this coming weekend. Those things are expensive and sales are rare, but wedding dresses are tax-exempt Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

With state and local sales taxes adding up to as much as 8.5 percent, that's a savings of up to $85 on a $1,000 dress. Someone buying a high-end designer dress could save hundreds of dollars. There's also a tax break if you buy a tuxedo, but not if you rent one.

And this is why the back-to-school tax holiday is truly strange. The list of things that are tax-exempt, and those that are not, defies explanation.

Batting gloves are tax-free, but baseball gloves are not.

Computers are tax-free, but accessories, including keyboards and monitors, are not, unless they are part of a computer package deal, in which case they are.

Alarm clocks and watches, which I found handy while in school, are taxed, but adult diapers are not.

Paper towels, which are on most school lists of required supplies, are taxed.

Bicycle helmets don't escape taxation, but ice skates are tax-free.

Purses are tax-free but wallets are taxed. The list goes on and on.

Here are some of the categories that offer the best opportunities for savings:

Clothing and shoes: Stores routinely offer deep discounts on clothing, but if you've already found good prices, the sales tax holiday is icing on the cake. Purchases of clothing, accessories and footwear are all tax-free. Rentals are still taxed, as are items previously put on layaway.

Computers, printers, printer supplies and software: Particularly if you're buying a rarely discounted brand such as Apple, the sales tax break can make a real difference on a computer purchase. It will be about $100 off a new iMac. Printer ink and software are also an opportunity for savings.

Bed and bath: Like clothing, bedding and towels are frequently and heavily discounted, but if you've already found a deal, the sales tax break can make it sweeter. The question will be whether retailers offer sale prices during the tax holiday weekend that are as good as their prices on other weekends.

Expensive specialty purchases: Because of the expansive definition of clothing and footwear, the tax-free back-to-school list includes wetsuits and drysuits, ski boots and ski suits, furs and lingerie. Even purchases of costumes and historic clothing are tax-free (attention re-enactors!).

Musical instruments: If they're used for school assignments, they're tax-free.

In each case, the tax-free items must be purchased for personal use, so you can't go buy a year's worth of tax-free printer cartridges for your business.

The bottom line: The sales tax break alone doesn't amount to a big discount, but if it comes on top of good sale prices, or can be used for expensive items that are rarely discounted, it's a good opportunity for extra savings.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or on Facebook.