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14 Tips to Save Money on Back to School Supplies & Shopping List

By Heather Levin

school supplies carts coinsThe cost to go “back to school” keeps increasing. In 2010, the National Retail Federation (NRF) estimated that the average American family would spend more than $600 on back to school supplies. That’s only for an average student; college-age students, who often require many more supplies, especially if they’re moving into a dorm, may spend even more. That also represents an 11% jump from the year before.

Does this sound like you? Many parents begin eyeing the back to school fliers and ads in August. Whether your kids start kindergarten or head off to the university this year, you can buy them everything they need without breaking your bank account. Here are several tips to help you become a savvy back to school shopper this year.

How to Save on Back to School Supplies

1. Do a Closet and Supply Sweep

Believe it or not, you might already have plenty of school supplies lying around your house. Closets, desk drawers, and basement bins might hold hidden treasures that can save you money.

Start by rounding up all of the office and school supplies you already own. Put them in a central location, like a plastic bin or on the dining room table, so you can make a list of what you have. Keep this list in your purse, or in the car, so you don’t forget it when you shop for school supplies.

What do your children need for the school year?

  • Pens, pencils, markers, and highlighting pens
  • Erasers
  • Rulers
  • Notebooks and loose-leaf paper
  • Scratch paper
  • Binders
  • Calculators
  • Crayons
  • Art supplies
  • Post-it notes

In addition, go through your kids’ closets and start sorting. Clothing that the kids have outgrown, and worn clothing, should be donated or tossed. Once you complete this “supply sweep,” you’ll have a clearer picture of what you actually need to buy. Ideally, the sweep will prevent you from buying something you already have on-hand.

2. Shop at Garage Sales and Thrift Stores

Garage sales can be a treasure trove of deals for back to school supplies. Backpacks, gently used shoes, clothing, and even school supplies can be picked up for a song.

Start hitting up garage sales for everything you need. It takes time, but you can score some incredible bargains this way. You can also ask friends and family members to keep an eye out for you, while they shop at garage sales.

You can also find awesome bargains at thrift stores. Clothing is dirt cheap, and many stores run sales specifically for parents shopping for back to school items. Start early, though. The selection will be picked over by the first day of school.

3. Set Limits

As your kids grow older, they will insist on having the “latest and greatest.” They may request Justin Bieber binders and backpacks, and name-brand clothing from the mall. Although your kids crave these items, these “character-focused” products will quickly destroy your back to school budget. In addition, these items often aren’t made to last; many trendy clothing items are very cheaply made.

So, set limits with your kids, and speak with them about money-based values. Let your children know that companies should be paying them for advertising their products by wearing name-brand clothing. Show them the difference between a cheaply made trendy item of clothing, and a well-made item without a logo, and explain the difference in quality.

If you start teaching your kids about money management at a young age, they will grow up to understand and espouse these values. Let kids have two “specialty” items, like a Justin Bieber lunchbox and binder. Once they’ve chosen their two items, the rest of their supplies must be purchased at bargain prices.

Tip: Don’t forget to scour sites like eBay and Craigslist for high-end and specialty items.

school supplies

4. Save on College Supplies

If you have a child heading to college, then you will experience some serious sticker shock. From picking up supplies for their dorm room, to investing in college textbooks, sending a kid to college isn’t for the faint of heart. There are many ways to save money on back to school shopping for your college student.

First, learn how to save money on college textbooks. Buy used textbooks on sites like Amazon, eBay, and Half.com. You can also compare prices on new books on CheapestTextbooks.com, or buy books on bargain sites like Textbookx.com. Additionally, you can save 50% or more on textbooks if you buy a digital copy and download it to your Kindle, or other e-reader. View textbooks available for digital download at CourseSmart.com or Cafescribe.com. And at the end of the semester, find websites where you can sell used textbooks for cash.

Shop for dorm room essentials like rugs, sheets, and light cooking equipment at garage sales and thrift stores. You can save a lot of money by buying used items. You can also ask friends and family members if they have any items they do not use; your social and family networks will be glad to help! You can get gently used items for free, while givers declutter their homes. Everyone wins!

5. Hit Up the Dollar Store

You can get some incredible bargains on school supplies at the dollar store. Really! Start shopping in the summer months. You never know what stores will order, or how long items will stay in stock. You can buy basic supplies, like notebooks and pencils, for a great price at the dollar store.

6. Buy Supplies on a Sales Tax Holiday

Many states have sales tax holidays, when shoppers can buy items without paying sales tax. You can pick up clothing, computers, and school supplies, tax-free. Find the dates for your state’s sales tax holiday, and determine item eligibility online. Most states have a sales tax holiday during the first week of August, although some states have tax holidays in July, and towards the end of August.

7. Use Coupons

Start looking for coupons in your Sunday paper, and look online for coupons at sites like RetailMeNot, which even has a special section on their site for back to school coupon codes. If you don’t want to drive everywhere, keep in mind that many stores, like Walmart, offer price and coupon matching. If there is an item that you need to get at a specific location, such as Best Buy, call ahead and ask if they price match, or have any upcoming sales. It never hurts to ask!

8. Buy in Bulk

Buy in bulk to save money on back to school shopping. When pens, crayons, and glue go on sale in the late summer, buy enough to get you through the rest of the year. You might also want to check prices at wholesale stores like Costco.

If you don’t think you can use an entire 100-pack of pens, talk to your friends and neighbors; you can pool your money to buy supplies, and then divide them equally.

school textbooks carts

9. Use Twitter and Facebook to Save

Many companies send their loyal followers coupon links, and advance notice of sales. If you plan to bargain-hunt this year, then monitor your favorite stores’ Twitter and Facebook Updates to find deals. Follow these stores on Twitter:

10. Make Them Work

What do you do if you’ve set limits for buying specialty or high-end items, and your kids still clamor for expensive back-to-school items? Make them go to work.

Assign them chores, or send them out into the neighborhood, and make them earn the money for these items. My parents did this to me, and I lived through the experience. It also made me examine, in a very real way, how badly I wanted to buy some “must-have” items. Most of the time, when I had to spend my own money on something, or put my own hours into making enough money for a purchase, I discovered that I didn’t really want the item as badly as I thought I did.

11. Check for Texts

Stores take advantage of mobile technology, and you can, too. According to an article in The New York Times, some Target stores have a Text to Get Coupon promotion. You can receive coupons on your mobile device, just in time for back to school.

It pays to see if some of your other favorite retailers will send e-coupons to your mobile device. Look for this information on company websites, call the companies’ 1-800 numbers to ask, or look for scannable QR (Quick Response) codes in stores.

12. Save Money Through Ebates

Online cash-back shopping venue Ebates acts like a shopping gateway. The website allows you to shop major stores and brands like Barnes and Noble, Dell, Kohl’s, DWW, Macy’s, and Walmart, all while giving you 6% or more cash back on your purchases.

You can receive exclusive coupons and offers, like free shipping, when you shop using Ebates. Many users of the site receive $300 or more throughout the year using Ebates, which they then use on back to school supplies. Users have received more than $45 million in cash back using Ebates.

13. Watch Your Timing

As you probably already know, the big rush to buy school supplies occurs in August, and then again in January, since many college students go back to school after the winter holiday as well. If you avoid these peak times and buy after the rush, when items often go on sale for 50%-75% off retail prices, you can save a lot of money.

Keep in mind that this will likely limit your selection. But if you don’t need specific items, you have an excellent chance of scoring some great deals by shopping after the rush.

14. Use Cash Instead of Credit Cards

Use cash instead of credit cards to pay for your back to school supplies. Paying for supplies with cash allows you to keep an eye on your funds and to stay within your budget.

Begin shopping by focusing on the essential items, including required school supplies or required textbooks, for college students. If you spend all of the money you have budgeted for back to school shopping, take a break. Once school has started, you may find that you have everything you need. If it becomes apparent that the kids still need some more supplies once school starts, prioritize those items and shop accordingly, using cash and staying within your budget.

Final Word

Many people don’t want to think about back to school, especially in the midst of high summer. However, back to school shopping can creep up on you and your family quickly, so it pays to be prepared. The best way to save money is to start planning ahead of time, so you can take advantage of every deal and coupon that comes your way.

Do you have any savvy back to school shopping tricks you use to save money every year?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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  • http://www.budgetpulse.com Craig

    Buy in bulk is key since most kids lose things like pens anyways.

  • http://www.couponmole.com/ Pamela

    One of the tricks I learned to save even more on back-to-school items are buying in bulk while sticking with your shopping list. Keeps you from being tempted to grab things you don’t need… Coupons help to.

    • Heather

      Yeah, Costco makes it especially difficult sometimes to stick to a list when shopping, since the quality and variety of their items is pretty good. But you’re definitely right…avoiding impulse buys is vital to sticking to a budget.

  • http://squirrelers.com Squirrelers

    I scored on some loss leaders last year, when shopping for back-to-school items for my child. Actually, I picked some 100 page composition books for 25 cents each – including a few for myself :) So watch those deals!

  • http://squirrelers.com Squirrelers

    I scored on some loss leaders last year, when shopping for back-to-school items for my child. Actually, I picked some 100 page composition books for 25 cents each – including a few for myself :) So watch those deals!

    • Heather

      That’s a good pick! :) I love scoring bargains like that.

  • Cliebe

    The dollar store is a good idea, but you do have to watch for items you’ll likely get cheaper elsewhere like glue, larger box of pencils, etc.

  • Heather

    Glad it could help. Thanks for reading, Alysa!

  • http://twitter.com/cheap_textbook Cheap-Textbooks.com

    But it’s important for students to use a price comparison service. With all the different sides offering used textbooks, rental textbooks, and even digital download textbooks student needs help in trying to find who is the cheapest source. A good textbook price comparison service should list the current price always formats from all the online textbook websites. It really is the only way to know who is cheapest.

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