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15 Tips to Save Money on Back-to-School Supplies & Shopping List

Back-to-school time has become its own shopping season, second only to Christmas in terms of family expenditures. The National Retail Federation (NRF) expects record spending for 2019, with parents spending an average of $696 per child (elementary through high school) to go back to school, while the Huntington Bank Backpack Index estimates costs will exceed $1,000.

If your child is going to college, the NRF estimates that you’ll spend around $976 on supplies.

That’s as much as an average mortgage payment, and each year costs continue to outpace inflation. Multiply this amount by two or three (or five) children, and it’s easy to see why many parents start sweating in mid-July when the barrage of back-to-school fliers and ads start appearing.

Whether your kids start kindergarten this fall or head off to college, you can buy them everything they need without breaking your bank account. Let’s look at 16 strategies to help you become a savvy back to-school-shopper this year.

Note: These strategies apply to K-12 students. If you’re shopping for a college student, check out these ways to save money on college back-to-school shopping.

The Rising Cost of Back-to-School Supplies

According to a survey conducted by the nonprofit organization Junior Achievement USA, 60% of parents say it’s challenging to afford back-to-school supplies. And it’s no wonder; the Huntington Bank Backpack Index shows that even parents of elementary school students are footing a higher bill each year.

Parents report that even elementary-aged children are being asked to occasionally submit assignments digitally, while these requests are now far more frequent for middle and high school-aged students. For the first time, this year Huntington Bank added the cost of a laptop and Internet to the basic school supplies list for even young children, raising average costs to over $1,000.

The costs break down as follows:

  • $1,017 for elementary school students – a 35% increase from 2018
  • $1,277 for middle school students – a 22% increase from 2018
  • $1,668 for high school students – an 11% increase from 2019

These numbers are based on a list of classroom supplies and fees (which include extracurricular fees for activities such as sports and band) from 26 states, with the cost of these supplies based on moderately priced options from big-box retailers. Why are these costs on the rise?

More Classroom Supplies

Today, parents are being asked to contribute more of the supplies that schools used to be responsible for providing. For example, many districts ask parents to contribute scissors, paper, crayons, glue, facial tissue, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes. Due to budget cuts, schools simply don’t have the money for these basic supplies.

For example, take a look at these back-to-school lists for first- through fifth-grade students in Indiana. Many of these supplies used to be contributed by the school itself. This puts parents on a tight budget in a difficult situation because if they don’t contribute these supplies, the teacher typically has to pay for them.

Citing data from the Department of Education, The New York Times reports that 94% of teachers report spend their own money on school supplies. TIME magazine reports that most teachers spend $500 of their own money on classroom supplies each year, and many spend more than $1,000.

Pay-to-Play Sports

Remember when you could just sign up for softball or baseball, and all you had to buy was your own jersey with your name on it? Those days are long gone.

The cost of extracurricular activities is another reason going back to school is so expensive, and you can point the finger for this at – you guessed it – budget cuts. Citing research from Utah State University, TIME magazine states that parents now spend an average of $2,292 on their children’s sports. Financial consulting firm Mass Mutual reports that parents spend, on average, $100 to $500 per month, per child, to participate in elite sports, with the bulk of that going towards travel and participation fees.

Some sports are shockingly expensive. For example, here are the average yearly costs for some of the most popular middle school and high school sports:

  • Basketball: $1,143
  • Soccer: $1,472
  • Football: $2,739
  • Baseball/Softball: $4,044
  • Hockey: $7,013
  • Lacrosse: $7,956

Of course, these numbers represent the average costs for fees and equipment per child per year. If your child’s team has to travel for tournaments or playoffs, you’ll have to pay for those expenses too. These often include airfare, hotel, meals, and fees and dues for tournament participation.

The Washington Post reports that participation in school sports has declined almost 8% over the last decade, and one of the biggest reasons is the astronomical cost.

Many middle- and lower-class families simply can’t afford to have multiple children playing sports, and as a result, the participation in school sports is becoming a class issue separating the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The Washington Post also reports that kids from families earning less than $25,000 participate in sports at half the rate of kids from families earning $100,000 or more.

How to Save on Back-to-School Supplies

If you’re stressed out about this upcoming drain on your bank account, take a deep breath. There are plenty of ways to not spend $1,000 per child this back-to-school season. If you start early and plan ahead, you can put your kids on a bus for a fraction of this amount.

Keep in mind that back-to-school sales start a bit earlier each year. Staples now puts out its back-to-school section in late June, with many items already on sale to entice parents to buy. You can save by purchasing one or two items at a time throughout the summer. Spreading your purchases out this way can also avoid a huge hit to your monthly budget.

1. Do a Supply Sweep

Believe it or not, you might already have plenty of school supplies lying around your house. Closets, desk drawers, and basement bins could 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, such as a plastic bin or the dining room table, so you can make a list of what you have. Keep this list in your purse or car so you don’t forget it when you shop for school supplies. You can also take a picture of your current supplies to refresh your memory when you’re out shopping.

Next, go through your kids’ closets and start sorting. Clothing that kids have outgrown, as well as 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. Plan a Supply Swap

Coordinate with your friends and neighbors and host a “supply swap” before you head out shopping.

For instance, you might have reams of loose-leaf paper that you bought on sale, but you’ll never use it all. Meanwhile, your friend might have several packs of pencils she’d be willing to trade for some of that paper. Talk to friends and family who have school-aged children and see if they have extra supplies they’d be interested in trading.

3. Shop at Garage Sales & Thrift Stores

Garage sales can be a treasure trove of deals for back-to-school supplies. You can find backpacks, gently used shoes, clothing, and even school supplies there for a song.

Start hitting up garage sales for everything you need. It takes time, but you can score some incredible bargains by doing this, and it’s a great way to save money on back-to-school clothes. You can also ask friends and family members to keep an eye out for you when they shop at garage sales.

There are awesome bargains to be found at thrift stores too. Clothing is very affordable there, and many stores run sales specifically for parents shopping for back-to-school items. Start early, however; the selection will be picked over by the first day of school.

Your best bet is to start your kids’ clothing shopping in mid- to late July when there are plenty of clothes to choose from. Of course, if you do this, the “newness” will have worn off by the first day of school, so put these clothes away until school starts so they’ll feel brand-new to your kids.

4. Check Consignment Shops

Consignment shops are great places to find used clothing because everything they offer has already been vetted, so unlike at the thrift store, you won’t have to paw through blouses from 1975 to find designer clothing on a shoestring budget.

If your area has several consignment shops, find out if they’ll be having a sale in late summer. Many consignment shops organize a seasonal sale, especially during the back-to-school shopping season. Several shops might even organize a mega-sale in one location, pooling all their resources together. You can find consignment shops in your area at Kids Consignment Sales.

5. Check the Dollar Store

You can get some incredible bargains on school supplies at the dollar store, where you’ll find basic supplies like notebooks and pencils, as well as classroom supplies like Kleenex and sanitizer, all at bargain prices. Start shopping in the summer months, because you never know what items stores will order or how long those items will stay in stock.

Little Girl Buying Stationery School Supplies

6. Shop on a Sales Tax Holiday

Many states have sales tax holidays when shoppers can buy items without paying sales tax. On these days, you can pick up clothing, computers, and school supplies tax-free.

Find the date (or dates) of 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 have tax holidays in July or toward the end of August.

7. Follow Stores on Twitter & Facebook

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

You can follow these stores on Twitter, for example:

8. Compare Prices

Most parents will have to buy some sort of electronics for their kids for school. A great way to save on these is to keep an eye on Amazon’s ever-changing prices. The website camelcamelcamel tracks the price range history for every product sold on Amazon, including historic highs and lows. You can sign up for price change alerts for specific products so you know every time their prices change. Make sure you also add the browser extension Capital One Shopping, which may alert you when other retailer offer a better price on items you’re eying on Amazon and automatically adds any available coupons when you check out.

There are also plenty of apps to help you save money by comparing prices across different retailers. One is ShopSavvy, which is available for iOS and Android devices. To use ShopSavvy, simply scan the bar code of the product you’re interested in and the app will tell you if a lower price is available at another store or website. For the app to work, you’ll also need to download a bar code scanner, which you can get for both iOS and Android devices.

Last, don’t forget to look to your grocery store or neighborhood drugstore for bargains on school supplies. Check local circulars starting in mid-summer; you might be surprised to find that some items are actually cheaper when they’re on sale at these stores than at big box stores. Additionally, many stores have reward or loyalty programs that enable you to earn points or “store dollars” when you purchase these items here.

Capital One Shopping compensates us when you get the Capital One Shopping extension using the links we provided.

9. Focus on Saving on Big-Ticket Items

When you’re back-to-school shopping, it’s easy to get paranoid about the cost of glue at Target compared to Walmart. We’ve all been there. There might even be a support group in your area.

But while it’s important to watch prices on small items, you only have so much time and energy. You’re better off using this limited time and energy to save money on bigger-ticket items such as computers, tablets, and other electronics. Saving $300 on your high schooler’s new laptop means more to your budget than saving $5 on your middle schooler’s lunch box or 25 cents on a bottle of glitter glue.

Focus on saving money on your biggest expenses first, and let the glue take care of itself.

10. Make Your Kids Work for Their Supplies

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

Assign them chores or send them out into the neighborhood to earn the money needed 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 – money I had to use my own hours to earn – I discovered that I didn’t really want it as badly as I thought I did.

11. Save on Uniforms

School uniforms used to be the hallmark of attending an elite private school. These days, many charter schools require students to wear uniforms, and The New Yorker reports that one-fifth of all public schools now require a uniform. And these uniforms can be costly, with prices ranging from $150 to $250 or more for a mix-and-match wardrobe. However, there are plenty of ways to save money on school uniforms.

One strategy is to see if your school has a uniform exchange. During the year, some schools ask parents to donate any uniform items their children have outgrown. They then offer these items to parents on a tight budget, often for free or for a small donation.

Another way to save is to check local thrift stores. For example, if your child’s uniform includes basic navy or khaki pants, you can usually find these in droves at a thrift store or consignment shop.

Last, check retailers like GAP and Old Navy. Both companies sell school uniforms and often run sales during mid- to late summer. You might also find better deals if you shop in the early summer when most parents aren’t yet thinking about buying uniforms for the upcoming school season.

12. Hold Off on New Clothing

Every child wants new clothes when they head back to school. And while retailers do put clothing on sale for back to school, Consumer Reports states that this isn’t the best time to buy a new wardrobe for your kids. Prices typically go down in September after the big clothes-buying rush is over.

A better strategy is to buy one new outfit for your kids to wear on the first day and then do most of your shopping when prices drop further in September or October.

Another way to save is to scour thrift stores and consignment shops. If you live near a larger city (or are willing to travel) you can often find high-quality clothing at dirt-cheap prices.

13. Save on School Sports & Activities

So, you have a daughter who wants to play softball and soccer, another daughter who wants to join the school band, and a son who wants to play hockey and baseball. You’re looking at a potential investment of $10,000 or more in fees, instruments, and equipment for this year alone. But don’t start hyperventilating just yet. There are plenty of ways to save money on extracurricular activities for your kids.

First, think about limiting your children to one after-school activity apiece. By limiting their choices, you give them the opportunity to focus on what they’re most interested in. This also forces them to make a choice, and when they take ownership of this choice, they’ll likely feel more dedicated to what they’re doing and really put their heart into it. Sticking to one activity will also help you avoid having an overscheduled child and give them more time for academics, family time, and friends.

If you’re looking to save money on sports equipment, one strategy is to buy used. You can find used gear on SidelineSwap and can also sell your own equipment on the site once your child has outgrown what they’re currently using. Locally, you can usually find some great bargains at Play It Again Sports.

If you’re looking to save money on music lessons or band participation, your best bet is to buy or rent a used instrument. You can search on Music Go Round for used instruments listed on the site, as well as instruments listed locally in your area. Craigslist and eBay are also great places to look for used instruments.

14. Shop Through Rakuten

Online cash-back shopping venue Rakuten acts like a shopping gateway. The website allows you to shop online at over 2,500 major stores and brands like Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Gap, Barnes & Noble, Dell, Kohl’s, DSW, and Macy’s, all while giving you cash back on your purchases.

How much you earn typically varies from 1% to 6% of your total purchase price. However, many retailers offer short-term rebates of 10% or more, as well as special sales just for Rakuten shoppers. Many users of the site receive $300 or more throughout the year using Rakuten, which they then use to buy back-to-school supplies.

15. Just Say No

Going back-to-school shopping with your kids can be a fun bonding experience. It can also add hundreds of dollars to your shopping bill if you cave to their requests for designer jeans and lavishly decorated backpacks.

To save money, tell your kids before you leave the house that you’re sticking to the school list and won’t consider any extras while you’re out. Of course, I have two kids of my own, so I know that saying no isn’t always easy.

A better idea might be to go school shopping on your own. Consider buying your kids just what they might need on their very first day and, while they’re in school, hit the stores to knock out the rest of the list by yourself. Not only will this be more relaxing, but you’ll likely save more money too.

Final Word

Many parents don’t want to think about shopping for the coming school year, 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 each year?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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