Back-to-school time has become its own shopping season, falling just behind back-to-college and Christmas in terms of family expenditures, according to the National Retail Federation. In 2020, the NRF reported record back-to-school spending, with parents spending an average of $789.49 per child, up from the previous record of $696.70.
And that’s just for elementary through high school. If you have college students in your family, the NRF estimates you’ll spend about $1,059.20 on supplies. (But you can access your own list of college back-to-school saving tactics.)
That’s almost 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.
But these back-to-school saving tips can take some of the stress out of the season.
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 avoid spending $1,000 per child at the start of the new school year. If you start early and plan ahead, you can put your kids back in the classroom 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 products already on sale to entice parents to buy.
You can save by purchasing one or two things at a time throughout the summer. Spreading your purchases out can also prevent a significant hit to your monthly budget.
1. Do a Supply Sweep
You probably already have plenty of last year’s school supplies you can reuse this year. 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 and a shopping list of what you need.
Keep this list in your purse or car to avoid forgetting it when you shop for school supplies. You can also take a picture of your current supplies to refresh your memory when you’re shopping.
Next, go through your kids’ closets and start sorting. Donate or toss clothing kids have outgrown and timeworn clothing. Once you complete this supply sweep, you’ll have a clearer picture of what you 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 school and office supply swap before you head out shopping.
For instance, you might have reams of loose-leaf paper you bought on sale, but you’ll never use it all. Meanwhile, your friend might have several packs of pencils or a pencil case they’d be willing to trade for some of that paper.
Talk to friends and family members with school-aged children and see if they have extra supplies they’d be interested in trading.
3. Shop at Garage Sales and 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 so, and it’s an economical 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 fantastic bargains at thrift stores too. Clothing is very affordable there, and many stores run sales specifically for parents shopping for back-to-school items. But start early. Other shoppers will have picked over the selection by the first day of school.
Your best bet is to start your kids clothes shopping in the middle to end of July when there are plenty of clothes to choose from. Of course, if you let them wear them immediately, the novelty will have worn off by the first day of school. Put these clothes away until school starts so they’ll feel brand-new to your kids.
4. Check Consignment Shops
Consignment shops are excellent places to find gently used clothing because they’ve already vetted everything they offer. So unlike at the thrift store, you don’t have to paw through blouses from 1975 to find designer or name-brand clothing on a shoestring budget.
If your area has several consignment shops, find out if they’re planning a late-summer sale. Many consignment shops organize a seasonal sale, especially during the back-to-school shopping season. Several shops might even host a mega-sale in one location, pooling all their resources together.
You can find consignment shops in your area by Googling “kids consignment stores near me.”
5. Check the Dollar Store
You can get some incredible bargains on school supplies at the dollar store, where you can find basic supplies like notebooks and pencils as well as classroom supplies like facial tissue and sanitizer, all at bargain prices.
Start shopping in the summer months because you never know what products stores will order or how long they’ll stay in stock. Just note that there are some things you should never buy at the dollar store, such as batteries and tape.
6. Shop Through Rakuten
Online cash-back shopping venue Rakuten acts like a shopping gateway. The website allows you to shop online or through the app 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 and exclusive sales for Rakuten shoppers.
See our Rakuten review for more information.
7. Install the Capital One Shopping Browser Extension
Capital One Shopping is a useful browser extension to have when you’re shopping online. For example, each time you’re browsing on Amazon, Capital One Shopping searches hundreds of other retailers to see if there’s a better price available.
They also automatically apply any available coupon codes at checkout to help you save money. Wikibuy has a database of thousands of retailers, so this extension can likely help you find a better deal somewhere.
Read our Capital One Shopping review for details.
8. Shop on a Sales Tax Holiday
Many states have sales tax holidays when shoppers can buy merchandise 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 what products are eligible 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.
9. 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 popular stores on Twitter, for example:
- Coupons.com: @Coupons
- Staples: @Staples
- Office Depot: @officedepot
- T.J. Maxx: @tjmaxx
- Marshalls: @marshalls
- Best Buy: @BestBuy
- Target: @Target
- Kohl’s: @Kohls
- RetailMeNot: @RetailMeNot
10. Compare Prices
Most parents have to buy some sort of electronics for their kids for school. You can save on these by keeping an eye on Amazon’s ever-changing prices.
The website CamelCamelCamel tracks the price range history for every product sold on Amazon, including historical highs and lows. You can sign up for price change alerts for specific products and get a notification every time their prices change.
To use ShopSavvy, simply scan the bar code of the product you’re interested in, and the app tells you if a lower price is available at another store or website. For the app to work, you 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 midsummer. You might be surprised to find that some products 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 other loyalty currency when purchasing goods there.
11. Focus on Saving on Big-Ticket Merchandise
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. But while it’s vital 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 products, especially electronics like computers and tablets. 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 most significant expenses first, and let the glue take care of itself.
12. Make Your Kids Work for Their Supplies
What do you do if you’ve set spending limits for specialty or high-end goods, 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 they need. 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” gear.
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 I didn’t really want it as badly as I thought I did.
13. 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 pieces their children have outgrown. They then offer these 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 them in high quantities 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 the middle to end of 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.
14. 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, Kristin Cook, managing editor of price-tracking site Ben’s Bargains, told Consumer Reports before school starts 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 there.
15. Save on School Sports and Activities
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 allow them to focus on what they’re most interested in. That also forces them to make a choice, and when they take ownership of that choice, they’ll likely feel more dedicated to what they’re doing and really put their heart into it.
UC Berkeley’s Greater Good cites a 2014 paper published by the American Psychological Association and a 1999 study published in the Review of General Psychology among the “mountain of research” proving teens who have the freedom to make their own decisions tend to be more self-driven and have greater self-discipline.
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, where you can also sell your own equipment once your child has outgrown what they’re currently using. Locally, you can usually find some bargains at Play It Again Sports.
If you’re looking to save money on music lessons or band participation, your best bet is buying or renting a used instrument. You can search on Music Go Round for used instruments listed on the site and instruments listed locally in your area. You can also look on Craigslist and eBay.
16. 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 a new backpack.
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 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, you can hit the stores to knock out the rest of the list by yourself. Not only is it less stressful, but you’ll also likely save more money.
Few parents want to think about shopping for the coming school year, especially amid high summer. But back-to-school shopping can creep up on you quickly, so it pays to start shopping early.
That way, you can take advantage of every deal and coupon that comes your way. And stocking supplies slowly can help ease the impact on your monthly budget.