Back to School Shopping: Our Top 10 Tips on How & Where to Save

Back to school is the second largest shopping season of the year (right after Christmas). Trend watchers say that how much the average American family spends fluctuates biennially (every two years) thanks, at least in part, to hand-me-downs and that most families don’t need to restock supplies every year.

Last year, the average family spent $97.74—down from $630.36 in 2014. To retailers, that indicates that 2016 is going to be a year of big back to school spending.

What does all that money get spent on? It’s not just backpacks and binders. The National Retail Federation (NRF) says that the biggest chunk of families’ overall back to school budget goes to clothing, which is purchased by 93% of families. Further, the NRF says that, across all shoppers, clothing and electronics account for more than $400 of the average family’s back-to-school budget.

Those numbers represent a big shift for a generation that carried the same Lisa Frank binders and Trapper Keepers through multiple grades. What tricks can you use to save?

Start by Making Your Back to School Shopping List

The easiest way to blow your back to school budget is to head to the store (online or in person) with only a general idea of which supplies are needed.

It’s been our experience that schools (especially elementary) send out fairly detailed supply lists, including exactly which items students need and how much of each. Parents can also generally access the school’s website for the same info.

The easiest way to blow your back to school budget is to head to the store (online or in person) with only a general idea of which supplies are needed.

However, if you’re still not sure what should be on your back to school list, search Google for “back to school shopping list + (whatever grade your student is in)” to find suggestions. However, be wary of unnecessary suggestions!

For example, this list by Real Simple promises to keep it just that, but suggests that preschool and elementary students need art smocks, which probably isn’t applicable to every school’s curriculum.

Instead, eliminate the risk of overbuying (and overspending) before you swipe your first card by making an itemized back to school shopping list. This should include the supply list provided by your school, plus any personal items and clothing that your student will need.

After you’ve written everything down, search Google, Amazon, and your favorite retailers to estimate how much each item should cost so you have an easier time spotting any great deals that you come across.

A tip from Consumer Reports: The back-to-school price list at shows 32 common school supplies with retail prices, prices to aim for, and prices so low you should stockpile.

Before You Start Back to School Shopping, Look at What You Already Have

It’s time to head to your student’s closet with that back to school list in hand. Are there items that don’t need replacing? Cross them off for instant savings.

When you’re searching through closets, keep an eye out for any gently used clothing that likely won’t make it into this year’s rotation. These can be donated to make room for new picks.

If you have the time, consider earning a few bucks back off of old purchases by reselling items. Check out old standby eBay or Craigslist, where you can sell individual items or bundles. Or, check out an online clothing consignment store such as, Moxie Jean, or Flip Size. (Full disclosure, we haven’t used or reviewed these services, but you can check out additional information in this article by Popsugar.)

Know Where (and When) to Shop for the Best Back to School Savings

We checked out tips from DealNews and Consumer Reports to help you prioritize where to shop for each category of back to school items on your list:

1. What are the best stores for back to school supplies?

When you’re shopping for school supplies, your local Staples or Office Depot might seem like the logical destination. However, DealNews reports that doing so could cost you up to $40 more than buying the same supplies at Wal-Mart or Target.

Where to buy school supplies? Among the seven large retailers analyzed by DealNews, Target had the best prices on school supplies. Dollar stores are worth a look for pencils, pens, notebooks, and similar items.

If you’re shopping for multiple kids, they suggest looking at wholesale stores like Costco and Sam’s Club, which are great for large families who can split up bulk supplies. However, only head to a bulk store if you already have a membership—saving on a few supplies alone isn’t worth the annual fee.

2. Wait for your state’s tax-free weekend

According to DealNews, of the 45 states that collect sales tax, 17 honor a holiday that allows you to shop sales tax-free. These days are usually in the summer (most appear to be in August)—ideal timing for back to school shopping. Check out when your state’s tax-free weekend occurs.

Note that most states have limits on how much you can purchase without paying tax, and which items qualify. However, you can still save up to 7 percent by shopping on the right day.

3. Where can you find deals on back to school clothing and backpacks?

Thanks to so many families cleaning out their closets, many consignment stores have their best selection of gently used clothes in late summer.

If you can’t convince your student to shop second hand, Wal-Mart is your best bet for low prices on both clothing and backpacks. According to DealNews, many apparel items start under $10, including some uniform items. And since bags are super affordable—some had a price tag of only $2.50—the average price of an outfit and backpack came to just under $20.

4. Which stores to avoid for back to school shopping?

According to DealNews, when it comes to clothing shopping, JCPenney and Kohl's were two stores that'll put a bigger dent in your wallet. On average, an outfit and backpack at JCPenney came to $80.

Shopping at Kohl's online, you can stack up to four coupons, which allows you to snag clothing and a bag for around $65. But, considering how affordable Walmart and Target are in comparison, that's not a huge selling point.

5. Where can you save on back to school electronics?

Consumer Reports suggests that, rather than paying high prices for a brand new computer or phone, you look for a certified, used model from a reputable seller like or Newegg, where parents should be able to find a laptop that meets a student’s needs for less than $500.

If you’re familiar with Google Docs and your student is tech savvy enough to shift operating systems, you might want to consider a Chromebook. My HP model (with a 30 gig hard drive) is lightweight, features a sturdy aluminum case, and, thanks to Google’s OS, isn’t at risk of viruses. Even better, new models start at about $260.

6. You don’t need to stock up on the whole year’s supplies at once

Is your budget tight? Remember that you don’t need to buy all three school season’s worth of apparel or accessories at once, including rain boots and umbrellas, that won’t be used for several months.

Heart set on buying new electronics? Consumer Reports suggests waiting until October when retailers tend to get new models and discount older merchandise.

Extra Tips to Save on Back to School Shopping

Aside from strategically choosing where and when you make back to school buys, there are a few additional tips that parents can use to save:

Office Depot couponsImage via The Krazy Coupon Lady

1. Swing through stores to nab deals on “loss leaders”

Loss leaders are products sold at below market cost just to lure in customers—like how your fave grocery store sells delicious rotisserie chickens for cheap because they know you’ll buy sides of potato salad and some beverages.

Starting mid-summer, many retailers start to promote back to school loss leaders such as ten notebooks for $1, a bag of Bic pens for $.10, or pencils for $.01. Other basic back to school supplies are often priced as loss leaders, including pocket folders, graphite and colored pencils, scissors, highlighters, erasers, three-ring binders, staplers and staples, and lined paper.

To find deals, check weekly store ads, mail circulars, and the shopping section of your Sunday newspaper.

But, there’s a trick! When shopping items sold at a loss, go in knowing that they’re bound to be surrounded by awesome (but overpriced) items that will hike up your total. Instead, stick to the cheapies and buy the other items where prices are best.

2. Shopping at the store? Use your smartphone to find coupons and match prices

The most obvious place to find coupons is weekly newspaper inserts or store circulars. However, you don’t have to earn paper cuts just to save.

You can follow your favorite stores and brands on Facebook for unique deals, snapping a screenshot of coupons as they come up in your feed. Go to store websites for daily deals –, in particular, features lots of back-to-school deals and coupons that change frequently.

Pro Tip #1: Do you have boots on the ground, but aren’t sure if you’re about to pay the best price? Make your smartphone work for you by downloading Scout.

This price-matching tool uses your phone’s camera to recognize a product before searching through thousands of retail sites. Scout will then match the offers against your current store’s price-match rules, and deliver the best offer to show the cashier.

Pro Tip #2: Sometimes what you really need to save is time. When you’re in a large mall or shopping center and simply don’t have enough of it to continue scouring different stores, consider downloading Cartogram.

This app combines live indoor maps with a search engine that scans an entire shopping mall for specific items. If the item is in stock nearby, Cartogram will notify you of the correct store—even providing walking directions.

3. Shopping online? Allow coupon apps to find opportunities for serious savings.

You can also use coupons to stack up savings when shopping online. Cost-comparison sites like PriceGrabber and Nextag lead you to the best prices, and you can also use them to set price alerts. You indicate what you want to pay for, say, a scientific calculator, and you’ll get an email message when it’s available at that price.

In 6 Shopping Apps to Help You Save Lots of Money, we give extensive details on our favorite applications and coupon aggregators and savings apps.

Top apps to help you save while shopping? Check out Coupons at Checkout, Honey, and Walmart's Saving Spotter Chrome Extension.

Final Tips Before Starting Your Back to School Shopping?

You already know that there are a ton of Back to School deals to be found online, even if you’re just collecting coupons for in-store purchases.

While signing up for store updates and special offers only takes seconds, anyone who depends on their email for something other than reading promotional offers will quickly find the spam overwhelming.

Our solution? Sign up for a separate Gmail account just to track deals and make purchases. Not only does doing so allow you to avoid a landslide of emails, but you'll also get to keep all your receipts in one place and take advantage of two other ways to save (without risking your privacy.)

Slice and Paribus are two web-based applications that screen your email for receipts. Each works a little differently, but have a similar feature: They’ll keep tabs on the price of those items that you purchased and either notify you (Slice) or automatically apply for a price adjustment (Paribus) on your behalf.

Of course, we suggest using these with a separate email because, no matter how many security assurances these apps make, allowing something to crawl your email doesn’t seem worth saving a few bucks. However, by setting up a separate account, you can protect your security while easily scoring some post-purchase savings.

Now read: Popular Back to School Scams & How You Can Avoid Them

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


comments powered by Disqus

Want to Learn How to Get and Keep a Good Credit Score?

Our FREE eBook will teach you how to get a good credit score that will help you save thousands by scoring the best deals on loans, insurance, and credit cards. Enter your email below to get a free copy of the eBook and to receive our weekly newsletter!