7 Solid Tips on How to Do Back-to-School Shopping on a Budget

Doing back-to-school shopping on a budget is much harder than you think.

How hard? Well, according to the National Retail Federation, the average family is projected to spend $687.72 on their back-to-school list this year, the second-highest total in the past ten years.

In all, families will spend more than $29.5 billion on back-to-school spending for their elementary, middle and high school students. When you look at these numbers, it’s hard to believe that you could actually do back-to-school shopping on a budget.

Ever the optimists, we reached out to Ivy Chou, one of our favorite retail experts, for advice on how to save serious cash this year. Ivy works with the retail group who oversees DealsPlus, a website you can go to for coupon codes and comparisons of back-to-school sales and deals from various stores.

We also did a little research to figure out how to save you a few hundred dollars on laptop and desktop computers from Apple, too.

The result? Seven of our best tips on how to do your back-to-school shopping on a budget. After we work through each of these tips, we’ll finish up with some links to other back-to-school articles we’ve written that can help you find the right deals at the right time.

Back-to-School Budget Shopping Tip #1: Mid-August Is the Time to Buy

Retailers are eager to earn your business because they know that the back-to-school shopping season is easy money. Parents have to buy school supplies for their kids, so retailers market like crazy their school-supply sales.

When are the best back-to-school sales? Well, retail expert Ivy Chou said, mid-August is the way to go.

“The best deals on school supplies also arrive around mid-August, when retailers drop prices even more as competition increases and back-to-school sales near their end,” Ivy said.

Back-to-School Budget Shopping Tip #2: Budget Before You Shop

In general, it’s a great idea to make a budget for anything you spend your money on. Whether it’s Christmas shopping, back-to-school or your monthly grocery and gas bills.

However, budgets are even more crucial before your kids start school because it’s really easy to get carried away with your spending.

“If you buy items you don’t need, even the best deals are money down the drain.”

So, Ivy told us, take some time to sit down and review what your school says your child needs, what you already have on hand and what can wait until Black Friday and Cyber Monday (more on that in a second).

“Make a budget beforehand, make a list of everything you actually need, then be on the lookout for the best sales and coupons,” Ivy said. “If you buy items you don't need, even the best deals are money down the drain.”

Sites like DealDash are a good place to go to get updates on the latest sales and coupons. You’ll also get a sense of what a proper price is for a specific item because you’ll have a chance to see the price tags from several different stores.

Back-to-School Budget Shopping Tip #3: Watch Out for Big Sales on Little Items

Have you ever noticed that, when you head into a store during back-to-school season, you’re usually welcomed with a big display of heavily discounted pencils, pens, and papers?

Ivy says this is a common tactic used by retailers to get you in the buying mood and, hopefully, lure you into other parts of the store where you’ll spend more money.

Why will you spend more? Well, if you aren’t going to the store with a specific list of items to buy, there’s a good chance you haven’t researched fair prices on items in other parts of the store.

Let’s say you go to Target because you found out they have the best deals on pens and pencils, which happen to be right at the front of the store.

After you load up on the small stuff, you think, “Hey, I’m here. I might as well check out some other stuff.”

There’s a good chance “other stuff” will be items you didn’t research ahead of time because, back when you were planning your budget, you didn’t include those items on your list and didn’t comparison shop ahead of time.

“The retail store’s main goal is to lure you into the store to buy everything else you need at higher prices,” Ivy said. “The more banners, flashy store signs and pretty colors you see, the more you’ll spend.”

Back-to-School Budget Shopping Tip #4: Tiered Online Offers Aren’t as Great as They Seem

One of the classic retail tactics you’ll see at certain stores’ websites is tiered savings. For example, if you spend $100, you can get $25 off your purchase and if you spend $200, you can get $50.

At face value, this looks like a great deal because you’re getting a pretty big chunk of money hacked off your bill. However, what many back-to-school shoppers fail to realize is that this is just another way of a website getting you to spend money on items that may be cheaper somewhere else.

If one of these websites catches your interest, take a minute to browse through their inventory, paying special attention to the prices of items you have on your shopping list. Are they a little higher than what you’ve seen on other sites?

If that’s the case, it may not be worth it to spend more just to get free shipping or to get that $25-off-$100 deal they’re offering.

“If you only need a $25 backpack, that’s an extra $25-$75 they’re earning off you by employing this tactic,” Ivy said.

Back-to-School Budget Shopping Tip #5: Wait on Those New Computers

We know this is a tough one; what kid doesn’t want to show up to school with a new laptop?

However, the principle of patience is key here. Retailers may have a few sales on laptops as the school year approaches, but there’s a good chance those sales aren’t going to match the discounts and clearance prices you’ll see on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

“If you can wait until Black Friday and Cyber Monday, buy big ticket purchases like laptops, tablets, and MacBooks then,” Ivy said. “It's only a few more months, but could equate to hundreds of dollars in savings.”

If your child needs a basic laptop without all the bells and whistles of a Mac, then consider sticking with budget laptops from Acer or HP. Both of these companies sell Chromebooks for less than $200, the only drawback being that Chromebooks run internet-based apps.

If your student needs native software like Word, then the Acer Aspire is a budget-friendly laptop that, at the time of publishing, cost $279.99 at regular price.

Should you be able to muster up the patience to wait until Black Friday or Cyber Monday, that same laptop could be a lot closer to $200.

Back-to-School Budget Shopping Tip #6: Try Apple’s Refurbished Computers or Their Trade-In Program

We know that not every student can get by with a basic PC laptop, especially if they’re doing design, music production or any number of genres that work best on a Mac.

If that’s the case, take a peek at Apple’s refurbished Mac laptops and desktops. These computers are typically one hundred to two hundred dollars cheaper than their brand-new counterparts and they come with the same warranty.

At the time of publishing, we found several refurbished laptops and desktops that were between 14% and 24% off, which resulted in savings of, in some cases, more than $200.

Don’t forget about Apple’s trade-in program, either. Basically, Apple will take trade-ins of Macs that are 2009 or newer and, according to their website, some PCs, too. We checked the list of acceptable PC trade-ins and most of them were Chromebooks.

The money you get from the trade-in will be given via an Apple Store gift card, PayPal or a Virtual Visa Reward.

Back-to-School Budget Shopping Tip #7: Don’t Be Afraid to Stick With the Big Names

It’s no secret that we live in a time when hacks are commonplace and everyone is looking for a new angle that veers away from traditional choices in favor of the road less traveled.

However, when it comes to back-to-school shopping, the big-name stores are usually the ones who really do have the best prices.

As Ivy pointed out to us, these stores have, over the past couple of years, become more consumer-friendly through programs like free shipping and various discount codes.

“I still believe Walmart, Target, Amazon, Staples, and Office Depot/OfficeMax have the best back-to-school offers and now, many stores’ best offers are online exclusives,” Chou said. “These stores have dropped their minimum threshold for free shipping in the last couple of years as well, and all offer either rock bottom prices, online codes, or printable coupons for extra savings.”

Wrapping Up the Discussion About Back-to-School Shopping on a Budget

Doing your back-to-school shopping on a budget is a tall task. It takes planning and discipline to execute your money-saving plan.

If there’s one thing we could add, we’d say that it’s important to view back-to-school as one piece in the big puzzle that is your yearly savings plan.

In our article about saving on Christmas shopping and controlling spending, we put emphasis on making a budget and then saving for that budget before the holidays roll around. We think the same strategy is appropriate here.

Make a budget, do your research and then start saving up for 2018 based on how you spent in 2017.

Also, if you’re waiting until Black Friday to pick up some of the things on your student’s school list, then check out our article on how to become an expert Black Friday shopper.

In the article, we talk with Ivy Chou about how to find the best deals, which products are cheaper on Black Friday and which ones are not, as well as how to bargain with managers to get lower prices.


J.R. Duren

J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter who examines credit cards, credit scores and bank products. J.R. is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest and his advice has been featured in MSN and Fox’s money sections.


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