5 Smart Ways to Save Money on Back-to-School Shopping

During the 2018 back-to-school shopping season, the National Retail Federation (NRF) reports consumers are projected to spend a whopping $82.8 billion. This averages out to about $684.79 per K-12 student, and $942.17 for each college student.

The highest-priced items on most lists? Perhaps unsurprisingly, electronics, such as computers, calculators, and phones, followed by shoes. On the other hand, school supplies like notebooks, pencils, backpacks, and lunchboxes constituted the lowest overall portion of expenditures.

But, the reality is that paying equal attention to each of these product categories can help maximize your money while keeping your spending as low as possible, whether you have one back-to-schooler in the household or several. Here are our top five expert tips for doing just that.

1. Create—and Stick to—Your Budget

Emily G. Stroud, MBA, CFA, president and owner of Stroud Financial Management, Inc. and author of “Faithful Finance: 10 Secrets to Move From Fearful Insecurity to Confident Control,” recommends that you start by preparing a detailed budget.

“Plan out every expense for the month on paper, including back-to-school expenses, and then write down each expenditure as it happens so that you can stay on track,” she says. “If you have a realistic monthly budget that you actually commit to following, it will allow you to live a more peaceful life from a financial standpoint.”

From a mental perspective, she adds that it can be easy to spend needlessly and quickly blow through your budget this time of year.

And while “a budget can help track all this spending,” she emphasizes “it is also important to take stock in why you are spending. If you’re aware of the way your brain responds to shopping, it can help you make sense of the highs and lows of impulse shopping, avoid buyer’s remorse, and lower your risk for overspending.”

Get Your Kids Involved in the Budgeting Process

Both Emily and Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations at Freedom Debt Relief, agree that you should involve your children in this back-to-school budgeting process.

With their input, Kevin recommends that you “start by setting goals, which could include purchasing a certain amount of school supplies, a set number of outfits, and/or saving enough for an outing over fall or winter break.”

Emily Stroud adds that you'll want to allow them to “look through the ads for sales, track their spending at the store, and take inventory of what they have and what they still need.” This way, “you will be teaching your child a life-long skill, and it will make back-to-school shopping more fun for everyone,” she says.

R.J. Weiss, Certified Financial Planner and founder of The Ways to Wealth, points out that “back-to-school shopping is a great opportunity to teach even older kids about money management. Specifically,” he emphasizes, learning about “one of the hardest lessons to understand: opportunity cost.”

To accomplish this, he recommends “giving them a set dollar amount to spend and let them spend it however they please. The one caveat is they must mark the necessities off their list. This way, if they really want something more expensive, such as shoes, they will have to give up
something else.”

Avoid Back-to-School Debt

After creating a budget, have you found there might not be enough money to go around? If so, Kevin Gallegos recommends avoiding the use of credit cards, “unless you can commit to paying off all charges in full and on time at the end of the month.”

Otherwise, “carrying credit card debt effectively raises the prices you pay for items, thanks to substantial interest,” he explains.

» For Further Reading: A Beginner’s Guide to Making a Budget

2. Cross-Reference Lists to Avoid Duplicate Purchases

As a parent, I have a firsthand understanding of the temptation to purchase back-to-school items you probably already own.

After all, it’s often more convenient to log onto the school’s website, download their supply list, and head to the store instead of taking the time to go through your home office, the kitchen, and the kids’ rooms to determine what you already have on hand.

Then, taking even more time to check each of these items off your list accordingly. However, not doing so can quickly add up and blow your budget for the season.

Pro tip: When downloading this year’s supplies list, Kevin Gallegos recommends that, if possible, you “also get the list for the following year’s grade. This is because they remain about the same year to year, and if you purchase on sale, for any items that do change, you should still come out ahead.”

Additional List-Based Back-to-School Shopping Benefits

According to Lauren Rilling, founder of The Determined Dollar blog and a Dave Ramsey-trained financial coach, creating these needs-based lists also allows you to keep track of price changes and “spread out back-to-school shopping over a few weeks,” while giving you the opportunity to “take advantage of the best prices at all the stores.”

She recommends even going so far as adding your “list of school supplies to a spreadsheet and then listing out their prices at your top three stores. When items go on sale, head to the store.”

Pro tip: To potentially help with this aspect, Passion For Savings’s back-to-school supplies price list keeps a running list of up to 100 of the most popular items you need, where they’re on sale, and what their prices are.

Then, when you’re finished, you can “keep your list for the following year in a budget binder, so you know when you've found rock bottom prices.”

3. Know Where and When to Shop

Sarah Hollenbeck, a shopping and savings expert at Offers.com, advises that if you’re looking to save the most money during back-to-school season, you should start during early to mid-August.

Note: The exception to this is new electronics during October, which is when Consumer Reports suggests retailers tend to receive new models and discount old merchandise.

Sarah explains this is because August “is home to many different sale holidays that can easily be taken advantage of. Not only are school supplies discounted,” she says, “but end-of-summer sales and tax-free weekends are also going on around the same time, allowing shoppers to save even more on clothing and other items.”

Pro tip: Kevin recommends checking the Federation of Tax Administrators website for your state’s tax-free days, where the sales tax is waived on school purchases up to a certain amount.

Kevin also points out that in some instances, it might be worth shopping late. “It sounds counterintuitive,” he admits, “but if your child doesn’t need a certain supply right away, wait until the clearance sales that usually begin right as school starts.”

Keeping Track of Back-to-School Deals

Eileen Roth, the author of Organizing For Dummies, explains that retailers “like Wal-Mart, Target, and even some drug stores will have sales at different weeks. Shopping different locations at different times may provide some savings as they place items on sale.”

There’s just one caveat, she points out: “This can mean more trips and more gas. So, unless you're buying something expensive like a computer, printer, or tablet, it may not pay to make more than one trip just to save a few dollars.”

With so much to keep track of, you can go with the old-school method of checking weekly store ads, mail circulars, and the shopping section of your Sunday newspaper. Perhaps easier (and more modern) methods, though, include following your favorite stores and brands on social media for unique deals, snapping a screenshot of coupons as they come up in your feed.

You can also go directly to a store’s websites for daily deals – Target, in particular, features lots of back-to-school deals and coupons that change frequently.

Along these same lines, coupon apps like SnipSnap, Yowza, and ShopKick (to name just a few) can help you identify where your money might be best spent when shopping for back-to-school products, and even help you stack up savings when buying online.

Consumer Reports points out that “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.”

Pro tip: Try signing 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, without risking your privacy.

4. Understand Where It’s Wise to Scrimp and Where You Shouldn’t

Eileen Roth points out that when it comes to supplies, you might want to avoid dollar stores since they tend to offer cheaply made products. She says this is especially the case related to binders and notebooks, as less expensive options tend to fall apart quickly.

She adds that “buying plastic folders instead of paper ones means they will last longer. The same goes for covers of spiral notebooks, composition books, and planners. Anything stronger than paper will last longer. It may cost a bit more for one, but it’s cheaper than replacing and buying two or three for a school year.”

Still, there are some instances where choosing less expensive school supplies might make sense. The Determined Dollar blog founder Lauren Rilling points out that “we tend to automatically grab the Crayola Markers and Elmer’s glue, but the generic brand is probably sufficient for most school supplies, and less expensive.”

Pro tip: She notes that buying many of these less expensive items (especially ones like pencils and glue sticks) in bulk and then splitting with a friend or two could further lower your cost per unit.

Sarah Hollenbeck warns that buying in bulk could have the opposite impact on your overall budget, though, if you’re not cautious:

“Think twice about promos that try to get you to buy more, such as ‘buy-one, get-one 50% off,’ lower prices when you buy multiples, or a ‘better value’ if you buy a larger pack of something.

“If it’s an item you may need more of (like folders), this could be a good deal. But, even if you have the best intentions to save the extra items for next year, school supply lists change, and glue sticks, markers, etc., may get lost in your home.”

5. Less Common Ways to Save Money on Back-to-School Shopping

Earning Money from Unwanted Items

While going through your home and figuring out what you need and don’t need for this year’s return to school, Freedom Debt Relief’s Kevin Gallegos recommends setting aside items and clothing that are no longer needed.

Then, you can sell these items using sites like eBay, Craigslist, and popular clothing consignment stores such as Swap.com, Moxie Jean, or Flip Size (we didn’t test any of these popular services ourselves). Or, you can even host an old-fashioned end of summer yard sale.

Afterward, you can pool the proceeds and use them to fund your back-to-school shopping.

Earning Back-to-School Money from a Side Gig

Andrea Woroch, a nationally recognized consumer and money-saving expert, points out that sometimes “the easiest way to budget for big-ticket items during this expensive time of year is by boosting your income through a side hustle.”

“For example,” she says, “if you like animals, check out Rover.com for dog walking and pet-sitting gigs. If you’re skilled at writing, consider freelancing for websites or content creators and search for gigs through Upwork.”

She points out that another good option for students is by earning money from note-taking services like OneClass.

“Otherwise, run people’s errands or help out around their home through TaskRabbit.com. Most of them are very flexible and can really help with supplementing income temporarily,” she concludes.

» Related: 7 Legitimate Work-From-Home Jobs That Can Put Extra Money in Your Pocket

Don’t Forget Student IDs

Not only is it ideal to involve your children in the budgeting process and take them along with you while shopping, if you have an older child, Sarah Hollenbeck also recommends taking advantage of the benefits conveyed by their student ID.

“Many retailers and even many restaurants offer freebies and discounts of up to 50% for students, and the savings can be even bigger when shopping for specific items like school supplies and fall clothing. Make sure to ask the clerk what discounts they are offering before you check out,” she emphasizes.

» For Further Reading: 33 Genius Ways to Save With Your Student ID

Reuse Last Year’s Crayons

Looking to save every last penny? Organizing For Dummies author Eileen Roth notes that you canreuse last year’s crayons by sharpening them with a crayon sharpener.” But don’t “use a battery or electronic pencil sharpener,” she warns.

Buy Using Gift Cards

Meghan Fox, Chief of Staff at Raise, points out that another potentially useful way to save money on back-to-school items is by purchasing them using gift cards.

“For example,” she explains, “consumers can save up to 5% on OfficeMax/Office Depot, up to 6% on Bed Bath and Beyond, and up to 9% off on Overstock.com,” and then redeem the cards and make purchases directly through the Raise app. This could also help save time, not to mention travel expenses.

The Bottom Line: Saving Money During Back-to-School Shopping Takes Planning

Our advice on saving money during back-to-school shopping is pretty simple, really. Plan ahead. By writing out a shopping list and checking for what you already have, you can cut away most of the excess spending.

From there, you just need to download a few apps and research a few big-box store websites. Focus on saving money on the big stuff – clothing and electronics. Then, work your way down to pencils, paper, binders and the other stuff.

If you add up what you need to buy and it looks a little too overwhelming, remember that you don’t have to buy all your supplies at once. Space them out over the course of the year.

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Derek Lakin

With more than a decade of experience as a copywriter, Derek takes a detail-oriented, step-by-step approach to help you shop smarter. Whether it’s nutritional supplements or new scams, he believes an informed consumer is a happy customer.