Back-to-School Shopping: Top 10 Money-Saving Tips

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 $673.57—up from $630.36. The National Retail Federation (NRF) says that number should go up to $687.72 this year. Why are numbers going up? Families feel more confident.

“Families are now in a state of mind where they feel a lot more confident about the economy,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a recent press release. “As students head back to the classroom, retailers are prepared to meet their needs whether it’s for pencils and paper, shirts and pants or laptops and tablets.”

What does all that back-to-school 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 95% of families.

Further, the NRF says that, across all shoppers, clothing and electronics account for more than $490 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. To help you out, here’re top 10 money-saving tips for your back-to-school shopping.

1. 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.

2. 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.)

3. Know 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.

4. 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. And considering that your back-to-school bill will probably be more than $600, you can save around $45.

5. Know Where to 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.

6. Know 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.

7. Know Where You Can 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.

You can also find laptops from Acer and HP for less than $300.

8. 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.

Office Depot couponsImage via The Krazy Coupon Lady

9. 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.

10. Use Apps to Find Opportunities for Serious Savings

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.

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 a coupon app.

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.

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.

Here’re some additional apps to help you save while shopping:

Keep in mind that 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.

Wrapping It Up: 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. 

Related: 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.


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