14 Ways to Save on Your Back to School Shopping (Plus Free College Checklist)

I have been writing about back to school shopping for years now around this time of the summer and it is a subject that about a gazillion other bloggers chime in on too, so it must be a biggie! The challenge or chore of it all is a headache for some and a burden for others, but it doesn’t have to be that way if you choose to follow a bit of advice. Here is my very best effort at making the experience not only a money saving one, but as stress free and even as much fun as possible.

If you have kids, back to school shopping is a must. But spending a ton on it isn't. Here are 14 ways to stretch your dollar further for back to school.

If your child is in his or her middle school years, you are probably a real veteran at BTS shopping and perhaps you think you have this routine “knocked” and you’re all set. But, and it’s a pretty big but, every year there are new players and rules to consider so it can’t hurt to review all of it before you venture out to actually do it! Plus, if your child is off to college for the first time, it’s on a whole different level.

14 Ways to Save on Your Back to School Shopping

Talking about back to school when many of us haven’t even taken a break yet to enjoy some time off this summer does seem a little odd. But, believe it or not, the war has already begun. If you don’t believe me, check out your Sunday paper, online sites, and your nearby shopping center or supermarket. There you’ll see the piles of pens, papers, and the like that you and millions of others will be gobbling up over the next few weeks.

According to WalletHub, the average American family will spend almost $700 for school kids’ supplies and a whole lot more for college aged ones in 2018. As of this week, it is estimated that about one third of all back to school shopping has already been accomplished.

There are generally two kinds of back to school shopping that you do. One is the supplies that are required, often using a list given by the teachers at the end of the school year in June (about 75% of teachers now do that). The second, and the biggie of course, is a new wardrobe and shoes. That’s where the big bucks will come into play.

Super Saving Tips is all about saving money (in case the name didn’t give that away) so let’s talk about that right now.  If you have kids, here’s what I recommend you can do to save.

1. I’m glad you waited – maybe?

There really is no need to be the first on your block to get a new backpack or box of crayons. In fact, by waiting until now, you’re almost guaranteed to see better prices on just about everything you will really need for your child’s return to school. Keyword here is really needed. Sale prices will occur every week and you can check them out once you have determined what you actually need. The time to do that is now.

If your kids are going to college, you might actually already have a problem. Many schools begin classes in mid-August, so the time to shop is upon you right now!

I’m giving a free printable College Dorm Room Checklist to my subscribers, so sign up now to use it this year (and every year) to help prioritize your shopping!

2. Take an inventory

Check though your children’s clothes and supplies to see what they have that still fits and can be used. Taking that inventory will enable you to cut your expenses at least a little bit. Clothes that don’t fit and can’t be passed on to other family members can be donated (for a tax deduction). While you’re at it, take an inventory of unused school supplies from last year. You never know what might be lying around the house.

3. Make a budget

Back to school shopping is no different here than any other shopping you do. A budget will focus you and allow you to control the expenses. If you want to use this as an opportunity (which I recommend), include your child in the priorities of shopping. Some “want” items can be included, but the “need” items must dominate.  Kids have pressure sometimes to have socially required items (like the hottest shoes, for example) and if so, they have to learn that they might have to give up other things due to the budget. Good lessons to learn at a younger age.

4. Shop weekly

To get the best deals, the sales should be checked every week. You may miss the best deals if you buy everything at once. Some things can even wait until October (like sweaters and winter coats) since by that time, the back to school frenzy has ended and retail prices are much better on those items.

Retail prices will be 40-75% less by the time winter actually arrives. Don’t be tempted when you see the new winter garb on display in August such as new coats, boots, gloves, hats, and scarves. No!

First of all, in 90% of the country you won’t need these items for months and secondly, and most importantly, they’re not going to be at their best prices of the season. October is the best time to buy most winter items and still have full use of those for the season. January is the best time to buy if you’re stocking for next year when they are on final reductions of course, but that may be a “growing” concern for your child and you.

5. Buy basics in bulk

Things that will be used all through the year like notebooks, pens, and pencils can be bought in bulk. You can even shop with friends and split the costs with them. Items in bulk packs are almost always cheaper than individual or small package items.

6. Where to shop?

You can buy school supplies almost anywhere these days. From your supermarket to Kohl’s and Macy’s or even at the flea market, they are all in this business because it is huge and important as a seasonal profit maker. My personal recommendations are these: in addition to places like Staples and Office Depot, Target and Walmart are great for both paper and pencil type supplies as well as fashionable kids clothing at pretty reasonable prices. You can also check out thrift stores in your area for clothing. They often sell brand new things with the tags still on them at huge discounts. There are even online sites that have gently worn or new items of kids clothing.

For the basic stuff, there are the old standbys. Don’t overlook your local supermarket, who now has and stocks a lot of school basics and often uses them as loss leaders to draw you in while you food shop.

Dollar stores are also all loaded with the traditional items. But keep in mind that a dollar isn’t always the very best price for some of the basics like crayons, pencils, or paper unless it’s a really jumbo package!

7. Use all your discounts

This is so important and requires some research and preparation. First, look for saving coupons on everything from clothes to supplies. They are in your newspapers, online sites, and even in texts and emails if you’re a subscriber. Every form of discount is out there right now, including buy one get one free, manufacturer coupons, take an extra % off your purchase, etc. Use your store loyalty cards, coupons, and all of your skills. Second, don’t ever forget price matching of the competitive stores. In some cases (like Staples), they’ll beat those competitors by 10% when you show them the proof! My favorite on any shopping trip is stacking the sales by using more than one discount on my purchase. I must say that is akin to hitting the jackpot when shopping. If you’re not getting a discount on something, you’re just not doing it right.

8. After shopping, keep alert and keep your receipts

Whenever you shop, understand that there may be and probably will be a lower price on what you purchased at some point. It’s just a fact unless the item is a complete hit and sells out. That’s why you need to know the store’s policy about price adjustments and returns before you buy.  Ask because you may want an adjustment and you need to meet the requirements which can vary dramatically by store. While it may not be worth your while to get adjustments on a few cents for paper and pencils, it will be a different story on clothing and shoes where the difference will be dollars.

9. Quality vs. just plain cheap

I know money is an issue for most everyone, but sometimes quality (which means more expensive most of the time) can be really important. A great quality backpack with heavy duty zippers and a warranty may be a better buy than a cheaper bag that may rip or break and have to be replaced during the year. A quality backpack can last for years. Think about it.

10. Take advantage of tax breaks and holidays

Since the 1990’s when New York State instituted tax holidays for certain seasons of the year, many other states have joined in. Today, more than a dozen states have “tax holidays” on back to school purchases in August, and that can save you as much as 7% on your bill. It’s not too late, so think about it. 7% of $700 is about $50 in savings on average. The events vary by state so check here for the states and exact dates. (16 states offer this, and 5 states have no sales tax at all!)

11. Shop with cash?

Yes I know you get rewards and points with your credit card, but your chances of staying on budget when shopping with cash are almost guaranteed. After all, you can’t buy without money so using cash may be your best bet! The only exception I would advise is if using your “store” credit card saves you big bucks and extra discounts. Then it may be worth it, as long as you track your spending against your budget.

12. Make them earn it

I always made my children earn some of the money for the “want” items on the list. Doing some errands, cleaning up the yard, working a part time job (when they’re old enough), etc. builds character and teaches them about earning a living and the value of money. The earlier they learn, the better start they will have.

13. Don’t do all your shopping in one place

By nature the stores will all have something special to get an edge on their competition. Don’t do all your shopping in one location despite the temptation of saving time. “Cherry pick” each store of their bargains and you will come out way ahead. Just plan your route to save some time.

14. To take them or not to take them, that is the question

The answer is pretty simple if the kids are of a reasonable age. Take them. The controversy is whether you should shop with your small children. On the one hand, it is educational and does get them involved. On the other, you may be in for “mommy, daddy, pleeease” every 5 feet if you do. It’s really 50/50. My recommendation is that a little older child may be ready for that shopping trip with you and if you do take them, why not make it a fun experience as well. Perhaps shopping and lunch is the way to go to make it a better trip and more fun?

Final Thoughts

Back to school shopping doesn’t have to be an expensive task. With a little planning and some patience, you should be able to fill your children’s list at a reasonable price.

Now that you have your plan and you’ve budgeted the money, what are you going to do to insure that your child has what they need for the upcoming school year? Are you prepared for it? Is this something you dread or look forward to? What experiences have you had about back to school shopping you can share to help others?

Financially Savvy Saturdays

About Gary Weiner @ Super Saving Tips

Over the last 45 years I've worked in retail (department stores and supermarkets) and financial planning. In addition, I am a shopper, born and bred, who enjoys the challenges of finding the best items for the best prices. When I'm not busy saving money or writing here at Super Saving Tips, I enjoy baseball, music, and classic movies. I am retired and live in New Jersey with my wife.
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6 Comments

  1. Great tips Gary! I especially loved the one about making them earn things they want. That is one thing I think many parents make a mistake on with things in general. Kids that never have to earn things tend to not see the value in hard work and think they deserve things just for existing. It doesn’t have to be earning in terms of money either, but kids should be doing what they’re supposed to do to earn extras. I’m avoiding the topic of back-to-school as much as possible because I don’t want to go back to work!

  2. My kids’ school actually recommended that we don’t go shipping until after the first day of school when they’re distributing supply lists. And I’m super happy about that because discounts! We’ll still evaluate backpack/clothing/lunchbox needs, but I’m looking forward to getting the rest for less.

    • That sounds like good advice from your kids’ school so I would definitely follow that. Making sure you get the things that are required and getting a good deal on them as well is a win-win. Schools around here usually give their lists prior to school opening, but I’m sure that varies by location.

  3. My kids had to have mesh bookbags and I learned quickly to buy the expensive ones as the others didn’t last.

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