It doesn't just feel like the cost of buying back to school supplies is going up, it really is. But by learning some savvy back to school shopping tips, you can save big this year.
The Record High Cost of Back-to-School Supplies
According to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, 60% of parents say it’s challenging to afford back-to-school supplies.
Back-to-school time has become its own shopping season, second only to Christmas in terms of family expenditures. The National Retail Federation (NRF) expects record spending for 2019, with parents spending an average of $696 per child.
What?! That amount (for one kid!) is an entire month’s FOOD budget!
Or a mortgage payment.
Just my opinion, but no family should ever have to choose between eating or paying the mortgage and buying school supplies.
Multiply this amount by two or three (or more) children, and it’s easy to see why many parents start sweating about back-to-school supplies almost as soon as school doors close for the summer.
Whether your kids are just starting school this fall or are older you can buy them everything they need without hearing your bank account laugh at you.
Here are 20 proven strategies to help you become a savvy back to-school-shopper this year.
How to Save on Back-to-School Supplies
There are plenty of ways to not spend $1,000 per child this back-to-school season. If you start early and plan ahead, you can get everything purchased for a fraction of this amount.
Now that back-to-school shopping is a shopping season of its own, it follows the trend of stocking up stores and starting sales a little earlier each year.
I kid you not, I started seeing back-to-school supply sections popping up in mid-June this year.
(and school hasn’t even started and I’m already seeing Halloween stuff. Today I even saw Christmas decorations! Ok, rant over.)
You can save by purchasing one or two items at a time throughout the summer. Spreading out your purchases like this helps to avoid a huge hit to your monthly budget.
Use these tips to keep both your kids and your budget under control with back-to-school shopping this year:
Just Say No
Don’t even think about stepping foot outside the door without setting certain ground rules. Go through your list with your kids and offer choices in certain areas but boundaries in others.
Examples include setting boundaries like “You can have a new outfit or a new backpack”. This will save you a great deal of frustration in the store and dramatically reduce melt downs.
If you can, try to go school shopping on your own. If you can hit the stores without the kids, not only will your shopping be more relaxing, but you’ll likely save lots of money too.
Another option: buy everything online. Use your Ebates/Rakuten account (or create an account and get $10 just for signing up) to save while you (peacefully) do your shopping online after the kids are in bed. Read about Ebates below.
Rakuten splits the commission they receive from retailers with you so you get cash back for online purchases.
Right now they’re offering special back-to-school deals with double cash back for purchases from retailers like Staples, Office Max, Office Depot, Walgreens, Samsung, Microsoft, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Use them when shopping online or when buying in stores (using their app).
The website allows you to shop online at over 2,500 major stores and brands like Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Gap, Barnes & Noble, Dell, Kohl’s, DSW, and Macy’s, all while giving you cash back on your purchases.
How much you earn typically varies from 1% to 6% of your total purchase price. However, many retailers offer short-term rebates of 10% or more, as well as special sales just for Ebates shoppers.
Many users (including me) receive $300 or more throughout the year using Ebates, which you can use to buy back-to-school supplies. Woohoo!
And if you get the Rakuten Chrome extension for Google Chrome, it automatically pops up with savings when you go to a shopping site, so you don't even have to remember to check for discounts (which is perfect for me)!
** Get $10 just for signing up for Rakuten – then invite friends and receive $25 for each friend that signs up! **
Focus on Saving on Big-Ticket Items
When you’re back-to-school shopping, it’s easy to worry about the cost of markers at Target compared to those at Walmart. You're not alone – we’ve all been there. Believe me.
But while it’s important to watch prices on small items, you only have so much time and energy. Truth be told, the price difference on those small items isn’t going to be enough to make the time you spent comparing everything worth it.
You’re truly better off using this limited time and energy to save money on bigger-ticket items such as computers, tablets, and other electronics.
Saving $300 on your high schooler’s new laptop means more for your budget than saving $5 on your middle schooler’s notebooks or 50 cents on a box of markers.
Focus on saving money on your biggest expenses first, then hit the Dollar Tree for everything else.
Visit money-saving apps and websites.
Everyone loves to save money. Especially me!
So, it’s no surprise that there are apps out there for . . . saving money! Remember to use store-specific apps to save too. Make sure to download these money-saving apps before back-to-school shopping begins:
- Ibotta offers cash back on purchases, which they send to your Paypal account (I love that! Get $10 just for signing up for Ibotta)
- ShopSavvy: Simply scan that barcode to find out if you’re getting the best deal. The app will even show if your store will price match!
- Flipp: This app shows you all your favorite stores’ weekly ads all in one place.
- Hollar.com: Scour their back-to-school list for amazing deals on everything, from pens to backpacks!
- Groupon: Search for school supply deals and coupons with this money-saving app.
- Amazon: Do we need to say more (and save on your Amazon purchase when you use Rakuten)?
Don't bother shopping at Target without the Target app. Or their Red Card (I have the debit version), for that matter.
When you have the Target app, you’ll get access to Cartwheel offers like a percentage off a certain department (ahem — school supplies!). And your Red Card will tack on another 5% savings from your total purchase.
I love it!
Use the Amazon app to do instant price checks.
Use the Amazon app in-store to check prices so you get the lowest price possible.
In my experience, Amazon isn’t always the lowest price. But it is the lowest price about 80% of the time. I love checking prices there as a great way to make sure I’m finding a good deal.
If Amazon’s price is cheaper, you can actually place an Amazon order right then and there.
Or, you could just march that cheaper Amazon price on your phone up to customer service and request a price match.
Totally up to you because either strategy works!
Pro Tip: if you aren't an Amazon Prime member, you are seriously missing out. Take advantage of not only free 2-day shipping but also prime video, prime music and so much more. Join Amazon Prime – it's beyond worth it.
(Be sure to click through Rakuten before you shop to see if you can save extra)
Purchase character backpacks from Hollar.com.
If you have to ask the question “What is Hollar”, then you may have been living under a rock!
Think of this website as an online Dollar store. — especially around back-to-school shopping season. Not everything is priced at $1, but it does offer insanely low prices.
Hollar is a great way to shop school supplies online. Backpacks, for example, range in price from $5-$10 and feature Marvel, Star Wars and Disney characters.
But again, double check their prices to those on Amazon. Just to verify.
Or purchase name-brand backpacks at 6pm.com or eBags.
You’ll save anywhere from 10% to 50% with tons of different color and style options.
TIP: Sign up for emails at eBags and get 25% off your first order.
Consider buying a backpack from Lands End.
Sounds expensive, but they have great sales. And their backpacks last forever. We have 2 that I bought about 8 years ago and still look new.
Plus, they clean up well and have great colors that hide the dirt (believe me, my kids have test it).
Lands End runs frequent sales, so be on the lookout and use the coupon code.
But even if you can't find a coupon code, their bags are amazing and so worth the extra cost.
I have saved that extra amount many times over by not having to buy a brand new backpack every year (for multiple kids).
Pro Tip: You can save on your Lands End order with Rakuten! (see how the savings stack up?)
Create a school supply box similar to a gift closet.
The basic idea is to stock up on certain supplies you know you’re likely to use for school or crafts when you find significant savings. Then pull those supplies out when you need them. Savings…realized.
Check the Dollar Store
Remember how I mentioned that Hollar.com was like an online Dollar store?
Nothing beats the real thing.
You can get some incredible bargains on school supplies at the dollar store, where you’ll find basic supplies like notebooks and pencils, as well as classroom supplies like Kleenex and sanitizer, all at bargain prices.
Start shopping earlier rather than later, because you never know what items stores will order how quickly they will sell out.
I loaded up on items I didn’t already have in my school supply box at the Dollar Tree this year. My total cost was $60. I almost couldn’t believe it because I felt like I bought the entire store!
Shop on a Sales Tax Holiday
Many states have sales tax holidays when shoppers can buy items without paying sales tax. On these days, you can pick up clothing, computers, and school supplies tax-free.
Believe me, that adds up to good savings, if you can take advantage of it.
Find the date (or dates) of your state’s sales tax holiday and determine which items are eligible online.
Many states have a sales tax holiday during the first week of August, although some have tax holidays in July or toward the end of August.
Pro Tip: States like Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon are always tax-free states.
Selectively Shop at Costco
Love shopping at Costco? Me too!
Costco is wonderful for items such as Kleenex or Chlorox wipes, printers, printer ink, etc.
Costco is NOT a good place to buy pens, highlighters, etc because they create school supply bundles that often have the wrong ratios.
Seriously, you are better off shopping for supplies at the Dollar Tree or on Amazon.
Some supplies can be reused.
For example each year my kids have folders with double bottom pockets on their lists. I buy plastic folders which are more sturdy and reuse them from year to year until they fall apart J
Why buy them again when they are in perfectly good condition?
Buying your basics in bulk is your best friend.
Items like paper, pencils (make sure lead is #2), erasers and tape all go on sale as soon as school starts. Stock up so that you are set for the rest of the year (and might even have some items purchased for next year).
Let your kids buy trendy items with their own money.
If they absolutely have to have that Star Wars backpack or Minions lunchbox, let them pay for it out of their allowance or savings.
Having them spend their own money on an item will make them think twice about what they really need and will make them less careless about losing the item or treating it poorly.
It may sound harsh, but it’s really important to teach kids about the value of money and how to choose wisely when it come to spending money. This is a great example of when and how to use this so your kids become a little more financially conscious.
Hold off on new clothes
Wait to buy clothes until after school starts.
I know you may want that beautiful brand new outfit for the first day of school.
But Consumer Reports states that most of the best deals come later in September after the big back-to-school clothes-buying rush ends.
Summer clothing will be on clearance (my fav time to stock up for next year!).
Also, items like boots, denim jeans, sweaters and coats always come with bigger discounts later in the fall.
If you really want that brand-new-outfit-back-to-school photo look, buy one new outfit for your kids to wear on the first day. Then do most of your shopping when prices drop further in September or October.
The best of both worlds!
Check Consignment Shops
Consignment shops are great places to find used clothing because everything they offer has already been vetted, so unlike at the thrift store, you won’t have to scrutinize each piece of clothing to check and make sure there aren’t any stains or holes.
If your area has several consignment shops, find out if they’ll be having a sale in late summer. Many consignment shops organize a seasonal sale, especially during the back-to-school shopping season.
Several shops might even organize a mega-sale in one location, pooling all their resources together. You can find consignment shops in your area at Kids Consignment Sales.
Follow Stores on Twitter & Facebook
Many companies send their loyal followers coupon links and advance notice of sales. If you plan to bargain-hunt this year, monitor your favorite stores’ Twitter and Facebook feeds to find deals.
You can follow these stores on Twitter, for example:
- Amazon Deals: @amazondeals
- Kohl’s: @Kohls
- Best Buy: @BestBuy
- Target: @Target
- RetailMeNot: @RetailMeNot
- Coupons.com: @Coupons
- Staples: @Staples
- Office Max: @OfficeMax
- TJ Maxx: @tjmaxx
- Marshalls: @marshalls
Make the entire experience a teachable moment
Oh I love “teachable moments”!
Help your kids to understand basic marketing principles, like where items are placed in the store to get their attention – e.g. the most kid-appealing products are displayed at their eye level.
Also help them learn the difference between wanting something and needing something – “You need a backpack” vs. “You don’t need a $150 backpack.”
Lastly, consider shopping earlier next year.
Many schools send home the next year’s supply list at the end of the year, so once those school supplies hit the shelves in June start stocking up a little at a time.
Retailers rotate sale items on a weekly basis so chances are you’ll be able to scoop up deals all throughout the summer.
Many parents don’t want to think about shopping for the coming school year, especially in the middle of a fun summer.
However, back-to-school shopping may creep up on you rather quickly, so it pays to be prepared.
The best way to save money is to start planning ahead of time so you can take advantage of every deal and coupon that comes your way.
Do you have any savvy back-to-school shopping tricks you use to save money each year? I’d love to hear them!