12 Ways to Save a Bundle on Back-to-School Stuff

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The average parent drops more than $600 on their kids' back-to-school needs, but you don't have to.


Does the cost of the annual back to school shopping ritual make you anxious? You are in good company. The average family with kids in grades K-12 expects to fork out $630.36 on classroom needs, including electronics, supplies and clothes, according to the National Retail Federation’s “Back-to-School Spending Survey.” And, although the per family cost is down a notch from last year, when it was $669.28, the general trend is ever upward, rising about 42 percent in the past decade, the NRF says.

But there are ways to significantly reduce the costs of school supplies, clothes and gadgets for your kids. Here are our 12 top tips:

1. Start at home

Make a list of everything you’ll need, starting with the list of supplies your school requires, and check around your house before you buy any new supplies. You probably have pens, highlighters, pencils and a few other supplies left over from last year. Mark what you have off the list.

2. Stick to the list

Once you’re in the back-to-school section, your kids will want multicolored pens, funny-shaped erasers, and every folder they see with a superhero printed on the front. Resist the urge to splurge and stick to your list.

The same goes for you. Resist the urge to buy something now because your kids might need it later. If they do end up needing a second set of markers, you can always buy them later.

3. Shop thrift

Nothing says you have to buy school supplies at a big-box store. Thrift stores, secondhand shops, and even garage sales can be a great source of cheap school supplies as well as backpacks, shoes and clothes for your kids.

4. Check for freebies

If you’re truly strapped, look for School Ready Supplies programs, which provides free classroom essentials and backpacks to students, under the Kids in Need Foundation. Some programs are designed to give away surplus goods, helping both students and the environment by keeping perfectly good stuff out of landfills. Check your local newspaper or government website to see what programs exist in your area.

5. Use your e-shopping tools

Check prices online before you buy anything in the store. Apps like RedLaser, PriceGrabber and ShopSavvy make it easy. Just open the app, scan the barcode of whatever you’re thinking of buying, and you’ll automatically see available online prices.

And don’t forget to check retailers’ websites. Many big retailers offer online-only specials.

Heck, if you find good prices on a lot of things your kids need, it might be worth it to buy them online, assuming the shipping isn’t too high. You’ll find some retailers, including Target, are dropping their minimum for free shipping in a bid to get your business.

If you can do it all this way, you’ve saved not only money, but time — and possibly prevented splurging on colorful nonessentials — by avoiding the stores altogether.

6. Look for coupons

Search for coupons and promo codes before you buy anything online or in-store. You can find coupons in your newspaper or via apps and online sources. We’ll give you some examples.

These smartphone apps find coupons:

Online you can find coupons at:

7. Shop on the state tax holiday

Taking advantage of your state’s sales tax holiday for back-to-school shopping can save a lot of money, especially on bigger-ticket items like clothes and computers. For example, at the sales tax rate of 9 percent where I live, you’d save $18 on $200 worth of clothes for your kids.

Here’s a rundown of the states that are participating and when: “Tax-Free Weekends Help Take the Sting Out of Back-to-School Shopping.”

8. Buy in bulk

You can save money buying in bulk at Sam’s Club or Costco, especially if you split the cost with other parents. Compare shopping lists, see what you both need, buy in bulk, and share the bill.

9. Wait until the last minute

Every summer, retailers stock up on brightly colored binders, organizational tools for lockers, and “LOLZ” stickers. Then, rather than get stuck with the leftovers after the school season starts, they put their back-to-school items on clearance.

If you buy the necessities now and wait until clearance time to pick up the rest of your list, you’ll save a bundle.

10. Shop sales

Never go shopping without checking the weekly circulars, including those for drugstores or overstock stores like Big Lots. If retailers sell arts and crafts or office supplies, they’ll carry school supplies, too, and you can find great deals on sale.

11. Swap with friends

If you have extra supplies at home, set up a swapping party with friends. Tell everyone to bring their extra school supplies, clothes their kids outgrew, or unused backpacks and sporting equipment. Lay everything out, and see what you can trade.

12. Stick to the basics

Despite what your kids might think, you really don’t need the glitter-dipped pencils, designer spiral notebooks, or neon erasers. You’ll save a ton of money if you buy plain, generic school supplies. Sure, your kids won’t be thrilled in the store, but when the fancy stuff is out of sight, most won’t care anymore.

What’s your approach to school shopping? Share your tips and tricks in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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