15 Ways to Spend Less on Back-to-School Shopping

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If you have school-age kids, I hope you have an extra $669 in your bank account to spend in the next month.

According to the National Retail Federation, that’s how much the average household will spend to send their K-12 students back to school this year. If you have a college student, expect your costs to creep up past $900 before you give that final wave goodbye.

But maybe you don’t have $669 extra in your checking account. Well, we certainly don’t want you to have to pull out the credit card. Instead, watch the video below as Money Talks News savings expert Stacy Johnson explains how to go back to school on the cheap. Then keep reading for more tips.

1. Live (and shop) by the list

Your school likely gives you a supply list. Use it.

Read it. Memorize it. Ingrain those items in your brain. And then avoid the temptation to buy anything not on the list.

Of course, you’ll need to supplement the school list with one of your own. Your list should include clothes, backpacks, lunch bags and anything else you deem a necessity for back-to-school success.

2. Empty your closets and drawers

Now, don’t take your list to the store just yet. Take it to your kids’ closets.

Pull out their mounds of clothes and weed through them. Find out what they have that is school-ready and what needs to be purchased to give them a complete wardrobe. This is also a great time to declutter. Box up all the unwanted and ill-fitting clothes and ship them out to the thrift store ASAP.

Next, head to your junk drawer, office or desk. Pull everything out and look for pencils, erasers, calculators, rulers and glue sticks. When I moved last year, I found a lifetime supply of glue sticks lurking in the corners – items bought and apparently forgotten. You may find the same in your home.

Once you’re done with this step, your list should magically be shorter.

3. Look for cheap secondhand supplies

Summer is garage sale season. That means plenty of people may be looking to unload their excess, such as the lifetime supply of glue sticks they find in their junk drawers. Don’t overlook these sales as an opportunity to score cheap back-to-school supplies.

You can also check your local thrift stores and log on to Freecycle to find items being sold for a song or given away. No, we don’t want your children heading to school looking like paupers, but plenty of “secondhand” items are actually brand new or have seen very little use.

4. Organize a clothing swap

My children attend a private school where uniforms are the name of the game. Many parents donate their old, good-condition items to the school once their child has moved on to the next size. At least twice a year, the school sets out a table with all the clothes free for the taking. It doesn’t get much cheaper than that when it comes to back-to-school clothes shopping.

The same principle can work for public school parents, too. However, rather than the school organizing, you might have to do the legwork yourself. Identify a few friends with kids of complimentary sizes and ask everyone to bring their castoffs. Then meet for coffee, cookies and the opportunity to refresh your kids’ wardrobes for free.

5. Stock up on office supply loss leaders

Penny pencils and 10-cent folders are popping up all over. Office supply stores, and even your grocer, are offering deeply discounted school supplies right now.

They want you to head in for the bargains and buy everything else on your list, too, but you save money by sticking only to those loss leaders each week.

Keep in mind that driving 30 minutes to buy a dollar’s worth of pencils probably doesn’t make much sense financially. However, if you live or work near a big-box office supply store, making a weekly run can be a smart way to stock up for cheap.

6. Sign up for rewards programs

While you’re at those office supply stores, don’t forget to sign up for their rewards programs.

Staples Rewards is my favorite, with members getting 5 percent back on purchases. However, Office Depot and Office Max have rewards program as well. And don’t forget about non-office stores such as CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid, which may have cheap school supplies and rewards to boot.

7. Watch for coupons

Coupons aren’t only for items in the grocery aisles. At this time of year, it’s not unusual to find coupons in the newspaper and online for pens, paper, Post-it notes, markers and more. Retailers such as Target and Meijer also typically offer their own store coupons and promos for school supplies.

If you’re shopping online, whether it’s for clothes or school supplies, don’t forget to look for coupon codes for specific sites. RetailMeNot is my go-to spot to find website coupons and special offers.

8. Buy in bulk

Warehouse clubs can be another good source of savings for back-to-school shopping. The jumbo size packages may not make sense for your family alone, but you could probably find friends who would be more than happy to split a purchase.

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9. Shop during a tax holiday

Some states are kind enough to give you a crack at tax free back-to-school shopping. Depending on your state sales tax, that could save you as much as 7 percent or possibly more off your total bill.

You can read this article to find out more about which states offer a tax holiday and when it will be held.

10. Check out discount stores

One of my struggles has long been finding durable backpacks at a decent price.

For years, I purchased the practically free ones offered at our local grocery and drugstores. However, they usually made it only a month or two before ripping. Then, we moved to the office supply stores, but even during the 50 percent-off sales, the backpacks were expensive and the quality questionable. Last year, I discovered that Marshalls had backpacks, and we were able to buy good-quality bags at a not-outrageous price.

Discounters like Marshalls and T.J. Maxx can also be a good place to buy shoes and clothes if you have a tween or teen with designer tastes, but you don’t have a designer budget. College students can find discounted bedding and kitchen supplies there, too.

11. Don’t overstock your college kids

Speaking of college students, sometimes less is more. Retailers, particularly electronics stores, do an excellent job of convincing us that college kids need to be totally decked out with the latest and greatest gadgets.

However, remember that list we talked about at the beginning? Even at the college level, schools will generally provide a rundown of what students should bring to the dorm and to class. If it’s not on the list, don’t buy it.

For more details, we’ve got an entire article dedicated to what you shouldn’t be buying your college kid.

12. Compare prices for big-ticket items

Of course, there are times when you will need to make a big purchase, such as a laptop, for your college student or even your high schooler.

This is when it’s time to fire up the price comparison sites and search for the best deal. PriceGrabber, Nextag and Shopzilla are all good places to find the best price. Then, if you end up buying online, don’t forget to stop by RetailMeNot to look for a coupon code before checking out.

13. Use discounted gift cards

Another way to save on both in-store and online purchases is to use a discounted gift card. These are sold by sites that make a living off other people’s unwanted plastic.

Some sites buy cards at a discount from those looking to turn their gift cards into cash, while others offer a platform for buyers and sellers to connect directly. Either way, you could save as much as 10 percent or more using these gift cards.

We’ve got a list of some of the best sites to buy discounted gift cards, as well as more tips in this article on saving every time you shop.

14. Wait for the September clearance sales

If you can hold out until September, you can score some serious savings in the fall clearance season. Clothes, backpacks and lunch bags will all see their prices slashed in the weeks after the start of school.

Try brown-bagging lunches for the first weeks or wait to do the bulk of your clothes shopping after Labor Day. If you really can’t wait to buy this year’s items, keep an eye on the sales and consider stocking up for next year.

15. Exercise your right to say “no”

Finally, you can save a bundle of cash on back-to-school shopping if you practice firmly saying “no” to items not on the list. Let’s try it together.

No, you may not have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle folders when they cost five times more than the plain ones.

No, you do not need a 10th pair of jeans this year.

No, I will not buy you a Kindle Fire to celebrate that you’re entering middle school.

Ten percent of parents told the National Retail Federation that 100 percent of their purchases were influenced by their children. If you let the kids run the show, you’re going to be spending way more than needed.

Save money by taking them out of the equation and, you guessed it, sticking to your list.

What other advice do you have for savings on back-to-school purchases? Share your tips in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Baltimore48

    The Dollar Tree has packages of pencils, pens, eraser, etc., for $1 each! It is a great place to shop for school (and office) supplies.

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    • Sean Cammack

      I would highly discourage buying pencils from dollar stores unless they are respected brand names because the ones usually sold there are of very low quality. The problem is the lead is very brittle which means when you sharpen it, the pieces just fall out constantly. Also the erasers break off easily and do not erase well.

      I have seen many of my students sharpen their pencils constantly until there is nothing left because of this. Please save your kids the frustration by buying loss leader pencils at department store or office suppy store sales instead!

  • Mike

    Don’t over look thrift stores, They have tons of school supplies, usually on Saturday they have 50% off all but one color. They have note books, note paper, folders, pencil boxes.

  • Jcatz824

    In reference to #6 – Staples has recently changed their rewards program and it is now tiered. Base members earn only 2% Staples Rewards on purchases up to $499 annually, Plus members earn 3% when they spend $500 – $999 annually and Premier members earn 5% when they spend $1000. or more annually. I had received an email telling me about their updates to their Staples Rewards program. The updates were to take affect on 8/01/2014.
    I have noticed that Staples HAS NOT had any really special deals on back to school items like they have had in past years. I don’t need any school supplies but I would always take advantage of the deals and give the items away.

  • evry_1s_a_skeptic

    When I was in 10th grade I bought a backpack at the army navy surplus store. It was very plain, one large pocket for books and a smaller one for pens, pencils, calculator, etc. it lasted me until my junior year of college before it finally ripped. I think it was about $30.