15 Ways to Cut the Cost of Back-to-School Shopping

It used to be fun. Getting the list from school, and then setting out to get the supplies. But somewhere along the line, it just got so expensive for parents. That makes it stressful.

If you have school-age kids (grades K-12), the National Retail Federation is anticipating that you will spend an average of about $673.57 on clothes and accessories, electronics, shoes and school supplies. That’s a nearly 10 percent increase from last year, based on the NRF annual survey.

For college students, the average outlay for heading back to school is expected to be closer to $900, factoring in big-ticket items like laptops and mini-fridges, it says.

Sound like a lot? I thought so too. Maybe you don’t have $600 to $900 in your checking account. We certainly don’t want you to have to pull out the credit card.

The thing is, you don’t need to spend that much (though the NRF and its members certainly hope you do) if you stick to this list of back-to-school money-saving tips:

1. Live (and shop) by the list

Sean Locke Photography / Shutterstock.com
Sean Locke Photography / Shutterstock.com

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

 holbox / Shutterstock.com
holbox / Shutterstock.com

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

LifetimeStock / Shutterstock.com
LifetimeStock / Shutterstock.com

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 found 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

Kiselev Andrey Valerevich / Shutterstock.com
Kiselev Andrey Valerevich / Shutterstock.com

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 it, you might have to do the legwork yourself. Identify a few friends with kids of complementary sizes and ask everyone to bring their castoffs. Then meet for coffee, cookies and the opportunity to refresh your kids’ wardrobes for free. It’s a great strategy for sports clothes too: cleats, jerseys, shin guards, helmets, football padding, ice skates … As you probably noticed, buying this stuff new adds up fast!

5. Stock up on office supply loss-leaders

Billion Photos / Shutterstock.com
Billion Photos / Shutterstock.com

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

Billion Photos / Shutterstock.com
Billion Photos / Shutterstock.com

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. Use coupons and get rebates

 leungchopan / Shutterstock.com
leungchopan / Shutterstock.com

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. Two great go-to sites for coupons and special offers are Coupons.com and RetailMeNot.

Another way to save money online is to sign up for a rebates site. There are several but our favorite is Ebates.

8. Buy in bulk

Kagai19927 / Shutterstock.com
Kagai19927 / Shutterstock.com

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.

9. Shop during a tax holiday

 evka119 / Shutterstock.com
evka119 / Shutterstock.com

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.

The Federation of Tax Administrators offers a breakdown of states offering a tax holidays and when they take place.

10. Check out discount stores

Kzenon / Shutterstock.com
Kzenon / Shutterstock.com

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

Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock.com
Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock.com

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, it’s a luxury, not a necessity. Don’t buy it.

12. Compare prices for big-ticket items

dotshock / Shutterstock.com
dotshock / Shutterstock.com

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 and Nextag are 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

Elena Kharichkina / Shutterstock.com
Elena Kharichkina / Shutterstock.com

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 selling 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 often 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

ZinaidaSopina / Shutterstock.com
ZinaidaSopina / Shutterstock.com

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’

gamble19 / Shutterstock.com
gamble19 / Shutterstock.com

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 virtual reality headset 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.

Kari Huus contributed to this post.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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