How to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

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Updated on Tuesday, August 20, 2019

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Parents often revel in the calm and quiet that comes when kids head back to school, but they aren’t likely to enjoy the excess spending that also accompanies the back-to-school season. According to the National Retail Federation, parents will set a record in 2019, spending an average of $696.70 per household on children in elementary school through high school.

 

“It was interesting to see the across-the-board increases in spending levels,” said Mark Mathews, vice president for research development and industry analysis with the NRF. “Elevated levels of consumer sentiment, healthy household balance sheets, low inflation and recent wage gains all seem to be contributing to a confident consumer who is willing to spend money on back-to-school supplies.”

If you’re planning a trip to the store before classes start, there are a few ways to curb the spending and save some bucks.

Plan ahead

No parent should set foot out the door for back-to-school shopping without first taking stock of what they already have. Plenty of old supplies from previous years might still be usable, especially arts and crafts items like crayons, pencils and pens, as well as more expensive things like backpacks, lunch boxes and calculators.

Crossing a few items off your list is a good first step when it comes to saving, but learning how to budget is also important. It’s tempting to run down the back-to-school aisle and grab every colorful notebook and snazzy pencil case in sight, but it doesn’t make a lot of financial sense. Create a realistic budget based on the items you actually need, and try your best to stick to it. If possible, do most of your shopping online, since it’s easier to keep a running tally of how much you’re spending as you shop.

Be smart about sales

Although you’re bound to run into many back-to-school sales this time of year, you don’t need to buy 12 notebooks just because they’re cheaper right now. In fact, you shouldn’t assume the sales price is the best price at all, said consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. Instead, always comparison shop.

“Run a quick Google search online or on your phone to see if another store is selling the same or a similar item for less,” she said. “Most big box stores will price match, so you won’t even have to drive to another store to get the better deal.” For example, Target, Staples and Walmart all have price matching policies.

Clip coupons and shop discount stores

Coupons have definitely made a digital comeback, with countless apps and websites dedicated to listing all your options in one place. “Spending a few minutes looking for coupons can help you get a better discount,” Woroch said. “Use apps like CouponSherpa, for instance. Or, use the Honey browser tool, which automatically searches and applies relevant coupons to your online order.”

Many stores also offer discounts to valued customers who sign up for their rewards program, like Walgreens and CVS, while craft stores like Michaels regularly offer discounts. Don’t knock purchasing basics like paper and writing supplies from the Dollar Tree, either — you might be surprised by what you find, and those types of items are often the same quality wherever you buy them.

Tax advantage of tax-free holidays

On select dates throughout the year, different states offer state sales tax holidays, or days where you can purchase items without having to pay sales tax on them. You can find a full list of the 2019 state sales tax holidays here, but some upcoming ones include:

  • August 18-24: Connecticut, clothing and footwear
  • August 17-18: Massachusetts, specific items costing less than $2,500 per item

Split bulk purchases

You can usually save money by buying certain items — like construction paper, pens, pencils and folders — in bulk, but you can save even more by splitting those bulk items with other families. Not only is this a great way to share savings, Woroch said, but you can earn rewards faster by charging everything on your card and then having the families pay you back.

Redeem your rewards

If you have a cash back credit card, now’s the time to use it. “Most credit cards give you the best redemption value when you opt for statement credit or have the cash rewards deposited into your bank,” Woroch said. “You can set this money aside for back-to-school shopping.”

Alternatively, Woroch suggested checking to see if your particular card allows you to redeem points for gift cards to retailers where you plan to shop.

Use discounted gift cards

Besides redeeming credit card points for retailer gift cards, you can also scour the web for cheap gift cards online. Planning a trip to Target? Scan websites like Raise, Cardpool and CardCash first. These sites buy and sell unused gift cards at a discount, meaning you can save on purchases you were planning to make anyway.

Consider having your kids contribute

Depending on your child’s age, back-to-school shopping might be the perfect time to start having them contribute to their own goods, especially if they earn an allowance or have a job. Talking to your kids about money at a young age — whether about budgeting, saving or spending — will help them develop solid money habits that will pay off in the future.

Parents already seem to be catching on to this idea. “It was surprising to see how much of their own money kids are contributing towards the back-to-school bills,” Mathews said. “Teens and pre-teens will be spending $63 of their own money, which works out to $1.5 billion overall. This is significantly higher than the levels we saw a decade ago.”

Although the news about increased spending on back-to-school supplies may be alarming, these days there are more ways than ever to save. A little ingenuity, resourcefulness and research can go a long way.