By Andrea Woroch
BY THE TIME AUGUST rolls around, parents are ready to send their kids back to school with the exception of one daunting task: shopping. Purchasing classroom essentials not only takes time, but also requires spending a lot of money. According to the Back-to-School 2019 survey from the National Retail Federation, families will spend close to $700 on average for supplies, clothing, shoes and tech, with total spending for K-12 schools and college combined expected to reach $80.7 billion.
“There are so many options for parents and kids that it is easy to be lured in thinking everything is a bargain,” says Tracie Fobes, owner of PennyPinchinMom.com, a site that helps people find ways to save money and get out of debt. “Parents need to do their homework before they shop, so they know the prices and the stores and how those play into their budget.”
To prevent back-to-school shopping from draining your bank account and get your spending in check, use these savvy tips and expert-backed hacks for scoring deals and maximizing savings.
Here are frugal back-to-school shopping tips:
- Take stock of what you have at home.
- Spread out purchases.
- Split bulk deals.
- Stack sales with other discounts.
- Compare prices before you buy.
- Flaunt your status.
- Wait it out.
- Host a clothing swap.
- Think beyond school needs.
- Consider other school costs.
Take Stock of What You Have at Home
Before heading to the store, look around your home first to see what supplies you could use for the upcoming school year, says Kumiko R. Love, accredited financial counselor at TheBudgetMom.com, a personal finance blog. She recommends gathering office and art supplies into different piles to make it easier to take inventory of what you already have.
“If (my son) has an open box of markers, I try to make a full set with other markers that are no longer in a box,” she says. “I check things off the list as I sort through each pile so I know exactly what I still need to buy.”
Spread Out Purchases
Instead of shopping for all your kids’ supplies at once, save money at the same time by spreading out purchases over a few weeks. A few extra trips to the store may actually save you big money, especially if you time it when you’re out shopping for groceries or running other errands, Fobes says.
“Each week, shop the loss leaders at your store. These are the items on the front page of a store’s circular that have been deeply discounted and allow you to find some of the best deals, such as 1 cent folders and more,” she says.
Split Bulk Deals
Scoring bulk deals on school supplies is a tempting way to save, but unless you have several kids in school at the same time, chances are you won’t go through an oversized box of pencils or entire ream of composition paper.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of available bulk bargains. Going in with a few other parents to split bulk school supplies is a great way to save money, says Trae Bodge, a smart shopping expert at TrueTrae.com. “You can split the costs safely and easily using a person-to-person payment platform, like Zelle,” she says. Other apps like Venmo or Paypal allow you to split purchases quickly. Plus, offering to cover the entire purchase on a credit card for your group of friends gives you the opportunity to earn more rewards for freebies in the future.
Stack Sales With Other Discounts
Often, there are opportunities to save even more money on marked-down items with additional coupons, rewards or discount gift cards. “Use a site like Gift Card Granny to look for discounted gift cards,” Bodge advises. “By shopping with a discounted gift card for Old Navy, Target or wherever else you plan to shop, you’ll automatically save between two to 30% off on top of any other discount you find.”
Other tools like Honey find and apply coupons to your online order, while Coupon Sherpa’s mobile coupon app helps you score additional savings in store. You can even double up rewards by using a cash back or airline miles credit card with cash back shopping sites such as Ebates or Swagbucks, both of which allow you to earn points for purchases made through their site that can be redeemed toward free retail gift cards for popular stores such as Amazon, Starbucks or Target.
Compare Prices Before You Buy
Whether shopping in store or online, comparing prices is key to getting the best bang for your back-to-school dollars. Most big-box stores will price-match competitor deals, and this will not only save you money, but it will save you time too. “You can get another store’s price without going to more than one store,” Fobes says.
You can run a quick Google search on your mobile device or use the free barcode scanning app like ShopSavvy, available for both iOS and Android devices, to run a quick price comparison. Then, speak with a store associate or manager to inquire about price matching.
Flaunt Your Status
Many retailers, including Apple, Dell and Microsoft, offer discounts to college students as long as you can show your identification card at checkout, Bodge says.
Aside from students, teachers are also privy to exclusive discounts on school supplies year-round from stores such as Barnes and Noble. Meanwhile, some retailers offer seasonal deals to educators. For instance, Dollar General is giving teachers 20% off stationary for a limited time this season.
Wait It Out
There are plenty of great sales to take advantage of during the back-to-school rush, but that doesn’t mean that all deals are good deals. Seasonal items such as winter clothing will become cheaper after school starts.
“Autumn apparel and accessories are at their highest prices of the year when they first hit the stores in August,” says Kristin McGrath, editor and shopping expert at Offers.com, a coupon and deal site, and a contributor to U.S. News’ My Money blog. “Hold off on your sweater shopping spree until Black Friday to land fall fashions at up to 80% off.”
If your child’s clothing is beat up or doesn’t fit, it’s better to buy summer items on clearance. Most warm-weather garments such as T-shirts and tank tops can be worn during the first several weeks of school or layered through winter, buying you time to shop for fall and winter apparel during holiday sales.
Host a Clothing Swap
Buying new clothes and shoes for kids can feel like a waste of money considering how quickly they grow out of them. Instead of buying all new items, Fobes suggests hosting a clothing swap with other families in your neighborhood to help each other save more.
“Get together with all of your friends and bring clothes your kids no longer wear and swap with one another. You get the closet cleaned out and go home with like-new clothes your kids will wear without spending any money at all,” Fobes says.
Think Beyond School Needs
Back-to-school sales aren’t the only reason to stock up on classroom essentials for your kids at the end of summer. You can use discount school supplies later for other events and celebrations.
PeggySue Wells, inspirational speaker and co-author of “Homeless for the Holidays” says school and office supplies make perfect holiday gifts, party favors, Halloween treats and more. For instance, gel pens and markers are great stocking stuffers for both adults and children, while crayons can be handed out to trick-or-treaters on Halloween and notebooks and pens can be given as gifts or party favors.
Consider Other School Costs
School supply lists provided by teachers are a great starting point for planning your back-to-school budget, but there are many other expenses that can creep up throughout the year, so it’s important to plan wisely. Sport activities and travel for out-of-town games, field trips, fundraisers, book fairs and teacher gifts are just a few examples of expenses that parents often overlook. Kumiko advises tracking every school cost throughout the year so you have a reference point. “Plan ahead by looking at their upcoming yearly calendar, and also looking at past spending from last year,” Kumiko says.