According to a recent USA Today survey, parents of elementary school students spend an average of $662 a year (per child) to send their kids back to school. Parents of middle school students spend an average of $1,001 a year. And parents of high school students spend an average of $1,489. (We’re not even going to address college here.) Even with “must-have” supply costs, these figures can be lowered with a little bit of planning. Here are eight ways you can save money come September (and tax time) on back-to-school items.
1. Keep an eye out for back-to-school offers.
Check the circulars and internet for back-to-school sales to price compare this month so you can save as much as possible. Also, check whether your state has tax-free weekends for back-to-school purchases. Match up the dates with in-store sales for maximum savings.
Also worth noting is that office supply stores typically have ‘penny’ sales before school starts. Just check for minimum or maximum purchase amounts and limits on each type of supply.
2. Ask for a supply list as early as possible.
Teachers often have a reason for asking for specific items, so try to respect their wishes. But you don’t have to wait for the school year to begin to get the items on the supply list. If you know what you need, you can start price comparing early, look for deals, and even check out gently used or refurbished options. Also consider asking the teacher if he or she knows of the best place to order a specific item or if it’s possible to place a group order to receive a potential discount.
3. Consider dollar stores for basic supplies.
Dollar stores often sell the basic back-to-school supplies you should need, so long as your child’s class requirements are pretty standard. It’s quite possible to get pens, pencils, notebooks, etc. for a discounted price. You won’t be the first person with this idea, so go early.
4. Save on reusable lunch items.
Disposable paper lunch bags and plastic bags can add up over the year. A solid lunchbox, thermos, and lunch container will not only save you a little money, but will also help keep your child’s lunch fresher over the course of the day and reduce waste.
Of course, savings vary on what your child eats and drinks every day, but consider the savings:
While juice boxes are convenient, you’ll save more if you buy in bulk and send your child to school with a thermos of juice instead. Similarly, you may assume that off-brand sandwich bags are the cheap and easy way to pack your child’s lunch each day. You may be surprised to find multiple sources selling dishwasher-safe lunch containers for much less than the cost of sandwich bags throughout the year. (Plus, you’ll never have to worry about running out.)
5. Explore tax benefits for before and after school care.
If your child is 13 or under, you can qualify for the Child and Dependent Care Credit tax break as long as you are working or actively looking for work (consult your tax advisor). Depending on how much you make each year, the credit can equal up to 20 to 35% of what you spend each year on child care. Many after-school programs can qualify, but they must meet certain requirements. The maximum credit you can take is $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more.
6. Redress and reuse.
Supplies like three-ring binders and spiral notebooks (if they still have plenty of clean paper) don’t necessarily have to be purchased each year. As long as they’re still functional, reuse what you can. Kids have a habit of writing and doodling on their supplies, and often want something new once September comes around. Do what you can to redress everything for them. A pack of stickers that illustrate your child’s favorite show or band may be enough to mentally separate the item from the previous year.
7. Know when to say no.
Some things your child might ask for may not be essential for his or her school year. Things like yearbooks, school rings, and school pride t-shirts are definitely nice to have but are not 100% necessary. See what you can afford and let your child know in advance. Also, check with the school for flexibility on when you can pay. Yearbooks, for example, can sometimes be purchased in the spring or even the following year depending on the volume ordered.
8. Buy in advance for next year!
Once stores have their back-to-school sales, many will then go on to put the same items on clearance. Don’t be afraid to stock up if it’s a fair assumption your child will use the discounted items sometime in the future. The challenge won’t be so much anticipating your child’s needs for the next year as it will be remembering that you already bought everything.
It all adds up.
The key to saving money on back-to-school shopping is forethought. Do your research in advance, and you’ll have a little extra in your pocket long after September.