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12 Ways to Save Money on Back-to-School Shopping

Practical tips to combat the rising cost of school supplies.

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Feel like you spend more every year on back-to-school shopping? It’s not your imagination. The National Retail Federation (NRF) says the amount parents anticipated spending on this annual elementary-through-high-school ritual recently hit an all-time high of $864. The good news is that even with “must-have” supply costs, these figures can be lowered with a little bit of planning. Here are 12 ways you can save money on back-to-school items.

1. Make a back-to-school shopping list.

One of the easiest ways to limit back-to-school spending is making a shopping list before you ever set foot in a store or open up your browser to shop online. At the end of each academic year, many schools post the next year’s supply lists online by grade. If yours hasn’t by midsummer, call to find out when it will be available.

Besides school supplies, your kids will likely need new shoes, clothing and maybe even an accessory like a backpack. Create a master shopping list that includes everything you need to buy for each of your kids. Keep your list handy when shopping to avoid unnecessary impulse buys and to mark off items as you go so you don’t inadvertently buy duplicates.

2. Search your home for back-to-school supplies first.

Look around your home for supplies left over from previous school years like unused loose-leaf paper, pens and pencils. There’s also no need to buy a new pair of scissors, ruler or pencil pouch each year. Giving other used items like the ones below a fun refresh saves money and reduces waste:

  • Change out the cover inserts of three-ring binders with clean pieces of paper
  • Cover up writing on file folders with stickers or white labels
  • Remove used pages of notebooks with plenty of unused pages left and cover them with craft paper or stickers

Going forward, create a central storage location for extra school supplies that don’t get used or that you pick up off the clearance rack during the school year. That way you’ll know what’s available at all times, potentially avoiding a future late-night panicked shopping run for a glue stick you already have.

3. Plan your shopping around sales tax holidays.

Did you know that over 20 states offer sales tax holidays for back-to-school shopping? These usually occur between late July and early September. Check here to see if your state (or even a neighboring one) sponsors a sales tax holiday and find out what’s included. Then, time your shopping accordingly to lower your cash register tally.

4. Shop for gently used items.

You can find gently used clothing and even some school supplies for a fraction of their original prices at these places:

While you’re at it, check your neighborhood’s social pages to see what’s being sold nearby. You never know, your neighbor might be selling a used laptop that meets your student’s needs.

5. Watch for store sales (and don’t forget about the wholesale clubs!).

In late July or early August, most stores begin running their back-to-school sales. Pay attention to newspaper circulars and sign up to receive store sale alerts via email where possible. Also cast a wide net when comparison shopping for the best deals because dollar stores, big box retailers, and even pharmacies run major back-to-school sales this time of year. Office Supply stores even offer “penny sales” before school starts. Be sure to read the ads every weekend: retailers offer deep discounts every week to entice you to come into the store, so there’s a new bargain each week. Some offers might come with a minimum purchase amount, so be sure to read the fine print.

Wholesale clubs, such as Sam’s Club, Costco and BJ’s, can also offer substantial savings on necessary supplies in bulk. But you don’t need four notebooks or 100 pencils? Parents of your kids’ classmates or your neighbors might want to share in the savings. They probably would welcome the idea. In addition, older children often need a scientific calculator or electronics. The wholesale clubs might have the best prices.

6. Buy things that last.

Think repeat use. Backpacks that come with a lifetime guarantee are a great example. Yes, you’ll spend a little more on the front end for your student, but they’ll be able to use it all the way through college, saving you a lot of money in the long run.

Reusable insulated bottles are another cost saver over buying individual juice boxes or water bottles for daily school lunches. An insulated lunch tote and reusable BPA-free plastic containers save you from repeatedly buying disposable bags throughout the school year. Both tips also mean less stuff ends up in landfills.

7. Use coupons.

Couponing is easier than ever today. In addition to newspapers, they’re available from these sources:

8. Choose stores that offer student discounts.

A quick Google search of stores that offer student discounts indicates that retailers like Apple, Amazon, Best Buy and Microsoft are among those that do. You can also check studentdiscountlist.org or simply ask about student discounts every time you check out at a store.

9. Earn cashback whenever possible.

Getting cash back is another way to save and put more money back in your wallet. It’s possible when you use a credit card with cashback rewards or use a cashback shopping app and/or browser extension like Ibotta, Rakuten or TopCashback, which allows you to earn cash while shopping at your favorite retailers in-store or online. In some cases, these apps/extensions automatically grab your receipts to qualify you for the cash back rewards, but with others, you have to submit or upload your receipts.

10. Plan for winter.

Sometimes the supplies you buy only last the first half of the school year, and by the time school resumes after winter recess, the pencils have been lost, the crayons are broken and the glue stick has run dry. It doesn’t hurt to buy an extra or two of each when prices are low instead of paying full price in January.

If your child makes it through the first half of the school year without needing a replenishment, start your school supplies box for next year.

11: Explore tax benefits for before and after school care.

The biggest potential bonus if your kids are younger than 13? Talk to your tax advisor about the Child and Dependent Care tax credit prior to arranging your before- or after-school care. If you and the provider meet IRS qualifications, you can claim up to $3,000 of care expenses for one child or $6,000 for two or more on next year’s tax return.

12: Shop alone.

The best way to save money on school supplies is to stick to the list and buy nothing else. That’s easy for parents to do if they shop alone. Some kids are excited about going back to school and want to take part in picking their supplies, though.

That’s where conflict can arise. Kids might want gel pens or a fancy notebook that they really don’t need, and you’re the bad guy for saying no. Some parents budget in the cost for an extra item the child can select, such as $5 for the youngster to spend as desired.

If you do take the kids, involve them in locating the items on the list. The little ones will love the scavenger hunt aspect. For the older ones, who are starting to learn the value of money, use the outing as a chance to show them how much money they can save by comparison shopping and looking for discounts. It’s a great learning opportunity.

Have more back-to-school money-saving tips? Tell us about them in the comments!

Editor’s note: Quorum is not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this article, and derives no benefit from these businesses for placement in this article.

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CUNA 2023 diamond award trophy icon

CUNA 2023 Diamond Award Winner

Financial Education

Quorum derives no benefit from businesses in return for placement in this blog.

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