Tips to earn that A+ in back-to-school savings

September 13, 2023

The hot dogs are on the grill, baseball is on the TV and the kids are at camp. It’s summer. So, it’s time to get ready for school supply shopping. Why? Because time is money – and planning ahead can help you save on both.

Back-to-school shopping means something different to everyone and the scramble to get the right kind of binder, folder, pencil, glue stick, calculator and more can be stressful, exhausting and costly. But, with a little planning, there are many ways to tackle that list, keep to your budget and get back to your summer activities.

Here are some tips to save on back-to-school shopping:

Make a budget and get that list

Before you get started on a back-to-school shopping list, make sure you’ve got a budget. If you haven’t done a budget before we’ve got tips to help you find a budget strategy that works for you.

With a budget in hand, you can get started on your shopping, but where should you begin? It can be overwhelming to get to the store during school supply season (yes, that starts in July at many stores). Just like with meal planning and packing for a trip, start with a list.

Schools might send home a list over the summer, right before school starts at an orientation or on the first day. But if you want to plan earlier, tap into your school network. Look for PTA or parent pages on social channels, like Facebook, where you can check through photos and posts from prior years to see shopping lists. Some schools keep a list on their website that they don’t take down. Some stores get copies of lists from the local schools that they share. Even though the list might vary slightly year-to-year, using a previous year’s list will give you a base to start with. There are some staples that don’t seem to change: pencils, erasers, highlighters, folders and tissues.

Note: In many cases, the school, teacher and/or PTA will provide supplies so check first to see what you still need.

Recycle, upcycle and bargain shop to save

While it can be tempting to get all new things, sometimes it’s just not in the budget, especially if you are buying for more than one kid. Add some stickers to last year’s water bottle or lunch box and you get a new look. Check the sale section at outdoor or sporting goods stores and you might get some great deals like a 2-for-1 offer.

Certain items – like pens, pencils and notebooks – can be purchased at dollar stores. A number 2 pencil is a number 2 pencil no matter where you buy it. Also, don’t forget about stores that aren’t necessarily known for school supplies, like hardware stores or home decorating stores, that might stock up during this time of year.

Another way to make your money go further is to buy a lot of something. Warehouse club stores sell supplies in bulk and that means spending less to get more. Grab some friends and go shopping together. You might not need 12 notebooks, but if you bring three friends along then you each get four (see, school math comes in handy!). It’s also a good place to buy items you might be asked to donate to the class, like printer paper and tissues. And there are likely to be deals on items you could use too, like magnetic calendars, staplers and label makers.

Ship and save

Sometimes getting to the store is more of a hassle than the shopping itself. In that case, take advantage of deals you get online and have the items shipped to you, shipped somewhere else or arrange for curbside pick-up.

Taking advantage of deals online can be a great way to stretch your budget and take the stress out of shopping. Check out online-only shopping sites, as well as websites for stores you enjoy visiting in person. Sign up for deals and take advantage of instant coupons, those small savings add up.

Plus, shopping online allows you to comparison shop at different stores, and for similar items at the same store, without spending gas to drive across town. If your kid is heading to another state for college, shipping their school supplies and decor to their dorm means not having to play Tetris in the car. Even better, if you can send items to a nearby store for pick up, you’ll waive the shipping completely.

Shop without overspending

You’ve got your list in hand and have decided to head to one of the big box or office supply stores in town. You walk in, see the back-to-school signs, oversize pencils and apples hanging from the walls, notice displays of bright colored items in all shapes and think: “I must have it all.” Before you grab a cart and start playing “Supermarket Sweep,” take a breath. There is a way to splurge on supplies and still save money.

Start by downloading the store’s app to your phone. First-time app users often get discounts and coupons just for signing up. Some stores will even give back a percentage of what you spend to the school and/or the teacher. Loyalty programs at stores will help if you need to replenish anything during the year, or if, when you get the actual list, you need to add some items.

It can be tempting to spend a lot at the start of the year, especially if it is the first year at a new school, or if you only have one kid to shop for. Maybe you need a highlighter, but do you need it in three colors?  Picking out locker décor is always fun, but does your child have room for everything that needs to go into their locker? A good idea is to select colors or patterns ahead of time that your child likes. And consider color coding your purchases, so everything math-related is purple (book cover, folder, notebook) everything geography-related is blue, etc.

You can also mix and match what you splurge and save on. Maybe you spend more on a backpack and lunch box, and then bargain-hunt for pencils and folders. And do pay attention to the list. If it says “Don’t buy purple glue sticks,” then no matter how good a deal it is, don’t buy purple glue sticks.

If you are really concerned about sticking to your budget consider paying with your debit card, which takes money out of your checking account immediately. It can help keep you from making purchases with money you don’t have.

Share what you’ve learned with your child so they can put it into practice when you’re not around, for example, when to splurge and when to cut back at college.

Make your dollars go further

So, you’ve done your budget and you’ve planned your shopping to maximize the deals, now it's time to pull out your credit card and make the purchases. If you use a credit card with a good rewards program, you can get a little something back every time you spend. 

For example, some credit cards offer cash back on certain spending categories. If you can choose the spending category, make sure you’ve got it set up to maximize your return. Maybe you choose a specific retailer or maybe you choose a category like department stores.

Another way to help your pocketbook is by using a credit card with travel rewards. If you earn enough points, that can help you book an airline ticket or a rental car for the next time you travel to visit your child in college, or to help offset expenses when you take the family on a trip over spring break.

There are many different types of credit cards so explore your options and choose one that’s best for you.

Make it last all year long

You try desperately to make what you buy for the first day of school last until the end of the year (or at the very least until winter break). But among broken crayons, missing markers and ripped notebook covers, there are some ways to keep the bulk of the supplies from landing in the trash.

Having a supply bin at home near where your child does homework means less time scrambling to find pens, scissors and other frequently used items. A plastic container or shoebox makes a great holder that is easy to move, and your student can decorate it and make it their own.

When it comes to books, with a little DIY, you can turn a paper bag or sturdy gift wrap into a book cover. Wrap or decorate it in a color that coordinates with the folder and notebook for the same subject (purple=math). There are so many online videos with budget-friendly DIY hacks that can brighten the back-to-school process.

Oh – and label EVERYTHING, there’s nothing more frustrating than spending money on items that go missing multiple times.

Some supplies will surprise you and last beyond the year. Did every pencil get used? Do you still have a full box of markers or crayons? Are there some notebooks or folders that went untouched? Good news: You have a jumpstart on next year’s back-to-school shopping trip! A+!

Looking for more financial insight? Read tips for raising financially healthy kids at every age.

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