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School’s Back in Session: 10 Ways to Save Money on Back To School Supplies

As another summer winds down, the promise of a new school year is visible on the near horizon. Whether you’re a college student who is eagerly anticipating your return to campus, a teacher who is already losing sleep over classroom setup and lesson plans, or a parent of elementary aged children with sweet dreams of a quiet house, you’re probably already counting the minutes between now and Labor Day.

But while you’re savoring the last days of summer, planning that final last visit to the beach, and squeezing in one or two more barbecues, it’s time to start thinking about back to school supplies. Indeed, most school districts kick off the new year some time between mid-August and early September. So for teachers, students, and parents, the dog days of summer are already transforming into the first days of a new year.

While we’re all excited to get back to our classrooms, our friends, and our activities, there’s a lot of shopping to be done first. Every new year demands a whole new stock of classroom supplies, dorm room swag, and an updated wardrobe. And while all that shopping can be fun, it can also be pretty costly, especially these days.

If you’re getting ready to ship off to college and you need a few tips for responsible money management as you embark on your higher education, jump to our advice on how to build good credit while you’re still in college.

Otherwise, read on for a little background on the challenges facing many American families as they prepare to send their students back to school.

Back to School Shopping in 2023

The last several years have imposed all kinds of economic challenges on American households. Even as we have emerged from the lockdowns and closures of the pandemic, Americans have experienced the impact of inflation in profound ways. With the cost of consumer goods rising in nearly every sector of the economy, families already living on restrictive budgets have only found it more difficult to make ends meet.

And today, even as broader economic indicators suggest strong growth and recovery alongside easing inflation, consumer prices remain stubbornly high. This will be a foremost consideration for many families as they look to the school year just up ahead. In fact, the effects of inflation have been consequential enough that many families are preparing for the expense of back to school shopping by cutting their spending in other areas.

According to a joint survey from the National Retail Foundation and Prosper Insights & Analytics, “38% of consumers are reducing their spending in other areas to pay for back-to-school essentials this summer. Because of higher prices, parents surveyed said they expect to spend $864 on school items for their children in elementary through high school — about $15 more than 2021. Families with students in college are planning on a $1,200 back-to-school bill.”

This suggests that from budding first graders up through university undergraduates, students of every age are struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the start of a new school year signals an annual boom for retail industries of all kinds. While families are looking for ways to afford the expense, economists project that the retail industry will pull in a record $111 billion in combined K-12 and college back to school supplies.

Back to school shopping is big business–a seasonal consumer event held on par with Halloween and Easter in terms of decorations, deals, and prominent retail store displays. All the bells and whistles can make it difficult to focus on saving money. We’re here to cut through the distraction and help you minimize your back to school costs.

With that in mind, we’ve compiled a handful of tips to help you find the best deals on your school supplies for the new year.

10 Ways to Save on Back to School Supplies

1. Make a List and Stick to It

If you’re a parent, this is probably the single hardest saving tip to follow. That’s because you may have somebody close by, nagging you ceaselessly for all kinds of gratuitous items. If your shopping plan isn’t rock solid, your kids may be successful in pulling you off course. That’s why it is strongly advisable to create a clear list of only essentials.

Of course, you don’t have to be a wet blanket about the whole thing. Let your kids help you make the list. Leave room for one or two fun but useful items, and let your kids pick out a few of these items on their own.

But be sure to make all of these arrangements in advance. Create your list as a family while still at home. Set ground rules for the items that your children may choose. Create reasonable compromises. And create clear expectations about what you will and won’t be purchasing before you arrive at the store. This may help to reduce conflict, keep you on track while shopping and, most importantly, create a shopping list that conforms strictly to an intended budget.

If you’re not sure where to start, most schools actually provide families with a checklist to work off of. It’s a good idea to look for this resource, which you might find through your school district online portal.

2. Do a Full House Cleaning

This may seem like a bit of a tangent, but this is actually a very important step if you’re looking for ways to save. Before you even set a foot outside of the house, now’s a great time to do a full throttle end of summer housecleaning. And we’re not just talking about mopping floors and dusting ceiling fans–although all of that stuff is very important.

We’re talking about cleaning out your junk drawers, organizing your cabinets, and reconfiguring your jammed up storage spaces. Why? Because you never know where you might be harboring last year’s unused and still brand new back to school supplies.

While we start out every year with good intentions to take thorough notes, use highlighters more effectively, and create study materials out of index cards, sometimes we just don’t. Then we take those perfectly good notebooks, highlighters, and index cards, jam them under a pile of books somewhere, and forget all about them. Of course, this means that when these items pop up on our shopping checklist, we’re totally ready to run out and pay money for them all over again.

Instead, says an article from Go Banking Rates, “Before taking your kids’ school supply lists to the store, search your own home for items that could fit the bill. You might have forgotten that you bought extra pencils or notebook paper last summer, and your kids might have only lightly used their binders last school year. No point in buying again what you already have.”

This is valuable advice. Take a complete inventory of everything that might be hiding around the house. Don’t let the impulse to buy something new prevent you from making the most of what you already have. And as an added bonus, you’ll get a start on the new school year with a tidy and well organized home.

3. Shop for Used Stuff

Some things are just as good used as they are brand new. And thanks to channels like Facebook Marketplace, it’s easier than ever to find cheap used items for cash in your very own neighborhood. Join a few local groups on social media and look for school supply staples like graphing calculators, sporting goods, book bags, and more.

School-aged kids grow up, and out of things, pretty fast. So you can find a lot of high quality, lightly used items in decent condition through online yard sale sites. So before you bring your list to the stores in search of bargains, see if there are a few used items that you can score for pennies on the dollar through your neighbors.

If you happen to be a college student, you can actually save hundreds or more by shopping for used items. Why? Because brand new college student textbooks are insanely expensive. Any time you can find a version of a required text on the used book market, you will save a fortune. 

According to an article in the U.S. News & World Report, “Textbooks are one of the most expensive costs for college students. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average college textbook costs $105.37. For cheaper options, check out Facebook Marketplace or local used bookstores. Some university bookstores offer used books at a discounted price. Amazon also sells and rents used textbooks, and students can sell books back or return them after the semester ends.”

You should be aware that many publishers will actually release new editions of an academic textbook frequently in order to promote updates. In some cases, the new version may be required by your professor. If you choose to bypass this requirement in favor of an older, more affordable used edition, you should be aware of any differences or updates that might come up over the course of the semester. In spite of the occasional gap in complementary information though, you will almost certainly save a great deal of money by purchasing the used version.

4. Join Forces With Your Friends

It’s back to school season for everybody. Many of your child’s friends are shopping from the exact same list of essentials. If you work together with friends and neighbors, you can shave a few bucks off of the everyday items that you know you’ll be using all year long.

Shop bulk and split your efforts with a few other families. Go Banking Rates notes that “you can shop at a place such as Costco or Sam’s Club and get some of the supplies in a large money-saving quantity. Anti-bacterial wipes, tissues, sanitizing wipes and Ziploc bags frequently show up on the lists from the schools, and you might even share things needed at home for school lunches, like brown paper bags and sandwich bags.”

Reach out to a few of your fellow parents. Everybody’s looking for ways to save a few dollars. Get together a little bulk saving crew and lower your cost per unit on school and household essentials.

5. Don’t Sweat the First Day of School

It may feel like you need to get every single item on you checklist before the first day of school arrives. After all, you want your kid to be fully prepared. But you don’t need to feel like you’re in a race against the calendar.

Pace yourself as you shop. Don’t spring for every item on your list during one spree. Shop around. Take a few weeks to gather up items based on the best available sales, the highest quality, and the most pressing needs.

But be assured that once the first day of school arrives, those same stores are going to be brimming with clearance sales. After all–like we said–Halloween will be here before you know it. They have to make room for all the costumes, candy and creepiness. That means back to school supplies are often at their cheapest immediately after everybody is back in school.

Not only that, but once school is back in session, you may find out that your kid’s teacher recommends a specific item, or a specific version of an item, or even a really great deal on something that you might have missed. According to Consumer Reports, you should not feel “pressured to get every single item on your child’s supply list before the first day of school. Ask the teachers which items are needed right away, then purchase the remaining supplies later. You’ll still be able to find deals even after school starts.”

All of this to say that you should shop for back to school supplies at your own pace, even if that pace includes a little more shopping after school is back in session.

6. Shop During Tax Holidays

As Americans, we have to take tax breaks when we get them. Well, this isn’t one that we all get, but if you do, make sure you make the most of it. With that said, this tip only applies to families and students living in select states. According to Consumer Reports, there are 45 states in the U.S. which apply a tax after sale to everyday consumers. However, says Consumer Reports, just over a dozen of these states actually offer sales tax holidays during certain periods of the summer season.

Obviously, if you live in one of these states, you’ll really want to get your shopping done during these tax holidays. According to Consumer Reports, “every state has different restrictions. Some have limits on how much you can purchase tax-free, while others have rules about which items qualify.”

Know what the rules are in your state and take advantage of every opportunity to lower your costs, even if only by a few pennies per dollar. All of those pennies really do add up.

7. Join Rewards Clubs

Honestly, this is a tip that applies to savvy shopping all year long. Wherever you shop, you should be a member of the rewards club for that retail chain. Most major retailers offer access to club benefits and rewards entirely free of charge. Sign up for rewards and receive all kinds of promotions and discounts.

This applies to grocery stores, mega-retailers like Target and Walmart, and to a wide range of specialty stores for sporting goods, clothing, electronics, computer equipment, and much more. Join all the free clubs, and make sure you maximize your benefits when you get to the checkout line.

And when it comes to back to school shopping, expect an influx of coupons and promotional discounts for the items you need. The late summer is booming with sales and price cuts. Being a member of the rewards club ensures that you receive notifications about these sales and that you’re getting the very best price at check out.

8. Compare Prices and Know About Price Matching Policies

Before you start filling up your cart–whether that cart is virtual or physical–take the time to research prices for larger items at different locations. From computer equipment and gaming systems to clothing, apparel, and school bags, places like Walmart, Target and Best Buy will often shelve many of the same items.

However, prices for these items may vary slightly from location to location. Moreover, each store will have its own special sales, coupons, promotions, and seasonal discounts as well as discounts for rewards club members. Do your due diligence to get the very best price before pulling the trigger on your purchase.

An added incentive to shop for these items through big box stores is that many of these retailers tend to offer price matching services to consumers as well. Consumer Reports notes that “If you’re shopping in a store, many retailers, including Best Buy, Target, and Walmart, will match competitors’ prices, so you may be able to get a better price without even leaving a store. Every store policy is different, however. For example, Walmart will match the price on only one item per customer per day, and only from a select list of online vendors.”

Familiarize yourself with the price matching policies at some of the top retail chains and make sure you take full advantage to get the lowest possible price wherever you shop. After all, this is the perfect example of a discount that you only get if you think to ask for it.

9. Using Browser Plug Ins

The last two steps are all about doing your due diligence to compare prices and get the very best rate on everything you buy. But there’s also a great way to do this without putting in all the legwork. As long as you’re already shopping online for some of your back to school supplies, get your browser to do some of the bargain hunting for you.

Did you know that you can add an extension or plugin to most major web browsers that will alert you of deals relating to any item you prepare to purchase online. According to Go Banking Rates, “Honey and Capital One Shopping are among the browser extensions that automatically scour the web for coupon codes when you check out at an online store. The extension will run any code it finds and offer you the best one. Capital One Shopping also offers cash back at many sites, with a recent offer of 2% back at Office Depot/Office Max.”

Add a few useful extensions and receive automatic notifications any time you go to check out at Amazon, eBay, or wherever else you do your online back to school shopping. You’ll receive a notification before you can complete your purchase alerting you of better prices from verified retailers online. Of course, you have the option of seizing on that price or simply purchasing through your preferred vendor. In other words, you have nothing to lose by adding a few of these extensions.

10. Capitalize on Student Discounts

Speaking of seizing every discount you’re entitled to, that list is actually much longer if you happen to be a student. Presenting a valid student ID can result in a ton of great discounts in clothing apparel and sporting goods stores; in consumer electronics and Apple stores; through large chain retailers and through small, local shops with a friendly policy toward young learners.

Do some research before jumping into your back to school shopping. Find out who offers student discounts as you search for the best possible prices. Then, be sure to carry your student ID with you if you’re planning to make your purchases in person.

And as long as you’re pulling out your student ID, make sure you take advantage of any streaming subscriptions, online services, and recreational opportunities that are available at a reduced rate for students. This may include free Amazon Prime membership, discounted subscriptions to services like Hulu or Netflix, and even access to the New York Times.

For college students in particular, the student ID can be a key that unlocks affordable opportunities for dorm room entertainment and enrichment at deep discounts, and sometimes even for free.

Not sure what kinds of student discounts are available to you? There are actually more promotions geared toward learners than you might expect. Jump to our article on How to Get Student Discounts.