Shannon Rose’s two kids are still enjoying days full of swimming, playing outside and all the excitement that comes with being a kid on summer vacation. But this Louisiana mom is already prepared to send them back to school.
Before summer even got into full swing, she had scored great deals on school supplies and uniforms for her daughter, who is going into first grade, and her son, who is in pre-kindergarten.
“I buy school supplies year round when I see sales and stock up. The kids go through them and teachers are always putting them on their wish lists,” Rose said. “After school started last year, I hit up Walmart for 20 cent packs of looseleaf paper.”
Back-to-school shopping can be exciting, but also stressful and expensive as parents scramble to fulfill school supply lists, uniform dress codes, and the latest dorm-room must-haves. Families spend an estimated $83 billion on school supplies, according to the National Retail Federation.
We checked in with parents across the country to get their best tips for saving both time and money.
Pre-bought supply kits through your school or PTA: $50
Schools across the country offer this service as both a school fundraiser and a way to ensure that students start the school year with exactly what they need. It may cost a few dollars more than watching ads and going to the store, but parents say it’s well worth it and you may end up saving in the long run because you won’t be buying supplies your child won’t ever use.
Melanie O’Connor, a Connecticut mom and elementary school teacher, ordered supply kits for both her sons.
“Our kids get a box of stuff on their desk on the first day of school. I did price it out, and it seems like I’m probably spending a few dollars — maybe $5 — more by doing it this way,” she said. O’Connor spent $48.99 for her son’s 5th grade supplies and $50.99 for her eldest’s 7th grade box.
“It’s saving me time,” she said. “I know my kids are getting exactly what they need and not more because I just didn’t know.”
Kendra Donley bought a $55 pre-packaged supply box from her first grade daughter’s school in Colorado.
“Last year, I found they were particular about the brands they want,” she said. “This way they send ‘teacher approved’ stuff, and many of her friends did the same so I don’t have to worry about ‘Ava’s pencils are better than mine.’”
Shop throughout the year on essentials and stock up on clearance items: $10
While many stores lower prices in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, prices are often slashed right after school starts and at year-end clearance sales.
“My best savings tips are to shop all year long and create a supply closet or bin that you can pull from. I grab supplies when I see them on sale or at the end of the back-to-school rush when they go on clearance,” said Ikeda, a mom of 6-year-old twin boys that are going into first grade and a 9-year-old son headed into fifth. “I have not spent more than $10 on each of my children’s lists in the past few years because I keep my school supplies stocked.”
This is also a great way to stock up on supplies like pencils, crayons, Sharpies, paper and other basics to donate to your child’s teacher who is likely spending a significant amount of his or her own money on additional supplies for the classroom.
“These things get used up quickly and need to be re-stocked so the teachers don’t have to use their own money to replenish the supplies,” she said. “This year in our district, the supply lists are so minimal that I encourage our readers to buy more than what is on the list and donate it to the teachers either at the beginning of the year or around December.”
Use websites and apps to track prices and shop stores you might not consider
There are several ways to keep an eye on the best back-to-school deals both in your area and online. Amazon is launching a new back to school store front, but you can also use third-party sites like camelcamelcamel to track Amazon prices to make sure you are getting the best deal possible.
For must-have (or even must-want) tech supplies like laptops, graphing calculators and other big ticket items like dorm room furniture, appliances and TVs, Brad’s Deals lets you browse the best prices and discounts on a certain item and allows you to set up personalized deal alerts.
While Amazon and big box brick and mortar stores are often the go-to for school supplies, you may save a significant amount of money by checking out stores that may seem off the beaten path for school supplies.
Ikeda has seen some great deals at Walgreens, ”especially if your store allows coupons, because sometimes you can stack them to save even more.”
Sharon Van Epps, a mom of three teenagers in Washington state, buys school supplies in bulk at Costco. Sometimes it may save her money, but it always saves her time.
“When each kid needs a binder for five classes, it is easier to buy a giant box of them,” she said. “We have a supply area in the basement for them to restock paper, etcetera during the school year.”
Rose recently scored big on brand name supplies by shopping at discount retailer Dirt Cheap.
“Twenty Five Star folders, ten marble composition books, two Five Star pencil cases, ten big pink erasers, 110 Ticonderoga pencils and two pairs [of] Fiskar scissors,” she said.
Her tally? Just $14.
Hold off on new clothes until September and consider secondhand uniforms
That’s when fall clothes go on discount, possibly even clearance, as retailers try to move back-to-school clothes that didn’t sell during the summer rush.
For kids that need uniforms, your best bet though is to take advantage of the uniform sales that pop up before school starts. While many schools push smaller, local stores, you may get a much better deal by keeping an eye on The Children’s Place, Target, Walmart and Old Navy.
Amy Guzie, a Connecticut parent to an 11-year-old entering 7th grade, said it was a “disaster” trying to order uniforms from a local shop, having to wait weeks to get her items.
“I order uniform shirts from French Toast SchoolBox online,” she said. “His uniform pants are from Walmart and are reasonably priced … he wears them on weekends and days off because they are that comfy.”
And don’t forget to shop consignment stores and keep an eye out for secondhand clothing being sold on your local Facebook parents group or Marketplace.
“I also shop at Once Upon a Child throughout the year,” Ikeda said, “and always grab the color shirt or pants [and] shorts that my boys need and stock up on future sizes.”
Stock up on coupons and get your adult students involved in budgeting
Kara Eilts, a Louisiana mom of two college students, stockpiles coupons from Bed, Bath & Beyond. She also hit up Target, which will also offer a discount or a gift card back for spending a certain amount on back-to-school items.
Both of her children have scholarships and work to help pay for their books, supplies and incidentals. Eilts uses back-to-school season to work with them on budgeting basics.
“Parents shouldn’t bear the entire burden of college,” Eilts said. “Kids need to learn to budget and prepare as well for the real world and paying for college is part of it. They are not entitled to it, but earn it.”
A few other reminders from our team of parents:
- If you see a great deal, buy extra so that you can replenish your child’s supplies throughout the year and not have to pay full price to do it.
- Start scanning ads now! “The biggest mistake I see is someone paying full price by skipping the sales or not using coupons,” Ikeda said. “I saw someone just buy a notebook for $4.99 on Amazon that is only 25 cents at Office Depot.”
- Take advantage of your state’s tax-free weekends, especially for long supply lists and big ticket items. See if your state offers tax-free weekends.
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Sarah Netter is a freelance writer who lives in New Orleans.
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