11 Ways to Save on Back-to-School Supplies

Worried about the cost of school supplies for the upcoming 2023 school year? You’re not alone. 

In 2023, parents are expected to spend a record high on back-to-school purchases, according to the National Retail Federation. Total back-to-school spending is estimated to reach $41.5 billion in 2023, up from $36.9 billion last year, and breaks the former record high of $37.1 billion in 2021. Back-to-college spending is expected to reach $94 billion, which is about $20 billion more than last year’s record high.

Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $890.07 per child on back-to-school items this year, which is approximately $25 more than last year’s record of $864.35 and a new high.

College students and their families are expected to spend an average of $1,366.95 per person, up from $1,199.43 in 2022, the NRF found. Back-to-college spending has nearly doubled since 2019, up from a high of $1,200.32 in 2021.

The increase in spending is primarily driven by consumers reporting they need more new items this year than they did last year as well as increased demand for electronics, with 69 percent of surveyed parents reporting that back-to-school lists included electronics or other computer-related accessories. In total, back-to-school spending on electronics is expected to reach a record $15.2 billion, with a majority of back-to-school consumers noting they need to purchase laptops (51 percent), tablets (36 percent), and calculators (29 percent).

“Even though consumers plan to spend more on school and college-related items this year, they are still looking to find the best value and deals,” said Phil Rist, Executive Vice President of Strategy at Prosper Insights & Analytics. ” Consumers are stretching their dollars by comparing prices, considering off-brand or store-brand items, and are more likely to shop at discount stores than last year.”

How can you ensure your kids are prepared for the school year ahead without busting your budget or taking on credit card debt?

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

1. Make a List of Everything You Need

Schools often send out a list of needed supplies before the start of the school year. But as most parents know, that list doesn’t include some other necessities that your child will need, such as new socks, shoes, pants, and t-shirts. Before you head out to the store, make a list of anything and everything your child(ren) will need. Figure out the average cost of each item and come up with a budget so you can start shopping for the best deals.

When it comes to school supplies in particular, make sure you pay attention to what the school does and does not allow. It would be a shame to spend money on a four-wheel backpack with a matching hat and detachable water bottle only to find out on the first day of school that your child’s school doesn’t allow wheeled backpacks. 

2. Shop At Home First

There’s no need to buy everything on the school supply list you made every year. Before you head to the store, do a little shopping in your own house. Do you have highlighters and glue sticks in your home office? Do you already have lined paper, even if it isn’t a new package? How about that stash of pencils in the drawer from fundraisers? Is that binder still in working order but just needs a little soap and elbow grease to remove the smudges? If you have supplies left over from last year, reuse them.

If your child tends to roll their eyes at the thought of reusing last year’s pencil box, one suggestion is to give each child a school supplies budget. Whatever money is left over once all school supplies are accounted for can be pocketed by your child. You’d be surprised at how attractive last year’s backpack starts to look using this budget-friendly method.

3. Compare Prices Online

Use the Internet to your advantage. Before going to the store, compare in-store prices to what is available online, and compare different in-store prices on various school supply items to ensure you are getting the best deal. Online retailers tend to carry everything from crayons to clothing to expensive calculators. Shopping online can be a quick way to get everything your child(ren) needs without as many potential and costly distractions as you may encounter shopping in-store. But remember to factor in the cost of shipping if you choose to order school supplies online. 

4. Shop Secondhand

If you’re on a tight budget, don’t forget about second-hand stores when it comes to shopping for back-to-school supplies. Kids grow out of clothes so quickly that shopping at the Salvation Army, Goodwill, or thrift stores can not only save you money but your kids can get several unique back-to-school pieces at heavily discounted prices. Win-win!

Not only can you find budget-friendly back-to-school wardrobe pieces at secondhand stores, but you can also find barely used or like-new school supplies here too, as some families clear out everything at the end of the school year to start afresh. If you have the time and energy to sift through the piles of items, you’ll likely find school supplies for pennies. 

In addition to secondhand or thrift stores, other places to check for secondhand items include: 

  • Garage sales
  • Consignment stores
  • Large Consignment sales
  • Goodwill
  • Salvation Army
  • Offer Up
  • Facebook Marketplace
  • Thrift stores- both online and brick and mortar
  • Look and see if your local homeschool group has a yearly yard sale since there are often school supplies and other educational materials available there.

5. Clothing Swaps

Clothing swaps between friends and acquaintances are a great way to spend little to no money on new clothes for your kids before school starts. It’s pretty simple, all you have to do is find parents with kids that wear the size your child is growing into and vice versa. You can either have a clothing swap party where a larger group of attendees can come and trade items, or you can just drop off bags of clothes with specific families!

6. Watch For Sales

Stores often mark prices on certain items way down to get you in the store. The idea is that while the store loses money on these “loss leaders,” they hope that since you’re already there, you’ll just finish off your shopping list, which is where they earn their money back. Be prepared to leave the store buying just a few items, such as the 25-cent pack of pencils on sale if you don’t find other bargains.

7. Shop Strategically and Often

Most of us want to just shop for school supplies in one day and get it all done. But if you’re on a budget, the best strategy to save money on school supplies does not involve a one-and-done shopping strategy. This is because stores tend to have different loss leaders each week, so if you wait until an item goes on sale, you can often get a much better deal. Once a sale is advertised, don’t wait too long because the best deals that start on Sundays sometimes sell out by Monday.

8. Stockpile Coupons

Especially if you have more than one kid to buy school supplies for, consider stockpiling coupons for school supplies as soon as you can by purchasing the newspaper, printing online coupons, and requesting that coupons be directly mailed to your digital inbox or physical mailbox directly from the manufacturer.

9. Look for Items that Last

Saving money on school supplies is important, but it’s also important to not buy cheaply made items that are likely to fall apart in a few months. In other words, look for quality products, not just the cheapest products, especially when it comes to school supply items like trapper keepers, folders, and backpacks.

10. Shop Early- VERY Early

Did you know the best time to buy school supplies is the year before? The few weeks after school begins, when retailers are trying to clear out leftover school supplies to make room for holiday decor, you can find considerable discounts on items such as binders, pens and pencils, spiral notebooks, loose paper, and even clothing. If you know your child will need binders, pens, pencils, and notebooks the next year, consider stocking up at these discounted prices.

11. Get Your Child Involved

Kids love to get involved in shopping for their own school supplies. Instead of leaving them at home or ordering everything online without their input, get your child involved. Have them help you compile the list of supplies they need, have them shop around your home for what you already have, and get them involved in a clothing swap if you choose to participate. Back-to-school shopping is a great way to get your child to start thinking about budgeting and finances. And if your budget allows, consider giving your kids a budget or an opportunity to buy one or two fun items not on the shopping list such as gel pens or paint, or upgrade a binder or folder to a brand-name print.

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