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8 Tips for Back-to-School Shopping on a Budget

First day of school finance planning for supplies. Green calculator, US 100 dollar bills, pen, wallet, small chalkboard, first day of school written on it. Objects on a white background, close up.
Liga Cerina/Shutterstock.com

Back-to-school shopping season is upon us yet again, and with it comes a number of extra costs. While pencils and erasers may not be the priciest of purchases, the expenses pile up surprisingly quickly—especially if you’re buying for more than one student. It’s estimated that the average American household will spend over $800 on school supplies this year. And that’s just accounting for those with elementary through high school students, not college students.

While spending extra money on back-to-school supplies is unavoidable, there are ways to be strategic about when, where, and how you buy them. Back-to-school sales are great, sure, but they’re not your only money-saving option. Whether you’re buying for your own children or you’re going back to school as an adult, here are a few shopping tips that will help curb some of the associated expenses, so you don’t blow your budget out of the water.

Make Your Own Lists

Handwritten shopping list of back to school supplies written on page of a notebook.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a step that many people overlook. Sure, the school will probably send you a list of supplies your child will need (at least if they’re in K-12), but making your own can be helpful too.

A set school shopping list means you’re less likely to impulse buy, can note the exact quantities needed for each item, and cross off lines as you go so you don’t accidentally buy the same thing twice. If you’re shopping for two or more students, consider making both individual lists for each child as well as a crossover list of items they’ll all need so you can buy those in packs or bulk to share.

Modern Shop Large Magnetic Notepads

These magnetic notepads are the perfect place to write out your list of school supplies to buy, and you'll find plenty of uses for them afterward too.

Odd as it may seem, you don’t have to buy everything on your school supplies list right away, either. Some items, like winter coats, will actually be more affordable at other times of the year, even with back-to-school sales.

When writing out your shopping list, prioritize items from top to bottom in order of importance so you know what you’ll need to buy immediately and what can wait a few weeks or months.

A homework planner, for example, should be bought right away so that the dates match the current year. Whereas you might have some colored pencils left over from last year that will last your child halfway through the school year before you need to buy a new set.

Take Stock of What’s Already at Home

White work table. The stylish gold stationery is arranged very neatly in the drawers of the desk.
Kostikova Natalia/Shutterstock.com

This goes not just for standard school supplies but for clothing as well. You may be surprised at how many back-to-school products you already have at home. Items such as paper clips, handheld pencil sharpeners, and binder clips are likely floating around in your desk and drawers at home, so you can cross them off your list before you even set foot in the store or start browsing online.

Cardinal 3-Ring Binders

Binders are an item you're less likely to have at home but your high schooler or college student will almost certainly need.

New clothes are another common back-to-school expense and one that often takes up a big chunk of your budget. Have each child go through their closet and try on all their school-appropriate clothes and shoes, then make note of which types of clothing need replacing the most. Why buy them new sets of jeans for school if they already have enough that fit?

Compare Prices

Cropped image of man's hand scanning product through mobile phone.
Tyler Olson/Shutterstock.com

Before you even set foot in a store, look into downloading apps for your smartphone that will allow you to compare prices at different retailers so you can find the best possible prices on all your back-to-school purchases. ShopSavvy, Capital One Shopping, and Scanlife are all good options. Sure, maybe it’ll only save you 25 cents or so in some cases… but if you have enough items on your list, even the small differences will add up quicker than you think.

If you don’t want to download a whole new app or don’t have a smartphone, a quick Google search may do the trick (and often accounts for online shopping prices). Many stores will price match their competition’s deals as well, so do some research on that front before you buy. Play your cards right, and you might be able to get all your shopping done in one trip to one store.

Seek Out Coupons and Cashback Deals

Clipping abstract discount coupons.
igor kisselev/Shutterstock.com

You may already be clipping and saving coupons from your local newspaper or booklets you get in the mail, but these aren’t your only potential sources. Stores like Target often post links to coupons and announce sales ahead of time on their social media pages, so it’s worth your while to follow them on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

BentonAndBlair Coupon Organizer

Keep all your physical coupons organized and in one place with this durable coupon wallet and its handy dividers.

There are also entire websites dedicated solely to retail deals, coupons, and cashback options. Checking out sites like Coupons.com, RetailMeNotCouponCabin, and Swagbucks can save you money on a whole range of different back-to-school supplies.

Be Strategic About Buying in Bulk

A pack of blue school notebooks on the table in a classroom.
SB2010 studio/Shutterstock.com

Buying in bulk is generally a great way to save money in the long run and keep you stocked for longer– assuming you have room to store all those extra bulk items, anyway. Buying school supplies that tend to get misplaced or used up quicker (like paper clips or glue sticks) in bulk can be a time and money-saver. Yet it’s not the right choice for every shopper or back-to-school item.

If storage space is at premium in your home, you’re only buying for one student, or you don’t want 20 spare pencil cases lying around, consider reaching out to other parents or students to see if they want to split bulk deals with you. You’ll still be able to take advantage of bulk pricing and get the items you need without cluttering up your home.

Arteza School Pencils HB #2

Buy this box of pencils, and your whole family should be set for the entire school year and beyond.

Don’t Overlook Your Local Grocery and Dollar Stores

Close-up of Dollarama Retail Store Indoor Aisle with Toys, Furnitures and all the Cheap Items Available.
Benoit Daoust/Shutterstock.com

While you won’t want to buy all your school supplies at your local dollar store or thrift shop, they can be a great way to get certain products for a bargain.

Basic school items like pencils, notebooks, and pocket tissues will often be the same types or brands you see in other stores yet sell for much less money. Dollar stores are also great for cheaply stocking up on pre-packaged school lunch additions or afterschool snacks like potato chips or pretzels.

Mead Composition Book, 12 Pack of Cute Notebooks

If you can't find composition notebooks you like at the store, check out this colorful value pack.

Keep an eye out when you go grocery shopping as well. Plenty of grocery store chains carry common school supplies like tape, hand sanitizer, glue, and planners—sometimes for less money than big chain or specialty stores.

Check Your State’s Sales Tax Holidays

Chalkboard and books, colored pencils on the desk.

Did you know that some states in the U.S. have tax holidays or tax-free weekends at different times of year, including around back-to-school shopping time? This means that for a few days or over the assigned weekend, you can buy certain items without the usual sales tax—including school supplies.

School Supply Boxes Back-To-School Essentials

This bulk pack of school supplies should cover all the essentials.

Again, on paper, this might not seem like much, but if you’re going to be spending hundreds of dollars on back-to-school or classroom purchases, not paying that extra 4-10% sales tax can make a big difference.

Not every state has one of these tax-free holidays, but if yours is or you live within reasonable driving distance of a bordering state that is, it’s worth checking out.

19 states are hosting back-to-school sales tax holidays in 2022. You can see the full list of states and the dates of their tax holidays here.

Know When to Splurge

Happy 8 year old schoolgirl with a red trolley school bag, outdoors, sunlit.
mirjana ristic damjanovic/Shutterstock.com

It may sound counterproductive, but buying a more expensive item now can actually help save you money in the long run.

There are some items where it’s okay to cut corners in order to cut costs. Pencils and erasers, for instance, can be bought in large packs for extremely cheap, and they often get lost or loaned out anyway, so it doesn’t make sense to spend a ton of money on them.

Products like lunchboxes and backpacks are another story. Since these will be used every single school day and are meant to store and carry other items, durability is key, and the less expensive versions of these kinds of items are far less durable on average.

J World New York Sunny Rolling Backpack

Save your child's back and shoulders from bearing the weight of heavy books with this rolling backpack.

Sure, a $15 backpack may save money in the short term, but if it breaks partway through the school year and you have to replace it 2 or 3 separate times, you’re out more money than if you’d bought a better quality $40 one in the first place. The flat rate of a reusable lunchbox is actually cheaper over the course of the school year than constantly buying new brown paper bags every few weeks.

And if you buy a durable enough backpack or a higher-end lunchbox, they’ll last you more than one school year, so you won’t have to pay to replace them this time next year.

Back-to-school shopping is an unavoidable reality of modern life, but if you’re strategic about how you approach it, you’ll be surprised at how much money you can save. It may take more time and planning, but the end results will be worth it. And who knows—maybe you’ll even have a little extra money left over to spend on a surprise back-to-school present for your little one.

Meghan Herlihy Meghan Herlihy
Meghan Herlihy is a full-time writer for LifeSavvy and How-To Geek and has written across a wide variety of topics, genres, and formats, including radio talk shows, local sports journalism, and creative original fiction. She received her bachelor's degree in communications from Ithaca College and a master's in writing from Johns Hopkins University. When she's not writing, you're most likely to find her reading a book, petting every dog within eyesight, and indulging in her love of travel. Read Full Bio »
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