Education, Frugal, Personal Finance, Saving Money, Shopping

Back to School Shopping on a Budget

Now that the Fourth of July has passed, the next big item on the calendar is back to school shopping. This year is likely to be financially tighter than previous years for many people. Not only are families facing tighter budgets, state shortfalls are placing more of the supply burden on parents rather than school systems. So what can you do to cut some costs and still send junior to school with what he needs?

Reuse: Last year’s backpack or lunchbox is probably still good. There may be notebooks with only a few sheets ripped out. Folders may be bent, but still usable. Sports equipment can probably endure one more season. The computer can probably last one more year. Yes, a lot of kids want new things every year but if money’s tight, reuse these items for another year. Save the money to replace items that have been outgrown or are truly past their usefulness.

Buy used: Look into shopping at Goodwill, eBay, yard sales, consignment stores, etc. You can get great deals on clothing, electronics, books, and sports equipment if you’re willing to buy used.

Shop your state’s tax free holiday, if applicable. Not all states have these but if yours does, it can be a great way to save a little money. Just be aware that you might do better shopping a sale instead since many retailers don’t put items on sale during the tax free weekend. They hope that forgoing the tax is enough of a “sale” to get you to buy.

Compare online prices with physical store prices. Online coupons and free shipping may get you a better deal online than in a real store.

Sell last year’s stuff to raise funds for this year: Sell your unneeded supplies and outgrown clothes at a yard sale, on eBay, or at a consignment store to raise funds to cover this year’s purchases.

Stick to the list: Buy only what’s necessary and stick with the basic model. Don’t be swayed by “great deals,” the hype of back to school, or the begging of your kids. Get what they need, opt for a model with fewer frills, and get out.

Hit the loss leaders: Many office supply and discounters offer things like glue, paper, scissors, pencils, etc. for ridiculous prices (sometimes as low as a penny) to get you in the store in the hope that you’ll buy the rest of your supplies there, too. Don’t fall for it. Buy the cheap stuff and get out.

Plan your budget now: Don’t wait until three days before school starts to think about this. Go ahead and figure out how much you’ll need and start putting a little extra money away to cover it.

Try non-traditional sources for supplies: We all know about the office stores and the mass merchandisers. But places like Michael’s or AC Moore sell craft items and paper goods. And there is usually a 40% off one item coupon in each Sunday’s paper. Hit the dollar stores; they usually have pencils, paper, notebooks, glue, etc. Try outlets for clothes or stores that sell refurbished electronics. Pawn shops can even be a good source for computers or calculators. Think outside the big box stores.

Look into bulk purchases: If you’re a member of Sam’s, Costco, or the like, you might score better deals on some items by purchasing them in large quantities. Rather than buying individual pens for each kid, buy a big box and pass them out. Same with notebooks, paper, and glue.

Start early: Buy a little at a time as you find sales, coupons, and great buys. It may be easier to buy everything in one trip, but that is rarely the most cost effective method.

Wait: You don’t have to buy a whole new wardrobe before school starts. Get one new outfit to “make a good impression” on the first day and let them wear other clothes the rest of the time. Buy new clothes as needed, not just because “it’s back to school.”

Look for freebies and keep them throughout the year in a “back to school” stash. How many times have you picket up free pens, pencils, memo pads, etc. from conventions, expos, or hotels? Keep them and put them to use when school rolls around.

Buy simple and dress it up yourself: Plain binders, book covers, notebooks, folders, etc. are usually cheaper than their “Hannah Montana” or “Transformers” cousins. If your kid hates the plain model, dress it up yourself (or let the kids do it) with stickers, artwork, magazine clippings, etc.

If you have to buy for the classroom, buy in bulk or stock up at a big sale: Some schools ask the parents to provide supplies like paper or pens for the whole class. For these big purchases, be sure to buy only at stock up prices and get enough to cover most, if not all, of the year.

Give back: This isn’t a money saver, but it’s a kind thing to do. While you’re employing all of these savings tips and tricks, buy a little extra and donate it to an organization that provides supplies for truly needy kids. Most communities have an “Operation Back to School” or other charitable program that collects supplies for those who truly cannot afford them. Give a little of your extra to a worthy group. It’s just a nice thing to do and will probably come back to you in some way.

Back to school time is never going to be cheap, but there are some ways to reduce the pain to a tolerable level.

7 thoughts on “Back to School Shopping on a Budget

  1. Do your school have very detailed lists of school supplies to arrive with? Start campaigning for your school to stop demanding the specifics. What difference does it make which color folders and spiral notebooks the kids have for each subject? Why is it necessary for the school to dictate a certain brand of scissors and markers? Why must they have the special fading-to-clear-gluestick? Tell the school to stop demanding three large boxes of tissues per child and four rolls of paper towels. Who cares whether my kid has a zippered pencil case, a snap-shut pencil box, or just an interesting container recycled from home?

  2. I need to work on a starting grad school budget. I know there will be some serious expenses.

  3. We homeschool, but love to buy our supplies when they are on sale for back to school.

    Several thrift stores around here also have new back to school items dirt cheap. I got a bunch of pencils for a penny each.

  4. I have found it so interesting now that I’m in my fifties and no kids in school any more how many supplies that schools are demanding that the students have. I remember getting a box of fat crayons and a pencil on the first day of school from the school and that was to last all year. As we got older we were responsible to bring in our own notebook (any kind), our own paper, pens and pencils (any type)and if we had a cold to bring in our own tissues. What is with this supplying classrooms with tissues and paper towels. Whats wrong with using rags for clean up or whatever? And why in the world do school lists say kids need a 1″ 3 ring binder or whatever instead of using the 2″ binder again that the school required the year before? Utter nonsense! I pay hefty taxes and can’t believe the waste and high costs that our school districts are paying for stuff that is absolutely unnecssary. School supplies shouldn’t break the bank of any family. Why aren’t school parents revolting? Until there is a revolt against the nonsense, this list is great.

    As an aside, this list makes sense for small at home businesses too. I try to get the best deals I can for our office supplies and back to school time is a good time to stock up. Currently I have a note on my monitor to order some supplies before the last week of August when a supply sale will be over. I don’t need them yet, so I’m not going to spend the money until the last possible minute, but it is a great sale so I will stock up enough to last me till the next great deal when I do put in the order.

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