School supply shopping: 8 ways to stay on a budget

Back-to-school time is both exciting and stressful. Whether this is your first year sending your little one off on the big yellow bus, or you’re a seasoned shopper sending your teenager off for the last time, everyone is excited for the kids to be starting a fresh year with shiny new things. Unfortunately, these things do come with price tags that can really put a damper on the back-to-school excitement. Additionally, there’s a lot of competition in the halls for the best supplies and clothes, and you don’t want your kid to be judged by their peers because you’re shopping on a budget.

Never fear! There’s no need for your child to be socially shunned because of a minimal back-to-school budget, as long as you shop efficiently and strategically. We’ve got you covered with this guide to school supply and school clothes shopping.

Where do I shop for the cheapest school supplies?

1. At home

Before rushing out into the crowded and narrow aisles at your local convenience store, take a look at the back-to-school list distributed by the school and look for items that you already have. Cross these items off. Is there still enough ink in your child’s markers to last another year? Do one of your older children have an old smock that they can pass down to a younger sibling? Look around the house before heading out to the stores because chances are you can cross a lot off your list without dropping a dime.

Pro Tip: If your workplace gives out free supplies like notebooks, packets of paper, or pens and pencils see if you can grab a couple of extras for your kids!

2. Online

The Internet has changed the way we shop for school supplies. One recommendation when it comes to using the internet to your advantage is to go to the stores first, write down prices, and compare the in-store prices to what you can find on the internet. An additional advantage to buying school supplies online is that your kids won’t be distracted by all of the shiny potential purchases in the store. It’s an easy way to stick to the budget and the list without having to fight with a crying child!

These days you can buy everything, from crayons to clothing, cheaper on Amazon. Check out supplies on Amazon before you fork over too much cash at the store. Remember that if the shipping costs are too high it might make internet shopping more expensive.

Be sure to use the internet for the most expensive of school supplies. Calculators for high school or books for college are great things to buy online on eBay or Amazon instead of in the store because you can get them used, which ultimately can save you hundreds of dollars.

3. Coupons

Once you’ve milked your house supply of back-to-school goods and hit up the internet for the best deals, it’s finally time to hit the stores. Before you go though, be sure to check your neighborhood fliers and internet deals for coupons. If you don’t already get a newspaper full of fliers delivered to your house, stores like Walmart and Target usually have their own fliers full of deals right at the door of the store. We recommend looking for some deals online ahead of time, too.  Check out RetailMeNot and Money Saving Mom.

Monitor the stores in your area for weekly sales that you should be aware of. You might have to do some running around to get the best deals, but as long as you plan ahead and don’t spend more than what the savings are worth on gas you can save a lot of money by seeking out the best deals.

Some stores do price matching for the same products, so if you can find something for cheaper in one place see if the store where you can get most of the shopping out of the way will match the price!

Just so you know: Back-to-school shopping season is when you can find some of the best deals on supplies throughout the whole year. It might be worth buying more than you think you need on 10 cent notebooks now than later in the school year when you run out and each notebook will cost you $1! Plus, if you have leftover supplies at the end of the year you can just cross them off your list for the next.

back to school

What do I buy?

4. Look for things that will last

Everyone knows that it’s really easy to spend too much money on your kids school supplies—it’s hard to buy a 132-pack of crayons out of the hands of a crying child; even if she really only needs an 8-pack. It’s also important not to spend too little though. Sure, it’s always a good idea to be on the lookout for a good deal and while sometimes those deals may come in the form of low prices, sometimes the best deals come in the form of the most quality products.

Look for things like trapper keepers or folders that are of high quality and maybe a bit more expensive. Compare the more expensive products with the cheaper ones. Is it worth spending more money on quality folders that will last your child through the year, versus having them break after only a few months? Depending on the difference in cost, maybe!

Looking for quality is especially important when it comes to backpacks. If you don’t want to be buying a new backpack every year or two, look for a more high quality product that your child loves especially if it has a lifetime warranty! Obviously the benefit of having a lifetime warranty will cost you more money upfront, but over the course of your child’s education it’ll definitely pay off.

5. Stick to the list

Your child’s teacher will give out a list of necessary school supplies and you definitely need to stick to this list! As you roam the back-to-school shopping aisles it’s easy to go overboard and purchase unnecessary gel pens or paints. It’s easy, after all, to spend so much money when everything looks so useful and fun.

Kids love picking out and shopping for their own supplies, and it would be a shame to leave them at home and deny them of the best part of the new school year. In preparation for a surprise list of supplies that your child claims to need make financial deals with them ahead of time. For example, you could give them the set budget of supplies, or only allow them to get one or two things that are not on the list in order to avoid coming off as an evil parent once you get to the cash register. Plus, this could be a great opportunity for your child to learn about budgeting and finances!

kids fashion

Saving on back-to-school clothes

The only thing considerably more exciting than shopping for school supplies is shopping for stylish new clothes that will last through the school year. This is a particularly expensive task that can cost you hundreds and hundreds of dollars if you’re not careful. The key is to plan ahead about your budget and where to spend it because school clothes shopping should be fun, not depressing!

6. Clothing swaps

Clothing swaps between friends and acquaintances are a great way to spend little to no money on new clothes for your kids. It’s a simple process, and everyone wins. All you have to do is see if anyone you know has kids that wear the size your child is growing into and vice versa, then you can just trade! This is an especially great tactic when it comes to saving money because everyone knows that kids grow out of clothes so quickly.

Clothing swaps work better if you’re working with a larger group of more than just two families, that way you’ll all have more options for different sizes. Clothing swaps can be a fun activity for kids to get involved in too. They get to pick out whatever they want without having to worry about a budget!

7. Thrift stores

Thrift store shopping can be a complicated, but extremely worthwhile, way to shop for back-to-school clothes. Not only can you save money on clothes that your kids will quickly grow out of by shopping at thrift stores, but many stores have systems that allow you to sell back old clothes that they’ve outgrown for either cash or store credit. If you encounter some great finds at a thrift store of choice, trading in old clothes for store credit is always the better deal.

The only downside to taking to the local thrift stores for back-to-school shopping is that many of them will be wiped out quickly by other families trying to save money, too, so start early! You may have to drive around to multiple stores to find the best deals on quality clothes, but if you set aside an entire day for thrift shopping you should be able to find some great things!

8. The Mall

Even after you put so much effort into saving money through clothing swaps and thrift store hunting, chances are your child will still want some brand new high quality and fashionable clothes for the school year. There are some tricks that you should be aware of if you succumb to mall shopping. You can still help keep the expenses within your budget.

Hit the stores a few weeks after school starts. The back-to-school deals are usually pretty deceiving, especially in comparison with how much you can save after school has already started when things really start to go on sale.

Give your child a budget. When it gets to the point that you are not buying things that your child absolutely needs but they still claim to absolutely need new things, give them a budget! Send them to the mall with $50-$100 (or whatever you can still afford) and then cut them off.

Compare prices on Amazon. Ever a fan of Amazon, I highly recommend this method. Just compare items that you want when you see them at the mall with the prices for the same items on Amazon, I guarantee that this will save you money in places that you would have never expected. In fact, Amazon offers a free price check app for smart phones to make this process even easier. All you have to do is scan the item’s tag with your phone and the app will tell you if you can buy it for cheaper on Amazon!

Finally, go for versatility. Instead of buying complete outfits for your child, make sure that you are investing in clothing items that can be mixed and matched. Maybe reconsider buying your daughter bright orange flower printed jeans (no matter how cute they are in the store) unless she already has a bunch of tops that will match well.

Back-to-school shopping can be difficult because of the necessity of new things and because of how easy it is to go overboard. As long as you plan ahead, take your budget into consideration, and utilize available technologies the process can go even more smoothly than you could have imagined.

Do you have any back-to-school shopping tips that we left out?
Let us know in the comments!


James Anthony

By James Anthony

A senior FinancesOnline writer on SaaS and B2B topics, James Anthony passion is keeping abreast of the industry’s cutting-edge practices (other than writing personal blog posts on why Firefly needs to be renewed). He has written extensively on these two subjects, being a firm believer in SaaS to PaaS migration and how this inevitable transition would impact economies of scale. With reviews and analyses spanning a breadth of topics from software to learning models, James is one of FinancesOnline’s most creative resources on and off the office.

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