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Money-Saving Tips for Back-to-School Shopping

Money-Saving Tips for Back-to-School Shopping
Kaspars Grinvalds/123RF

7 ways to save when shopping for school supplies.

by Terri Frank


The idea of back-to-school shopping is exciting and fun to kids, but parents can find it stressful and expensive, especially when inflation is high. While clothing styles and technology are constantly changing, saving money will never become outdated. Share these money-saving shopping strategies with your school families to help parents score hot deals on back-to-school necessities while keeping their cool.

Be Strategic

As tempting as it might be to do all the back-to-school shopping at once, you can save money by shopping around, comparing prices, and waiting for sales.

Apps like ShopSavvy and Amazon let you search for an item and compare prices at a wide range of online or local stores. For school supplies, TeacherLists (PTO Today’s sister site) makes it easy to compare costs of items in your online shopping cart at each retailer. Coupon apps like Honey and RetailMeNot help you find the best coupons available for the website you’re shopping on. And many national retailers have their own shopping reward programs to help you save in-store and online, such as Target Circle and the Capital One Walmart Rewards program.

Make one list of must-have supplies and another list for nice-to-have gadgets or clothing items. Then shop the summer back-to-school supply sales to score the best deals on pencils, notebooks, looseleaf paper, and printer ink. Try to buy enough of these basics to last you through the year because they’ll cost more midyear.

Buy the Right Tech

Virtual learning and working from home have put a lot of demands on home technology, so make sure your hardware is up to the task.

Check the school or district website to learn what kind of access students will have to desktop or laptop computers. If your child needs a computer to attend virtual classes from home and the school isn’t providing it, ask for recommendations and shop back-to-school sales.

If your district opts for a hybrid or distance learning model, make sure your Wi-Fi can handle two or three Google Meet sessions at once. Traditional routers with range extenders will work, but if you have Wi-Fi dead zones around your house, look into a mesh router setup. Also, ask your service provider about increasing your internet speeds if possible.

PCMag has excellent articles on Wi-Fi networking options along with reviews and suggestions for where to shop. Do a little homework in advance to get the best deals and setup help you need.

Finally, check out online security software and set parental controls, and make time to talk with your children about staying safe online.

Shop During a Tax-Free Holiday

See if your state has a tax-free day or weekend coming up. If so, you might want to hold off on buying big-ticket items you need for an at-home learning setup like computers, electronics, or furniture until then to maximize your savings.

Every state puts limits on what items will be tax-free, so check the fine print. For example, Connecticut limits savings to specific items like footwear and clothing. In Massachusetts, most purchases under $2,500 are eligible. Most states, but not all, specify that school supplies are eligible.

Pick up the exact items your child needs to be ready for school by shopping school supply lists on TeacherLists. You can shop from your phone online or in stores at your convenience. And you can choose contactless delivery or curbside pickup.

Challenge accepted! Concrete steps for a great start to the school year

Shop at Home

Start by cleaning out closets and storage spaces to see what you already have. Once that’s done, you can save some cash by shopping only for what you need and not buying duplicate items.

After school closures last spring, you may already have a lot of at-home school supplies. Check your drawers and storage bins for notebooks or calculators. Take a quick inventory and put still-usable items in a container, and throw out or recycle the rest. Once you know what you have, make a list so you can shop for what you need from your child’s exact school supply list on TeacherLists.

Compromise on Clothing

At some point, you might clash with kids over school clothes. But even students learning from home need to follow basic dress code rules, so save the pajamas for Spirit Week. Have your kids try on last spring’s clothes. Keep what still fits, throw out items that are stained or ripped, and donate anything they’ve outgrown or won’t wear.

If your child finds a shirt or a pair of shorts that he’ll wear (and you consider appropriate for school), buy some of each in a few different colors. Likewise, there’s little sense in buying jeans if he won’t wear them because they’re uncomfortable.

When possible, stick to a budget. The biggest budget-breakers are designer clothes and top-of-the-line sneakers. Shopping the summer clearance sales will get you through the warm days of August and early September. Late September is a good time to buy some of those nice-to-have items because that’s when stores start marking down fall clothes.

Look for Gear That Holds Up

Whenever students head back to the classroom, they’ll need the right backpack. How much weight your child carries each day should be a main buying consideration. Some tips for finding the right backpack include:

  • Invest in a high-quality backpack with two wide, padded shoulder straps to help distribute heavy loads.

  • Consider a rolling backpack if your student regularly carries a lot of books. Many brands include shoulder straps for when she brings home fewer items.

  • Use a separate bag for sports gear to help keep loads light.

  • Check the store’s product guarantee and return policy. LL Bean, which used to offer a lifetime guarantee, now offers returns up to one year later with a receipt.

Stock Up on Lunch Supplies

Because of the pandemic, lunch periods are now very different. Students attending school in person will most likely eat in their classrooms instead of the cafeteria, so if you think you’ll be packing lunches frequently, shop sales on lunch containers that can be cleaned and sterilized easily. Look for items that are easy for kids to open themselves to reduce the number of people touching an item.

Bento-style lunchboxes keep items separate and are quicker to clean than individual containers. Options come in BPA-free plastic, glass, and stainless steel, but look for leakproof containers to minimize messes. Initially they might seem expensive, but over the long run you’ll save money over buying disposable containers.

Insulated lunch bags or containers with ice packs are a good choice when it comes to food safety, as in perishables left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. These items could become harder to find in the fall, so check sales early.

Food-grade silicone sandwich and snack bags are dishwasher safe, are easy to clean, don’t leave residue, and are sturdy enough that the food inside stays in one piece. They have airtight seals and they’re easy for kids to open. Sandwich wraps made from cotton coated in beeswax are a natural, reusable alternative to plastic.

If your school district opts for a hybrid or virtual learning model, have your kids help you with meal planning and preparing breakfasts and lunches. When children have a say in what they’ll have for a meal, they’re more likely to eat it—which will save money because there will be less waste. Check the weekly sales at your grocery store and stock up on nutritious bulk items like fruit for smoothies or healthy snack options.

Originally posted in 2020 and updated regularly.


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