Strategic Back-to-School Shopping

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There’s one thing about school that never changes—the cost of back-to-school supplies is always on the rise. According to the National Retail Foundation, American households currently spend more than $600 per year on school supplies for elementary and high school students and $900 or more for college students.

it’s not all about pencils and paper anymore because today’s students also need electronic devices such as tablets, laptops and headphones. You may not be able to avoid the back-to-school hit to your budget, but here are some strategies to help avoid overspending.

Make a Back-to-School Plan
Before you start shopping, create a master list of back-to-school items. Compare prices and talk to your children to set their expectations about necessary items compared to the nice-to-haves. A character-themed backpack can cost 20 to 30 percent more than a generic one, so be sure to discuss brands and add-on features that are outside your budget. Do your best to stick to your list.

Look for Quality Where it Counts
When it comes to backpacks, kids today cart around so much stuff that a cheap one may not last the entire year. Shop for deals on high-quality backpacks from brands such as Timberland and Rockland that will hold up for more than one year. To help protect your child’s joints, look for backpacks with plenty of padding, especially on the shoulder straps, or buy a rolling backpack.

Hire a Sitter
Letting kids pick out their own school supplies may seem like a good way to get them excited about school, but shopping with children, especially younger ones, can be counterproductive if you’re trying to save money. Let them choose one or two special items, but get a sitter and finish up the rest of the shopping on your own. Compare prices on line but try to buy local when you can.

Recycle and Reuse
Instead of buying new versions of all the items on your kids’ back-to-school lists, look around your house to find out what you already own. Backpacks, binders and other durable items may be in good enough shape for another school year and you may find a forgotten stash of loose-leaf paper or art supplies. Schools may be able to help you find sports equipment or musical instruments, or local online marketplaces can help you connect with other parents who may have a surplus. Remind kids that repurposing used clothing and supplies helps cut down on waste and protects the earth.

Look for Deals
The prices of generic school supplies such as pencils, pens and notebooks usually drop at the end of summer, so that’s the best time to look for deals. The best deals in back-to-school clothing can be found in September. Don’t forget to check with electronics stores for student discounts on electronic devices and educational software. Coupons, both print and online, are another good source for deals. Check social media; some retailers such as Staples and Best Buy post coupons on Twitter and Facebook.

Shop Tax-Free
Some states offer sales tax holidays in July and August to help ease the burden of back-to-school shopping. A sales tax holiday lets you shop and pay no sales tax or a reduced tax. For example, Missouri has a tax holiday that begins on the first Friday in August and continues through the following Sunday. Some states impose limits on the purchase amount or on the type of items that are exempt from tax, such as computers and clothing.

Say No to New Textbooks
College textbooks are notoriously expensive, with their cost rising by almost 75 percent since 2006. You can save a significant amount of money on back-to-college shopping by looking for used textbooks at your college bookstore and online at sites such as and You may also be able to rent electronic versions of some textbooks for the semester. When the semester’s over, shop around and resell textbooks for the highest available price.

Buy Basics in Bulk
Talk to friends and neighbors about getting together to purchase basic supplies in bulk. Pens, paper, markers, crayons, notebooks and even sandwich bags can be much less expensive when purchased in large quantities at dollar stores, warehouse stores or discount stores and split between several families. Make it a social event and use your online community!

Back-to-school shopping can be a learning opportunity for families. Use it to teach your kids about budgeting and money management. You can also help them learn how to resist the lure of overpriced brand-name products when a competitively priced generic version will work just as well. If they really have their heart set on a high-end back-to-school item, let them use their allowance or give them extra chores to earn the money. ■

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