— Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
It’s back to school shopping time! Ever feel overwhelmed by school shopping and find you’ve spent way more than you planned at checkout? How can a trip for a few reams of paper and some colored pencils result in a shopping bill that exceeds your monthly food budget?
If you feel like there has to be a way to save some money with back to school shopping, you’re in good company. The National Retail Federation reports that families, uncertain about what the year is going to bring, are gearing up for this unusual school year with unprecedented back-to-school spending. More laptops and computer accessories are driving spending and they estimate families on average are expected to drop $789.49 in back-to-school shopping this year.
If you’re looking for a way to save a buck—or many bucks—here are some tips to get your spending under control from finance experts and teachers.
1. Wait for the list
When we are caught up in the excitement of a school year, it’s so tempting to get an early jump on back-to-school shopping but educators and financial experts alike say, wait for the list from the teachers. Many teachers have specifics that they want kids to have for their class. “I want all of my kids to have a specific binder for a full-year project,” says AnnMarie Stackhouse, a high school history teacher in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Stackhouse isn’t alone, many teachers have very specific items they want students—especially older students—to have. Waiting to hear exactly what your child will need can help save you money in the long run. This year, in particular, Stackhouse recommends you wait to buy. “Since most learning will be remote, your school list might change based on what programs your schools might be working with. Everyone is approaching curriculum differently. It’s a good idea to wait to know exactly what you’ll need,” she says.
2. Make a plan
Once you do get your supply list, make a plan of what you absolutely need to buy at the start of the year and hold off on other items. With the exception of electronics, waiting until right after Labor Day is a great time to buy school supplies. Stores want to move un-purchased merchandise like notebooks, binders, and back-to-school calendars to start making room for holiday inventory, so supplies will be priced to sell. Smart shoppers stock up in September. If you can wait a few weeks to spruce up your kids’ crayon stashes, then hold out for those sales and save yourself a bunch of dough.
3. Take inventory of what you have
Do a deep dive through junk drawers and clean out what you already have. Organize your craft supplies, sharpen your pencils, ditch the dried out pens and markers, and reassess. Kumiko Love, accredited financial counselor, and founder of The Budget Mom personal finance blog says you may already have most of what you need to start the year off—you just may need to organize it. “Before heading out to the store… I gather all of the office supplies, and my son’s art supplies, and start grouping like items. If he has an open box of markers, I try to make a full set with other markers that are no longer in a box. I check things off the list as I sort through the pile so I know exactly what I still need to buy,” says Love. After you do inventory, you may find that you are in good shape to get through the school year or, at the very least, to get you through to the early-fall sales.
4. Organize a swap
If you feel comfortable with social distancing guidelines, coordinate with friends to swap supplies and round out your personal stash. You may have more glue sticks than you know what to do with, while your friend may have endless reams of paper. After you do your supply sweep, assess what you have and what you can easily give away. Organize friends or family to come and make trades so you are all well-stocked on what you need.
This can also work with back-to-school clothes. Organize a kids’ clothing swap to spruce up their wardrobe without spending a dime. Love says she likes getting her son in on the purging process, “My son loves to be involved in this process because he has a voice [in] what he wants to keep, what he likes to wear, and I can have him try on clothes throughout.”
5. Buy nothing
Buy nothing groups are popping up everywhere and they are a great place to purge old items and acquire new one, free of charge. Buy nothing groups are all about free stuff—I’ve personally acquired Halloween costumes, board games, picture frames, and a kids’ trampoline from mine. As the school year starts, people are ditching anything that doesn’t spark joy—and it may be just what you are looking for. You never know what you’ll find but you are sure to find it for free in these groups.
6. Shop smart
Both Stackhouse and Love say they are huge fans of the dollar store or dollar bins at Target for some serious savings. Stackhouse says you don’t need brand name products to get the job done and Love says that dollar stores are the only place to shop for younger kids. “My son is only 6,” says Love. “With younger kids, they go through supplies so fast. They break their crayons, rip out pages from their notebooks before filling out a full page, and lose their scissors. Knowing I only spent a dollar makes me feel better when I need to replace things quickly.”
7. Get app savvy
Catherine Alford, a financial educator, says to follow money-saving apps and extensions like Honey, which helps you immediately find coupon codes and lets you know if you are paying the best price at checkout. We also like apps like Flipp, which shows you all your favorite stores’ weekly circular ads in one place, and the Target Circle app, where you can check coupons and weekly sales.
8. Shop resale
For back-to-school clothes, Alford recommends looking for clothing and backpacks on re-sale sites like Poshmark, Mercari, or eBay. “Many people mistakenly think that re-sale sites only sell used items and that’s not true. I recently ordered both of my children backpacks from re-sale sites. They were both new with tags, and one of them was a $50 Jansport bookbag that I got for $20.”
9. Shop refurbished
For electronics, experts say refurbished electronics are a great choice if you’re trying to stretch your dollar. If you’re buying used, make sure you research products with enough data storage and that are operating on a system that supports all of your child’s school’s learning platforms.
While sites like Facebook marketplace and Craigslist often have deals on used items, for a big ticket tablet or laptop, we recommend either going right to the source, like Apple, Dell Refurbished, or other major companies—or using sites like Black Market or Amazon that have a warranty and a 30-day money back guarantee on all used and refurbished items. BlackMarket also allows you to price compare your model at different levels of condition, helping you to make the most educated shopping choice when you’re looking for deals.
The product experts at Reviewed have all your shopping needs covered. Follow Reviewed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the latest deals, product reviews, and more.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.