7 Rules for Thrifty Back-to-School Shopping

I was in Target one day picking up a few items when I saw a mom with an overflowing cart of school supplies. Ugh…is it that time already? For a moment I felt guilty because I’m always the slacker mom who sends her kids off to school with barely the essentials and does her best to catch up by the end of September. But as I watched this woman negotiate with her 7-year-old who was throwing a temper tantrum about a lunchbox, I was reassured that my way of back-to-school shopping works just fine for me.

I may not get EVERYTHING on the supply list…and I certainly don’t buy it all on time. But I’m willing to bet we spend less money than some other families. The National Retail Federation estimates the average family spends $669 on clothes, shoes, supplies and electronics during the back-to-school shopping season from July through September. That’s a lot of notebooks!  

Here are a few of my personal tips for saving money – and saving your sanity – when it comes to back-to-school shopping.

7 Rules for Thrifty Back-to-School Shopping 

1. Go Solo. I know it’s tempting to make the back-to-school shopping trip a special event to help children get excited about the start of a new year. But I personally haven’t found shopping with my kids to be effective. I spend less time and less money when I make a list and knock it out on my own. Of course, I need the children with me to buy shoes and some clothes, but the supplies I can do on my own. When I do take them with me, I give them a budget and let them use their own money if they want something more expensive.

2. Wait and See. There’s no medal for completing your back-to-school shopping before the first day of class. In fact, I find there are always a few teachers who add to the supply list in the first couple of weeks. And there are often better sales later in the season. Last year I waited so long to buy my daughter safety goggles for science lab that she ended up getting a hand-me-down pair from another student. Gotta love a resourceful child!

Oh, and when it comes to clothes, I most definitely don’t buy a new fall wardrobe in August. Why? Because it’s still 98 degrees outside and by the time the weather cools off enough to wear jeans, my kids will have undoubtedly had a growth spurt.

3. Invest in Quality (Selectively). When it comes to notebooks, crayons and other common supplies, I go for the lowest price. But I’ve learned to invest in quality for certain items such as book bags and lunchboxes. I expect my kids to get 2 years out of a book bag, which is a challenge given the amount of books they haul around each day. But when you buy a good quality brand, it’s totally doable. As for lunchboxes, my kids know they get one per year. If they lose it, they need to replace it themselves or take their lunch in grocery bags the rest of the year. So I buy a decent lunchbox that can withstand the abuse. 

4. Look for Warranties and Guarantees. I don’t know about your little ones, but my kids can destroy even the most durable supplies. So I buy a decent three-ring binder at Office Max and upgrade for the insurance plan that replaces it free of charge for the next two years. Staples offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee on all their Staples Brand products.

5. Compare Prices. I’ve never had much luck with couponing as a regular practice but I’m fairly good at comparison shopping. I search all big ticket items on Google Shopping before I make a purchase. And I tend to go for the “BIG” discounts rather than run all over town saving pennies at each location. Some of my favorite discounts:

  • Target Pharmacy Rewards: Fill a prescription at a Target Pharmacy and sign up for the rewards to program to receive a certificate for 5% off a day of shopping.
  • Amazon Prime: Get free shipping on eligible purchases (including school supplies!) plus a ton of other benefits for $99/year. That may seem like a lot of money but I shop for everything from groceries to electronics on Amazon. There’s a similar program for college students called Amazon Student for only $49/year.
  • Staples offers a 110% price match, which means they will match the price you find elsewhere and give you back 10% of the difference.
  • Ebates (affiliate link) gives you cash back for shopping at some of your favorite stores when you enter through their site.

6. Stick to the List. Retailers know they can sell us $0.17 notebooks because it will bring us into the store where we’ll make impulse purchases and rack up the total bill. Don’t give into the pressure if you’re trying to stick to a budget. I also want to encourage you to stand firm when your children ask for things that are not required. If you’re not careful, back-to-school open houses are the perfect place to shell out another $100 on spirit wear. I know it’s for a good cause, but we don’t need a dozen t-shirts with the school logo. We have enough.

7. Share the Wealth. With all the money you save on shopping, please consider picking up a few items for teachers who often buy classroom supplies with their own funds. You may even want to throw a Back-to-School party in the neighborhood and collect supplies for families in need or gently used books to donate to the school library.

What about you? How are you saving money on your back-to-school shopping this year? Please share your tips with us! I’d especially love to hear from homeschooling moms and college moms who have an entirely different list than mine.

Theresa Ceniccola is The Christian Mompreneur—a mentor to moms who are running a business that supports their values of faith and family. As president and founder of the International Christian Mompreneur Network, she empowers entrepreneurial moms to build profitable businesses with wisdom and grace. Join the International Christian Mompreneur Network for free and receive the Ten Commandments of a Mompreneur toolkit!

Publication date: August 15, 2014

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Skynesher


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