As a work-at-home mom, I always look forward to the start of the school year. Don’t get me wrong — I love my kids. But it’s hard to get work done when all three of them are running around the house.
However, there’s one thing I hate about my kids’ return to school: back-to-school shopping. I absolutely dread it. And I bet that I’m not the only parent who feels this way. The stores are typically crowded, your kids are begging you for stuff they don’t need, and it can be a struggle to find everything they actually do need. To top it off, back-to-school shopping can be expensive.
I’m embarrassed to admit that, even though I’m a long-time financial journalist who’s been dispensing money-saving advice for years, I’ve made my share of back-to-school shopping mistakes. As a result, I’ve paid more than necessary for school supplies. Here are some of the biggest shopping mistakes I’ve made. I’ve learned from them, and, hopefully, you will too so you don’t end up spending more than necessary on back-to-school shopping.
Click to read more about ways to save money on back-to-school items.
Not Taking Inventory of What My Kids Already Have
I don’t know why it took me several years to realize that I should take an inventory of the supplies and clothes my kids already have before shopping for back-to-school items. Perhaps it was because I assumed (wrongly) that there weren’t any supplies in good condition remaining from the previous school year, or that they had grown out of most of their clothes. I still kick myself for making this mistake.
Now, once the supply lists are sent or posted online on the school websites, I ask my kids to pull out what they still have from the previous year to pinpoint what new supplies need to be purchased. Typically, we find that they already have one-fourth to one-half of the items on the supply lists.
I also make them try on the clothes they already have in their closets and drawers. If most of what they have still fits, then it’s easier for me to avoid impulse shopping and persuade them that they don’t need a new wardrobe.
Failing to Comparison Shop
There’s no shortage of sales on back-to-school supplies – but some are certainly better than others. However, I’ve made the mistake of assuming that retailers that typically have the lowest prices have the best deals on school supplies and haven’t done enough comparison shopping. I know it seems like overkill to shop around for the lowest prices on pencils and notebooks. After all, these aren’t big-ticket items. But if you’re buying supplies for several kids, a few extra dollars for each item you buy can add up quickly.
Fortunately, you don’t have to drive from store to store to get the best deals. Consider trying a cash-back service like Inbox Dollars that lets you get money back at stores like Target, Walmart and more. And don’t dismiss going to websites of big-box retailers and office supply stores to fill your virtual carts with the items your kids need and see which total is the lowest. It recently took me less than 30 minutes to do this — and I found that Target and Staples have lower prices than Amazon and Walmart on the items my kids need.
Of course, if you can get free shipping, hit the “purchase” button and avoid a trip to the store altogether.
Keep Reading: The Best Things to Buy at Target and Walmart
Waiting Until the Last Minute
Because I dread back-to-school shopping, I often put it off until the last minute. But I end up paying a price for my procrastination. So I’m kicking this bad spending habit.
Waiting until the last minute leaves you with less time to comparison shop. You might also find that the store with the lowest prices is already sold out of some of the items you need, and you’ll be forced to buy them at higher prices at other stores. You might also miss out on deals in your rush just to check things off your to-buy list.
Shopping While Tired
As a working parent, I’ve made the mistake of taking my kids back-to-school shopping at the end of my work day. At that point, I’m tired, and the kids usually are, too. As a result, I don’t have the strength to withstand their pleading for unnecessary or pricey purchases. I just want to get the shopping done at any cost so I can get home.
That’s a recipe for overspending. The better approach is to plan early morning shopping trips when the kids and I have more energy and the stores or less crowded — or to simply shop online without the temptation of store displays that tempt my kids to beg for things they don’t need.
Being Too Cheap
Sometimes you can take money-saving tactics too far. I’ve found that buying the cheapest school supplies can end up costing more in the long run because you have to frequently replace items that quickly fall apart.
For example, three-ring binders have been on my kids’ school supply lists for years. In elementary school, the cheap ones would typically survive a year. But they couldn’t withstand the beating they got from my daughters in middle school, so we constantly had to replace them. Now I pay more for durable rubber binders that have lasted more than one school year.
Not Stocking Up While Prices Are Low
With one child starting high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school, I now know that some school supplies have to be replenished during the year. But it’s better not to wait until they run out of paper or glue sticks to restock. That’s because the lowest prices of the year for school supplies are during back-to-school sales.
So now I get a couple of extra packs of the items I know my kids will need more of during the school year when we shop the sales in July and August. I’ve found I can save at least 50 percent by buying these items when they’re on sale.
Letting My Kids Talk Me Into Stuff They Don't Need
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only parent who’s guilty of letting their kids talk them into buying something for back-to-school that they didn’t really need. It can be hard to say no to your kids when they’re giving you sad eyes or telling you they don’t want to be the only kid to show up with a dirty, old lunchbox on the first day of school.
But if you avoid shopping while tired or at the last minute, you’ll have more strength to resist their pleas. If you’ve taken inventory before shopping, you can remind them of what they already have. And you can tell your kids before you go shopping that if they want anything that’s not their supply lists, they have to pay for it. It’s amazing how quickly they lose interest in something once you tell them they have to use their own money to buy it.
Click to read more about what kids need to know about money.
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