These are the Deals to Focus On When Back-to-School Shopping, According to Experts

Happy mother with her daughter choosing and buying school supplies.
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More than half of parents surveyed said they expect to spend more on school supplies, clothing and accessories this year than last year, according to a report from Amex Trendex.

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While inflation is no doubt playing a role in higher costs, a return to regular, in-person school days is driving higher costs for clothing. Twenty-five percent of parents polled said that this back-to-school season marks the first time they have shopped for clothing in more than a year.

Supply chain issues may also cause shortages or challenges in finding certain items, from school uniforms to electronics.

Fortunately, there are ways to shop smarter — online or in stores — to help keep costs manageable this school year.

Leverage Credit Card Rewards

According to the Amex Trendex study, 52% of parents say they plan to use credit card rewards to save on back-to-school shopping.

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“Credit card rewards can help offset inflation when the balance is paid in full each month,” says Jennifer Seitz, mom of three and Certified Financial Education Instructor and Director of Education at Greenlight. “Make sure you understand your reward program to maximize the benefit — and cash in for the most value.”

While it may be tempting to go the easy route and get a statement credit, you may earn more by redeeming rewards for gift cards to use at your favorite back-to-school retailers.

“Also, don’t forget about loyalty rewards to get discounts at the register,” Seitz says. “They’re often free to sign up for, but the savings can add up.”

Examples of programs that pay cash back for online and in-store shopping include Rakuten and Target Circle.

Shop Online for Savings and Less Stress

Krystal Sharp, a coupon-clipping mom who goes by Krys the Maximizer, says savvy shopping always begins with a plan. “First, look around to see what items you already have that your kids can use for back-to-school. Then, create a master list of supplies, clothing, electronics & accessories that you need to purchase. Research how much each category will cost and set a budget you want to stay under.”

Make Your Money Work for You

She says that this year she’s shopping online more to avoid crowds and ensure she can find her preferred brands. “I have online carts for Walmart, Amazon and Staples open right now. I’m getting what she needs at the lowest price at each store.”

Like many people we spoke to, Sharp is using coupons, rewards, and rebates to reduce her expenses.

Stock Up Throughout the Year

When you do find a deal, it’s smart to stock up. That means it’s not too early to start shopping for next year’s supplies. Katie Altemus, a freelance writer and parent in Pennsylvania, says she keeps a supply stash. “I pick up multiples of frequently used items, like colored pencils, tape, looseleaf paper, glue sticks, and crayons when I see them on clearance at any time of year,” she says. “My kids ‘shop the stash’ whenever they need to replenish supplies.”

Altemus said her supply stash also lets her donate to people — whether these are students, teachers, or people in Buy Nothing groups on Facebook — when she learns that someone is in need.

Comparison Shop

Hand-in-hand with the return to in-person school is a return to brick-and-mortar shopping. Eighty-six percent of parents surveyed said they plan to do back-to-school shopping in stores this year.

While you may be used to hitting up the “big three” of Walmart, Target and Staples for school supplies, you might be surprised to find other stores have better deals.

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“Often, dollar stores will have paper, pencils, and pens for a lot cheaper than the big box retailers,” says Matthew Robbs, founder of SmartSavingAdvice.com. “Don’t just assume your favorite retailer will always have the best prices.”

He noted that off-brand pens and pencils often work just as well as national brands. “Many school supplies will often end up lost within a matter of months anyway,” he says. “So, if the pens you buy your kids aren’t quite as good of quality as those from another store that are twice the price it often doesn’t matter.”

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Invest in Quality Where It Counts

On the other hand, you may want to invest more in items that will last, such as binders, lunchboxes, and backpacks. “Buy children’s supplies that will last them more than just one school year to save money in the face of growing costs,” says Tiffany Payne, a freelance SEO and savvy shopper.

She recommends choosing sturdy, high-quality backpacks in neutral colors that children won’t outgrow quickly, rather than “budget backpacks adorned with well-known cartoon characters.”

Your kids can customize the bags with iron-on patches or stickers to make them unique.

Leave the Kids at Home

School shopping can be a fun tradition for many families, but you may find it costs less if you go solo for the excursion. Greg Wilson, a Chartered Financial Analyst and parent of three children says, “It’s hard enough for all of us to avoid impulse purchases, but that difficulty is compounded when your excited kids are begging for things that aren’t needed.” With his wife Erin, Wilson runs ChaChingQueen.com, a frugal living website.

Put The Kids in Control

When it comes to clothes shopping, however — especially for teens and tweens — it helps to your kids a sense of control. They will gain valuable lessons about budgeting and saving, and you might find you’ll save money.

“My daughter gets a limit on how much she can spend on shoes and then how much she can spend on clothes. We go to the stores she wants, which is usually the mall, and shop,” says TommieLynn Mulderig, a parent of one on Long Island, NY.

Kimberly Rotter, a homeschooling parent and freelance writer in San Diego, California, does the same by giving her teen daughter a budget and her own debit card. “I find my daughter is very motivated to look for deals when she knows she has a spending limit,” Rotter says. “She enjoys the process of deciding what to buy and how much to spend.”

Rotter says she and her daughter like hitting up thrift stores for good deals but also shop the clearance sales at places like Kohl’s, Target, and Nordstrom Rack. “This year, she bought new shoes but clothes from Goodwill,” Rotter says.

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Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Finding deals on clothing can be a thrill. But it’s important to focus on big-ticket items like electronics when you’re looking to maximize your savings, shoppers say.

“It’s easy to become anxious about the price of glue at Target compared to Walmart while you’re back-to-school shopping,” Payne reminds parents. “All of us have been there. It’s important to keep an eye on small-item prices, but you have a limited amount of time and energy.”

Instead, Payne suggests, look for the best sales on more expensive items, such as tablets and computers. “Your budget will benefit more from saving $300 on your high schooler’s new laptop than it will from saving $5 on your middle schooler’s lunchbox or $0.25 on a bottle of glitter glue,” she says.

Mulderig agrees, “I’ll admit in the past I would pull up the Target and Walmart apps and compare prices of items on the school supply list to see where I’d save more. This year, I just went to Walmart for school supplies, where most things were on sale. Even if they weren’t, I’m not shopping at 16 stores for the best price on pencils. My time and sanity is worth more than saving 50 cents on colored pencils. We got all our shopping done in one day this year and I feel so much more at peace.”

Know Where to Turn If You Need Financial Help Getting Ready for Back-to-School

If you are in a position where you can’t afford school supplies, post in Facebook Buy Nothing groups to find what you need. Many parents who stock up during sales are in a position to offer extras to parents in their community. Kids who receive a new backpack each year may have last year’s in good condition and ready to donate.

In fact, the Amex Trendex survey showed that 61% of respondents plan to donate clothes this fall in order to make room for new purchases.

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“Look for gently worn school uniforms on Facebook Marketplace, local selling sites, and even your neighborhood charity shops,” advises Kathryn Snapka, financial analyst at The Snapka Law Firm. “Ask the school if they have any used uniform sales or clothing drives, which are frequently organized by the PTA or PTO. If not, you could even assist in creating one for your school to get what you need while also helping other parents.”

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About the Author

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer and content marketing specialist who geeks out about finance, e-commerce, technology, and real estate. Her lengthy list of publishing credits include Bankrate, Lending Tree, and Chase Bank. She is the founder and owner of GeekTravelGuide.net, a travel, technology, and entertainment website. She lives on Long Island, New York, with a veritable menagerie that includes 2 cats, a rambunctious kitten, and three lizards of varying sizes and personalities – plus her two kids and husband. Find her on Twitter, @DawnAllcot.
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