Where Americans Spend the Most on Back-to-School Shopping

Caring mother helping her daughter to choose and buy all the essential school supplies stock photo
Dusan Stankovic / iStock.com

For kids, the chance to buy all those cool new school supplies before digging into classes each year can be rather exciting — there’s nothing like a new backpack bulging with shiny new pens, colorful binders, fresh paper and more. For parents, however, these supplies can come as a painful chunk out of the budget, particularly this year, as inflation has driven up the cost of so many essentials.

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In one recent GOBankingRates survey, most Americans who have to back-to-school shop expect to spend less than $200. However, 33% of shoppers expect to spend between $201 and $400. And another 11% of shoppers may really feel the pinch, planning to spend between $401 and $600.

GOBankingRates tried to get a more specific handle on how these costs break down, by looking at the categories where Americans are spending the most money on their back-to-school shopping, with data from the National Retail Fund. The data is broken into two categories, “school supplies,” which is K-12 students, and college students’ supplies.

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Take a closer look at what Americans are spending on for their back-to-school shopping.

Total Expenditures

For total expenditures, unsurprisingly, school supplies for college students come to about $335 more than those for school-aged children, since college students have to furnish apartments and bring supplies they can’t share with their families. Though the $864 that school-aged children’s families have to spend is still a hefty total, it’s definitely more expensive to send a kid to college.

Clothing and Accessories and Shoes

Although college students have more total expenses, families spend more on clothing and shoes for school-aged children than college students; likely because younger children are still growing and need a wider variety of new clothing than the young adults headed off to college. College students are notorious for wearing the same clothes plenty of times over; another expense many college kids might put off dealing with is the cost of laundry.

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School Supplies

For school supplies alone, college students are expecting to spend $86.89, which is more than $50 less than supplies for school-aged children, which came in at $139.56. This makes sense, as well, given that school-aged children often require supplies that college students don’t, such as colored pencils, glue sticks, calculators and more.

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Electronics and Computers

The two categories spent about the same on electronics, and computers, however, that may be explained by more classrooms, at all education levels, relying more on things like chrome books, laptops and requiring the use of headphones. According to a report from the Institute for Education Sciences, even back in the 2019-2020 school year (pre-pandemic, in essence), 45% of schools had a computer for each student. The pandemic likely drove that number up significantly. Computers are likely to stick around in the classroom into the future.

College Students Face Additional Expenses

Though school-aged children’s supplies are nothing to sneeze at, under the best of economic circumstances, college students have expenses that school-aged children don’t, such as collegiate gear — things like school jackets or equipment; dorm and or apartment furnishings; food to stock up those bare cabinets; personal care items since they can’t use mom and dad’s shampoo anymore, and some gift cards parents probably purchase to allow their kids to pick out items of their own liking.

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In addition, this year, with inflation at a nearly historical high, the college experience has grown more costly on several levels. Many colleges, after freezing or reducing their tuition and fees hikes during the pandemic, have returned to their increases, so college itself is already more expensive than it was in prior years for some. It’s pushing more students to pursue cheaper community colleges for their first two years, among other strategies.

College students are looking for alternatives to dorm housing, including sharing apartments or larger homes with friends, moving into fraternity or sorority housing, and looking into student-family housing.

Solutions to High Prices

Of course, just because you have to buy school supplies doesn’t mean you have to pay full price. A recent GOBankingRates survey of more than 1,000 adults showed that one way people are dealing with these expensive costs is to look for coupons and sales more than usual — about 35%.  Another 30% of respondents were seeking cheaper alternatives, and 10% are making budget cuts in other places so they can afford school supplies. Fifty-two percent said they’re shopping at Walmart, which proved itself to be the low-cost leader for school supplies this year.

No matter whether you’re buying supplies for school-aged children or college students, back-to-school costs can make a big dent in your budget.

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About the Author

Jordan Rosenfeld is a freelance writer and author of nine books. She holds a B.A. from Sonoma State University and an MFA from Bennington College. Her articles and essays about finances and other topics has appeared in a wide range of publications and clients, including The Atlantic, The Billfold, Good Magazine, GoBanking Rates, Daily Worth, Quartz, Medical Economics, The New York Times, Ozy, Paypal, The Washington Post and for numerous business clients. As someone who had to learn many of her lessons about money the hard way, she enjoys writing about personal finance to empower and educate people on how to make the most of what they have and live a better quality of life.

 
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