Back-to-school season might be a joyful time for exhausted parents everywhere, but it’s not a cheap one.
In fact, a survey by the National Retail Federation revealed that families with kids in grades K–12 planned to spend an average of $673 on clothes and school supplies last year. That amount was even higher — about $899 — for families with college students, according to the survey.
Here are 35 tips to save on shopping while sending the kids off to school in style.
1. Shop Every Week and Start Early
Prices change throughout the back-to-school shopping season, and you never know when a certain item might go on sale. For bigger-ticket items that you know you need, Heather Schisler, founder of Passion For Savings, recommended shopping early to grab the best deals. Pay attention to store circulars to make sure you don’t miss out on a discount.
“Don’t run to the store and buy everything at once,” she said. “You’ll end up paying more for each item.”
2. Hold Off on Generic Supplies
You can typically wait to buy basic items like pens and notebooks. “Buy the more specific back-to-school items early to make sure you get what you need — for instance, a calculator or other supplies that need to be a particular brand or model,” said Jon Lal, founder and CEO of BeFrugal. “For more generic items like paper, pencils and folders, prices will typically drop at the last minute late in the season.”
3. Always Search for Coupons
Whether you’re standing in line at the checkout counter or filling your cart online, get in the habit of doing a quick search for coupons before purchasing. While you might not find a coupon to meet your needs, you could wind up cutting your bill for back-to-school supplies significantly, all because you typed a few words into a search engine.
4. Price Match Cheap School Supply Deals
Doorbuster back-to-school sales tend to limit the number of items a buyer can purchase. According to Schisler, whose site offers extensive back-to-school deals, you can price match a product at other office supply stores and even Walmart. Doing this increases the number of items you can get for those low prices.
5. Inventory Your House First
Before taking your kids’ school supply lists to the store, search your own home for items that could fit the bill. You might already have a number of the requisite products, such as pens and empty folders, in your home office.
6. Sell Before You Buy
While you’re taking inventory of your home goods, it’s wise to figure out what you can sell online through sites like eBay, Amazon or Craigslist. For example, you might have a filing cabinet or desk that no one’s using. By freeing up space — and a few extra dollars in your budget — you can actually splurge on more school purchases later in the summer.
7. Buy in Bulk With Friends
Consider the items you can buy in bulk and opt to split these purchases among friends and neighbors. For example, goods like pens, pencils, paper, notebooks, brown paper bags, sandwich bags, tissues, markers and crayons all tend to be less expensive when purchased in large quantities.
Parents whose children are in the same classes or schools can pool their resources when shopping to save both time and money.
8. Leave the Kids at Home
If you’re thinking of bringing your kids along for back-to-school shopping, you might want to reconsider.
“Now, I realize some parents like to take their kids back-to-school shopping, as it makes them feel a part of the process, but I’m here to tell you that it’s typically not a good idea to haul them along, especially young kids,” said Kyle James, founder of Rather-Be-Shopping.com. “Kids are gonna (sic) throw off your money-saving mojo because they are going to want the expensive Hello Kitty backpack, and they are going to want the G.I. Joe pencils that cost five times what they should.”
9. Teach the Kids to Budget
If you do bring the kids to the shops, it’s never too early to start teaching your kids some financial literacy. By establishing a budget for their back-to-school shopping, you can make them part of the process while teaching them that money is a limited resource. Doing this puts kids in back-to-school mode a little early, ensuring that they’re learning — and your budget isn’t being blown.
10. Go to Amazon’s Coupon Page
While Amazon is not known for its coupon deals, the mega-retailer does offer coupons on school and office supplies. Shop the bargains first when making a purchase to save.
11. Buy Your Textbooks Used
Since 2006, the cost of college textbooks has increased by 73 percent — that’s more than four times the rate of inflation, according to Student Public Interest Research Groups. Today, individual textbooks often cost more than $200 and are sometimes as much as $400.
However, buying a used textbook can offer significant savings. One algebra textbook, which retails for more than $200 on Amazon, is available used on the site for just $45.
12. License an E-Textbook Online
You can also save money on back-to-school shopping by licensing electronic copies of your textbooks. Typically, these textbooks are available for set periods of time, such as one semester.
13. Comparison Shop Textbooks
If you want to save even more money on your textbooks, do some comparison shopping before making a purchase.
Try TUN’s Textbook Save Engine or CampusBooks’ search feature to determine which options are the cheapest for individual books. Be sure to look up books by the ISBN numbers, so you can be sure you’re comparing the right versions.
14. Take Advantage of Tech Deals for College Students
Many stores provide discounts on electronics for college and high school students. James recommends checking out the Apple Education Pricing page or Best Buy’s College Student Deals site. Be prepared to provide proof of your student eligibility with an ID card or college transcript.
15. Be Cheap — But Not Too Cheap — With Backpacks
James cautions that backpacks are big budget busters for many families. “The best way to save on a new backpack is to always avoid the big name brands and more importantly always avoid the character-themed backpacks,” he said. “Those are always priced 20 percent to 30 percent higher and simply not worth the extra money.”
However, he warns that you still want to buy quality backpacks, such as Timberland, Rockland and Embark products, that will actually last through the entire school year.
16. Buy Used Gear
If you’re in the market for a serious backpack, or maybe a bicycle to pedal around campus, try sites like GearTrade to score discounts on these items. Not only do gear-swapping sites offer shoppers the ability to buy high-quality used items for less, but they also sometimes boast deep discounts on new items.
17. Time Your Electronics Purchases
Consumer Reports’ Best Time to Buy Things report notes that spring and fall are the ideal seasons to purchase laptops and desktops. If you’re planning a large electronics purchase this year, be sure to shop then to find the best deals.
18. Host a Clothing Swap
Throw a quick party, invite your friends and tell them to bring some clothes their kids have outgrown.
“You can have a clothes swap with friends and neighbors with gently used clothing that no longer fits,” Lal said. “This works especially well with parents of children with the same gender as yours but at different ages.”
For best results, be somewhat selective with your invites. You also might want to schedule a Goodwill pickup, so guests don’t have to haul their leftovers back home at the end of the day.
19. Join a Mailing List
Sign up for store emails early and keep your eyes peeled. Think Staples, OfficeMax, Office Depot, Best Buy, Target, Walmart and any other store where you would regularly shop for school supplies.
Additionally, these shops will likely offer back-to-school sales and coupons, sometimes exclusive to their mailing lists. Plus, you can comparison shop from the comfort of your inbox. When back-to-school season is over, you can always unsubscribe.
20. Install Honey
Honey is a browser extension that automatically scours the web for coupon codes when you check out at an online store. The extension will run any code it finds and offer you the best one. Even if you don’t find a suitable code, you might qualify for HoneyGold, which you can redeem for gift cards.
21. Join a Rebate Site
Sites like Ebates and Mr. Rebates offer cash back for online shopping and often provide coupons, as well. By signing up and then shopping through the sites, you can earn money back on every dollar you spend. Once you’ve earned enough, you can cash in your rebates and receive a check or PayPal payment.
22. Check Out Your Credit Card Offers
Certain credit cards offer rebates and rewards on select categories throughout the year, including back-to-school goods.
For example, the Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi lets you earn Costco cash rewards when you shop. Additionally, you get 2 percent back on Costco and Costco.com purchases.
23. Look Out for Student Discounts
Many retailers, particularly clothing shops, offer student discounts in the summer. Check out James’ site, Rather-Be-Shopping.com, for a list of places that offer student savings with a valid ID.
24. Take a Teacher Friend Shopping
Lots of retailers offer discounts for teachers, particularly on school supplies and during the back-to-school frenzy. Schisler’s site offers a growing list of places where teachers can score discounts, usually by showing their school ID. If you are an educator, or know one, you can probably buy your school supplies this year for less.
25. Shop the Dollar Store
Plenty of school supplies can be picked up at your local dollar store. While you can’t always buy these items online — on the Dollar Tree site you typically have to buy in bulk — the Dollar General site usually lets customers purchase items individually. Check out the selection and watch for special deals.
26. Avoid Cold-Weather Clothes
Retailers are ready to sell you on all their fall and winter clothes, but few of these items have been marked down at this point in the summer. And frankly, your kids won’t need them yet. Wait until you see more sales on cold-weather wear to stock up.
Keep Reading: 35 Ways to Save Money on Clothes
27. Stick to the List
Because impulse buys are abundant at back-to-school shopping hot spots, it’s important to create a list before you head to the stores. Don’t just rely on your school’s supply list — make your own master copy that includes all the necessities.
28. Join a Parent Networking Group
Check online and talk to neighbors and other parents about any networking or resource-sharing groups that might be popular in your area. These groups can offer an easy way to source second-hand supplies. You can also try sites like Nextdoor to find people in your area who are looking to unload leftover school items.
29. Rent That Fancy Calculator
Sometimes students are required to purchase pricey items, like graphing calculators. However, you can rent graphing calculators for about half the cost from a number of online retailers, such as Graphtor or Calcs Unlimited. Talk to the teacher to see how long your child will need the calculator so you can calculate how much money the rental will save you.
30. Shop During a Tax Holiday
Many states offer certain days when sales tax is waived on select items, and school supplies are typically among them. Before heading to the shops, do some research to determine your local tax rate and find out what will be eligible for the tax-free holiday. For best results, aim to pick up big-ticket items on these special days.
31. Take Advantage of Tax Credits
If you have been pursuing a higher education degree for less than four years, you could earn a maximum tax credit of $2,500 per year on qualified educational expenses. So, keep your receipts to ensure you save. Read more about the American Opportunity Tax Credit on the IRS website.
32. Keep Tabs on Daily Deal Sites
Just like regular retailers, daily deal sites like Groupon, LivingSocial, OpenSky and Gilt offer back-to-school savings as the summer winds down. As an added bonus, you can manage your preferences, so these sites will alert you when deals pop up for particular products.
33. Follow Your Favorite Stores on Social Media
Sometimes, retailers post deals specific to their social media followers on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. To take advantage of these savings, add or follow a few of your favorite back-to-school retailers. As you’re scrolling through your feed, you might just spot a deal.
34. Try Freecycle
The Freecycle Network is a group that gives items away for free in hopes of reducing waste and building community. You might stumble upon some excellent items for free. Additionally, you can check out Craigslist’s free items to see if anyone is looking to get rid of something you need.
35. Look for Non-School Items, Too
Because back-to-school shopping means big bucks for retailers, many stores will offer sale rates on normal household goods, as well. Be on the lookout for ways to save on all kinds of items, from kitchen supplies like paper towels and cleaning products to furniture and even electronics.
Find Out: 25 Secret Ways to Save Money at Target
About the Author
Michelle Huffman is a Chicago-based writer and editor specializing in real estate and personal finance. She has written for Yahoo and The Chicago Tribune, managed a housing blog for CBSNews.com and created content for several Fortune 1000 companies. She graduated from DePaul University.