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23 Ways To Save Money on Back-to-School Items

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JUAN IGNACIO RONCORONI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock / JUAN IGNACIO RONCORONI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Inflation is hitting all corners of the economy, including back-to-school spending.

In their recent survey, the National Retail Foundation and Prosper Insights & Analytics found that 38% of consumers are reducing their spending in other areas to pay for back-to-school essentials this summer. Because of higher prices, parents surveyed said they expect to spend $864 on school items for their children in elementary through high school — about $15 more than 2021. Families with students in college are planning on a $1,200 back-to-school bill.

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“Families consider back-to-school and college items as an essential category, and they are taking whatever steps they can, including cutting back on discretionary spending, shopping sales and buying store- or off-brand items, in order to purchase what they need for the upcoming school year,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said in a news release. “The back-to-school season is among the most significant shopping events for consumers and retailers alike, second only to the winter holiday season.”

Between the K-12 and college sectors, back-to-school shopping is expected to tally a record a record $111 billion. And if your share of that figure seems staggering, you can employ some savings strategies. Here are 23 tips to save on shopping while sending the kids off to school in style.

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1. Stick to the List

Your child’s school should have a supply list on its website, or perhaps you were given one before the most recent school year ended. It’s easy to get carried away while school shopping, but you’ll save money by buying just what school requires.

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2. Take Stock at Home

Before taking your kids’ school supply lists to the store, search your own home for items that could fit the bill. You might have forgotten that you bought extra pencils or notebook paper last summer, and your kids might have only lightly used their binders last school year. No point in buying again what you already have.

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3. 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. Pay attention to store circulars and check retailers’ websites for specials to make sure you don’t miss out on a discount.

As of early July, 56% of shoppers had already started shopping for back-to-school items, the NRF survey found.

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4. Leave the Kids at Home

If you’re thinking of taking your kids with you 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 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.”

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5. Teach the Kids To Budget

If the kids do join you, it’s never too early to start teaching them 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.

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6. Hold Off on Everyday Supplies

You typically can wait to buy basic items like pens and notebooks that will be on sale throughout the summer, but watch for price reductions on the bigger-ticket items, such as backpacks, or things that require a specific brand, like calculators. Snap those up when you find one that fits your budget and your needs.

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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, you can shop at a place such as Costco or Sam’s Club and get some of the supplies in a large money-saving quantity. Anti-bacterial wipes, tissues, sanitizing wipes and Ziploc bags frequently show up on the lists from the schools, and you might even share things needed at home for school lunches, like brown paper bags and sandwich bags.

Parents whose children are in the same classes or schools can pool their resources when shopping to save both time and money.

8. Search for Coupons and Download Apps

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.

Or, download the apps of retailers that sell school supplies – that includes stores ranging from Staples to CVS to Target your local grocery store – to see what downloadable coupons you find.

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9. Go to Amazon’s Coupon Page

While Amazon is not known for its coupon deals, the mega-retailer does offer coupons on many items, especially electronics that the college-age or older students might need. Shop the bargains first when making a purchase to save.

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10. 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% to 30% higher and simply not worth the extra money.”

However, he warns that you still want to buy quality backpacks that will last through the entire school year. If you find a great sale, it is worth investing in a backpack that could last multiple years or comes with a repair warranty.

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11. Put Off Your Electronics Purchases

If you can’t find a new laptop or a TV for your kid’s dorm room within your budget, consider delaying your purchase until Black Friday, when deals always abound. It will be here before your know it, and your student might be able to make do for a few months.

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12. Host a Clothing Swap

Throw a quick party, invite your friends and ask them to bring some stylish clothes their kids have outgrown. This works best if you invite friends with kids at a variety of ages. You don’t want a room full of parents of only 9-year-olds. Offer to take whatever clothes aren’t snapped up to the local thrift shop so parents don’t need to haul them home when the party is over.

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13. Join Store Mailing Lists

Sign up for store emails and keep your eyes peeled. Think Staples, Office Depot/OfficeMax, Best Buy, Target, Walmart and any other store where you would regularly shop for school supplies.

This allows you to comparison shop from the comfort of your inbox, and with gas prices what they are, you can plan your route if you find you want to shop at multiple stores. When back-to-school season is over, you can unsubscribe.

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14. Install Browser Extensions

Honey and Capital One Shopping are among the browser extensions that automatically scour 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. Capital One Shopping also offers cash back at many sites, with a recent offer of 2% back at Office Depot/Office Max.

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15. Check Out Your Credit Card Offers

Certain credit cards offer rebates and rewards on select categories throughout the year, including back-to-school goods. At the very least, you could be earning a percentage back from each back-to-school purchase you put on your card.

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16. Look Out for Student Discounts

Many retailers offer student discounts. If your young adult needs the Adobe Creative Cloud, it’s available for more than 60% off for students through the Adobe website, for example.

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17. Don’t Buy What You Don’t Need Yet

If you live in California but you’re sending your child to New York for college, a good winter coat will be required. But not yet. Don’t rush to buy that coat before the seasonal sales set in. Buy that later when it’s on sale, and you probably will find a free shipping offer then, too.

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18. 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 Facebook buy-nothing sites to see if someone has extra school stuff.

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19. 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 figure out how much money the rental will save you.

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20. 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. CNBC reports 16 states will have no-tax days for school supplies this year – Florida and Texas are among them – but find out fast if your state is participating. The dates are limited and are rapidly approaching.

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21. Keep Tabs on Daily Deal Sites

Just like regular retailers, daily deal sites like Groupon, LivingSocial and OpenSky could have the clothing item, accessory or school supply your child needs. You can manage your preferences so that these sites will alert you when deals pop up for particular products.

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22. 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.

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23. Find Alternate Sources of College Textbooks

The website Education Data Initiative reports undergraduate students attending an in-state, four-year public university can expect to pay $1,226 for books and supplies in one school year. The average textbook costs $105.37, according to the site.

Instead, you can also save money by licensing electronic copies of your textbooks. Typically, these textbooks are available for set periods of time, such as one semester. Or, sites such as Amazon and Chegg offer textbook rentals at a significant savings. Chegg reports you can save as much as 90% per textbook.

Be sure to look up books by the ISBN numbers to guarantee you’re comparing the right versions.

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Michelle Stoffel contributed to the reporting for this article.