Back-to-school savings tips

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​If inflation has taken a big bite out of your back-to-school budget, you’re not alone. Learn how to plan for school supplies, clothes, electronics and more.

Getting kids geared up to go back to school is an annual tradition — and expense — for families with K-12 kids. Inflation has made affording school supplies more challenging for many people during the last few years.

A survey by the National Retail Federation shows people think they’ll pay more for clothing, school supplies, shoes and electronics in 2023. Between 2019 and 2022, inflation hit back-to-school categories by up to 36%.

Take some guesswork out of back-to-school shopping by pairing your shopping list with these savvy back-to-school shopping strategies.

Five steps to create a back-to-school budget

1. Review last year’s expenses

This can help you set a baseline for this year’s costs. In general, consumers in 2022 planned back-to-school expenses this way, per household:

  • $293 on electronics or computer-related equipment.
  • $264 on clothing and accessories.
  • $168 on shoes.
  • $140 on school supplies.

2. Take stock

See what you already have and figure out expenses you can delay. For example, your child may not need a new pair of shoes right now. Last year’s colored pencils could still be usable. In 2022, 24% of consumers (PDF) said they’d make do with last year’s school supplies.

3. Make a list

Try to think about everything your student needs, including one-time and recurring expenses. Categorize items that apply to your situation using a school-supply list provided by your child’s school and your own prior experience. Creating a list with your child can also help you save on future expenses, set expectations and maybe reduce arguments.

4. Prioritize your shopping list

Identify which items are essential and which items are just popular or trendy. I call these “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves.” Focus on budgeting for the must-have items first. If you have a little extra money, you can treat your student to a few of the nice-to-have items, too.

5. Set a spending limit and stick to it

It’s a good idea to pad your back-to-school shopping budget to cover unanticipated expenses. For example, you may need to replenish school supplies or clothes during the school year. Don’t forget about surprise costs, such as a class field trip.

For older kids, work together to set a spending limit and let them do the planning. This will allow them to make decisions about needs vs. wants.

Five ways to save money on back-to-school shopping

Most back-to-school shoppers surveyed in the past say they’ll use a few strategies to save, including the following.

1. Shop sales

In the NRF survey, 68% of consumers said a major strategy is to shop the summer sales of big retailers like Target and Amazon.

But don’t forget to check out other options. Office supply stores, dollar stores, wholesale stores, department stores, drugstores and big-box stores carry various back-to-school items. Check these locations for loss leaders — products such as notebooks or lunchboxes deliberately underpriced to attract shoppers. But make sure you don’t fall for their tactic; stick to your list and only buy things that are within your budget.

Secondhand stores are another good option. They sometimes sell binders, folders, and unopened packages of many supplies. You can also check online marketplaces such as Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp for deals on costlier items like electronics.

Look for clearance sales on school supplies. Not all items must be purchased immediately. In addition to shopping summer sales, you might also find deals if you wait until shortly after school starts so you can stock up for less.

When you’re shopping sales, keep in mind that some stores match other stores’ prices, which could cut down on time spent running around town, searching out deals.

2. Compare prices online

Most shoppers say they’ll compare prices online, according to the NRF survey. Check websites for office supply stores, big-box stores and retailers that carry your favorite products. Several tools can make this easier. For example, the website shows you Amazon’s price history of an item. A recent search showed a 12-pack of Oxford spiral notebooks ranged from $16.65 to $21.99.

3. Buy more generic or store brand items

Unless your child’s school insists on name brands, parents’ money-saving plans include buying less expensive brands, including generic or store brands.

However, if you’re shopping from a school list, check with the teacher before buying a less expensive brand. If your school expects students to have a specific type of organizer or calculator, don’t wait until the last minute. You may pay more or have fewer choices.

4. Buy in bulk

You may find per-item costs lower if you buy in bulk versus individual items. Work with other families or neighbors to buy a batch of pens, notebooks, and other supplies, then distribute the purchase.

5. Download apps to your favorite stores

Around one-third of NRF-surveyed shoppers say they’ll rely on coupons to help save money. Many apps feature digital coupons that can help reduce costs. But beware of the urge to splurge on items just because they are on sale. You might end up spending more on items you don’t need. Focus on the essentials, your list and your budget.

Plan for the future: Back to school happens every year

After you’ve finished all your shopping, you’re not quite done yet. Take some time to compare your budget versus actual spending using an app like Mint or BECU’s Money Manager. Review your spending on supplies, clothing, shoes and other costs. Were there any surprising categories? What led to overspending? Where did you save the most? Think about including your child in this review. This is a great time to teach them about budget, spending, setting goals and evaluating purchases.

To get ahead of the game for next school year start saving now. Divide the total cost you spent this year by 12 and put away that amount every month. You can create a physical or digital savings envelope or even open a separate savings account and set up automatic monthly transfers. Set it and forget it!

Written by Stacey Black (She/Her/Hers), BECU Lead Financial Educator
For nearly 30 years, Stacey has taught adults, college students, teens and children through the BECU Financial Education program.

This article is reprinted from our financial partner BECU’s Money Matters blog. Special thanks to BECU for making events and content at The Whole U possible.