How to Save Money on Back-to-School Shopping

Close up of a young family packing up for a road trip

As summer starts winding down, back-to-school shopping—and the price tag that comes with it—is in full swing. Jolts in supply chains and heightened demand brought on by the pandemic could mean higher prices for your child's school supplies this year. Accounting firm KPMG predicts families will dole out $268 on average for each child returning to school, a $21 increase over 2020. Thankfully, there are strategies you can use to keep costs under control. Here are 10 top ways to save money on your school shopping trips this year.

1. Make a Budget

First things first: Map out your budget for back-to-school shopping. If you know what you spent last year, see how much money went to different categories of school supplies, such as basics (notebooks, pens, etc.), art supplies and clothing. If you don't know what you spent, list out all the items you think you'll need and estimate how much you think you may spend. (Alternatively, your school may provide online lists of required supplies.) You can do a quick online search to find a range of costs for supplies to get a preliminary idea.

Then determine how much you have to spend. Whether pulling from savings (though not your emergency fund) or carving out a chunk of your monthly income, determine how much you can comfortably afford to put toward school supplies. If you've already been setting aside money specifically for school shopping, all the better: Note that amount.

2. Take Inventory

Once you have your budget, take stock of what you already have at home. Check for pens and pencils, a backpack that can be washed and reused, paper and more to assemble and check off as many boxes on your supplies list as possible before you hit the stores.

3. Compare Prices

With your budget mapped out and your home inventory sorted, the time has come to start buying. But before you rush off to the closest office supply store or big box retailer and fill your cart, do a little homework to compare prices. Luckily, you can utilize a variety of web-based assistance to home in on the best prices. Try scanning barcodes with the ShopSavvy app to find superior bargains item-by-item. Note which stores will price match if you discover a better deal elsewhere, and you may not even need to leave the store to secure the lower price. For online shopping, you can install the Honey browser extension to your internet browser to automatically run price comparisons while you fill your virtual cart.

4. Use Coupons and Stacked Discounts

Traditional coupon-clipping is not obsolete—you can still unearth good deals in local newspapers and catalogs, so don't neglect your mailbox this season. However, you can also find a goldmine of coupons and discounts offered online. Double-check big stores' social media feeds for extra deals before you walk out the door, and use apps and browser extensions to apply virtual coupons. Both Ibotta and Rakuten (formerly known as Ebates) can find the best prices and award you with cash back on your spending.

5. Buy in Bulk

Here's the key to buying school supplies in bulk: Check the price per unit. Whether you have multiple kids to split that pack of glue sticks among or you're purchasing an item you expect to need more of in the future, a lower price per unit means you get a better deal than if you were to buy multiple smaller packs of the same item.

6. Choose Your Stores

Pick your battles when it comes to certain items. You or your child might be particular when it comes to, say, store-brand notebooks or a specific brand of markers your child can't live without—but don't get too comfortable with the convenience of shopping in just one store. If you can buy acceptable, functioning pens at your local discount store for a bargain, go for it.

Also think about places where you have extra saving potential. For example, Target's rewards program earns you 1% just for having a account, but you can add their RedCard™ to save 5% on your purchases—even on already-discounted prices.

7. Save on School Clothes

Consignment shops, thrift stores and garage sales are ideal spots to look for bargains on backpacks and clothes for the back-to-school season. You can also use school clothes shopping as a learning opportunity: Give your kids their own budget to buy school clothes and let them make their own choices at the store. For uniformed students, donate your used pieces and score new ones at your local uniform exchange.

8. Use Your Student Status

In college? Try to resell last year's books and dorm accessories and use the revenue to cover some of this year's costs. Or, help fellow students with a site like Stuvia, which pays you commission for selling your study documents. Whether you make $20 or $200, it's more profitable than tossing last semester's notes into the trash. And don't forget to flash your student ID card for added savings on memberships and merchandise whenever offered.

9. Spread Out Your Purchases

If you're worried your budget won't cover all the items your child needs for the school year, consider breaking up your back-to-school shopping. For example, while a backpack and required books may be essentials before school starts, you can probably put off a winter coat purchase for a couple months.

10. Pay With Rewards Credit Cards

Back-to-school shopping is the perfect opportunity to take advantage of your rewards credit cards. You can simultaneously stock up on school supplies while you sack away extra travel miles, cash back or points just for swiping. Just don't let earning rewards be an excuse to spend more than you can pay off quickly, or you might end up losing money on steep interest charges. If you have cash set aside as part of your school supplies budget, you can use your rewards card to make the purchases, then pay off the charges right away.

The Bottom Line

Even with possibly temporary inflation supercharging prices, back-to-school necessities don't need to overwhelm your wallet. Try to approach your budget and shopping trips with a lot of preparation (and a few coupons), and you can help prepare your children for a successful year of learning.