Nine tips for mastering back-to-school shopping on a budget


There may still be a good deal of summer left to go, but it’s never too early to start thinking about back-to-school shopping for your school-aged children. American families are estimated to spend over $75 billion on back-to-school items this year, with each child costing hundreds of dollars in supplies, clothes, and electronics. It won’t be cheap, but there are a few important ways to keep costs manageable.

Don’t buy what you already have

Before you ahead out (or hop online), be sure to do a thorough inventory of what you already have. Look at what’s left over from the year before. Look through closets and cabinets. Don’t waste money re-buying things you already own.

Follow the list

If your school sends out a list covering all of your child’s needed supplies for the year ahead, do yourself a favor and wait for the list. Don’t make assumptions and run the risk of buying things they don’t need and won’t use. Wait for the official list and then follow it closely.

Do you have a coupon for that?

Most major retailers will be in competition throughout the summer to sell you their supplies. That means you should comparison shop and use coupons when available (and they will be available). If you’re paying full price for pens and binders you aren’t trying hard enough.

Swap meet

Kids have the unfortunate tendencies to grow, often in spurts and rarely in a manner that maximizes their existing wardrobe. This means that there’s quite a lot of children’s clothing out there that was simply outgrown, rather than worn out. If you have friends or neighbors with children, consider swapping lightly used items. Alternately, you can find a ton of great, cheap items at the local thrift store.

Buy bulk and spread the wealth

One option to consider: buying basic supplies in bulk. Now, your children may not need 25 spiral-bound notebooks, but what about those friends and neighbors with kids? If you can create a school supply network and share the costs, buying bulk suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Hold out until the September clearance sales

Your kids are going to want to have all the freshest gear (do kids say “fresh” anymore?) on day one, but there are two distinct advantages to holding back some of your shopping.

First, shortly after school starts, retailers are going to look to clear space for Halloween (aka – the final pit stop before Christmas). That means all those leftover back-to-school items will go on clearance.

Secondly, kids are mercurial beings, apt to change their minds about what they like as soon as they see what all the other kids have. Finishing your shopping after they’ve had a chance to scope out their peers is a handy way to ensure they won’t suddenly decide they hate everything you bought for them (that they asked for).

Look out for student discounts

If you need to buy any high end electronics for your child, make sure you look out for any and all available student discounts. Best Buy and Apple both have student pricing programs, and there are likely more out there.

Take advantage of your state’s sales tax holiday

If your state has a sales tax holiday it’s probably in the summer, which means it’s a perfect time to go shopping for any applicable back-to-school items. Check the list of sales tax holidays and take advantage of the potential savings.

Let kids buy/earn their own non-essentials

One point of contention you may encounter during your shopping is the separation between your child’s needs and their wants. The special name brand items they crave can be a real budget-buster. If that’s the case, consider bringing your child into the planning/budgeting process. You can give them the opportunity to earn certain items that are outside the budget, or at least give them a say in how some of the budget is spent (“You can have this, but then you can’t have this”).

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

  • The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is an association of nonprofit consumer organizations that was established in 1968 to advance the consumer interest through research, advocacy, and education. Today, nearly 300 of these groups participate in the federation and govern it through their representatives on the organization's Board of Directors.
  • The National Council of Higher Education Resources (NCHER) is the nation’s oldest and largest higher education finance trade association. NCHER’s membership includes state, nonprofit, and for-profit higher education service organizations, including lenders, servicers, guaranty agencies, collection agencies, financial literacy providers, and schools, interested and involved in increasing college access and success. It assists its members in shaping policies governing federal and private student loan and state grant programs on behalf of students, parents, borrowers, and families.

  • Since 2007, the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (HPF) has served as a trusted, neutral source of information for more than eight million homeowners. They are partnered with, and endorsed by, numerous major government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Treasury.

  • The mission of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD works to strengthen the housing market in order to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; and build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.

  • The Council on Accreditation (COA) is an international, independent, nonprofit, human service accrediting organization. Their mission is to partner with human service organizations worldwide to improve service delivery outcomes by developing, applying, and promoting accreditation standards.

  • The National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®), founded in 1951, is the nation’s largest and longest-serving nonprofit financial counseling organization. The NFCC’s mission is to promote the national agenda for financially responsible behavior, and build capacity for its members to deliver the highest-quality financial education and counseling services.