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5 Ways to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Nancy Mann Jackson  |  July 23, 2019

For parents, the beginning of a new school year requires more than just getting children back on a regular schedule and helping out with homework. Going back to school requires money — often lots of it.

The average family with grade-school children will spend $696.70 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, up from $684.79 last year, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2019 Back-to-School Survey.

But going back to school doesn’t have to cost so much. Savvy shoppers and organized planners can find lots of ways to save on school supplies, accessories and other items. Here are five tips for cutting costs throughout the school year.

Save on School Lunches

For many families, going back to school means going back to packing lunches every morning. But purchasing the convenient, individually packaged lunch box foods, disposable sandwich bags and cutlery can add up quickly. Instead, look for reusable lunch containers that can hold sandwiches, fruits and veggies, and drinks without needing to be replaced each day.

You can also save by stocking up on “summertime deals with a long shelf life,” says Teri Gault, former CEO of The Grocery Game. She recommended purchasing extras of items that are often on sale during the summer, such as granola bars, juice boxes, lunch meat (for the freezer), condiments like mustard and mayo, ranch salad dressing for veggie dips, and berries that can be frozen and later made into smoothies. And look out for Labor Day sales on chips and meats for the grill like chicken breasts (which can be grilled and sliced for lunch meat).

Set a School Clothing Budget

Starting school is just more fun with new clothes to wear, but spending on back-to-school clothes can easily get out of hand. Gault recommended making a list of necessary items and setting a school clothes budget. Talk to your child about choosing clothes that will last and will stay in fashion for longer than just one season.

“Offer to give your child half the difference for what they come in under budget,” Gault says. “They will often choose only one or two pricier trendy items in favor of cash in their pocket. They’re happy. Your wallet’s happy, and it teaches them a lifetime of thrift and making good purchasing decisions within their means.”

Scout Out School Supplies at Home

It might be fun for your kids to start the year off with a brand new pack of pencils or a new pair of safety scissors, but the newness will wear off in just a few days. And purchasing all brand-new items each year can really add up. Before you begin buying the supplies on your child’s list, “search around your home for any usable supplies from the previous year,” says consumer and money saving expert Andrea Woroch. “Collect leftover pens, pencils, notebooks and other supplies so you don’t waste money on items you already have.”

For those items you need to purchase new, shop at dollar stores or order supplies online, says Erin Konrad of CouponPal. “You can often stock up on supplies at dollar stores for much lower costs than what big-box office supply stores charge,” she says. And if you order online, do a quick Google search for coupons that can save a certain percentage off, or offer free shipping.

Shop Secondhand

It may be easy to simply pop into the closest big-box stores to purchase electronics and other school items, but you can save loads of money by shopping around at pawn shops, consignment stores and secondhand stores. For several years, parents and students have been shopping at pawn shops to purchase electronics for the back-to-school season, according to Yigal Adato of Pawn Leaders.

At Adato’s store, the majority of items sold during the months of August and September are electronics such as laptops, desktops, cameras, iPods, iPads, earphones, and prepaid cell phones. “You can find up to 60 percent off retail prices at your local pawn shop,” Adato says, adding that prices are often much lower than those found online or in brick-and-mortar stores.

Savvy shoppers can also find great deals at consignment stores for back-to-school clothing, accessories and backpacks. And look at pawn shops and secondhand stores for back-to-school purchases such as bicycles.

Wait — and Shop Late

If you received your children’s school supply lists in the spring or early summer, you had plenty of time to seek out good deals on the supplies they need. But if you didn’t shop early, shopping late can be the next best thing. “If your child doesn’t need a certain supply right away, wait until the clearance sales that generally begin right as school starts,” says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations at Freedom Financial Network LLC.

And start saving early for next year so you can avoid a large school supply purchase that can be a big hit to your monthly budget. “Supply lists remain about the same year to year,” Gallegos says. “When you obtain the list of supplies for your child, also request the list for the following year’s grade. Then watch for those items to go on sale.”

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