9 Ways to Buy Back-to-School Supplies Without Breaking the Bank

A backpack sits with school supplies net to a stack of books.
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For many parents, the countdown to September is seriously on. And so is the dreaded back-to-school shopping, where parents can easily drop several Benjamins on all the classroom “necessities,” ranging from pencils to calculators to hand sanitizer.

But don’t let those seemingly endless school supply lists freak you out too much — back-to-school shopping doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are nine tried-and-true tips for keeping more of your dollars in your wallet, and not forking them over.

1. Reuse last year’s gear.

If still intact, have your child reuse last year’s backpacks and lunch boxes (no matter how much they whine that they have to get a new one, because everyone else will have new ones). If you wait until late October or early November, all the gear will go in clearance anyway, so you can snag those items your child wanted for a fraction of the cost. I’ve even purchased new backpacks for my own kids as Christmas gifts. They love getting something new to take to school part-way through the year.

2. Shop online.

Many stores, including Target, allow you got get deals such as gift cards (with a minimum purchase amount) when buying online. It saves you gas money and time spent on trips to different stores to price compare. Plus, who wants the hassle of dragging their kids to multiple stores in summer temps? Another perk: you can shop when you have time such as after the kids are in bed, early in the morning, or on the weekends.

3. Shop with another parent, and divide and conquer.

Sometimes teachers and schools request numbers of items such as 18 pencils when pencils come in packs of 12 or 24. Find someone whose child has the same school supply list as your child, and go in together to purchase what you need.

4. Go with the store-brand.

Some store-brand items are just as long-lasting as a more well-known brand, such as Target’s Up and Up markers. However, be certain you buy the exact type of item your child’s teacher requests, such as certain colors of markers or washable vs. not washable.

5. Watch advertisements.

Some stores, such as Aldi, mainly sell groceries. However, depending on the season, they offer a few aisles stocked with items that are perfect for families on a budget at a fraction of the cost offered by other stores. Be sure to shop early as there are usually limited qualities.

6. Beware of “dollar” stores.

Many stores boasting “dollar” in the title have items that cost far more than a dollar, and sometimes these items are significantly more expensive than the stores you traditionally shop at. Dollar stores capitalize on people believing that they are getting a great deal and who will fill their cart with everything on their back-to-school list.

7. Shop early, but not too early.

As soon as school supplies are stocked (usually by the end of July), stores expect shoppers to begin buying. However, the early weeks rarely offer good deals. The same goes for last-minute and beginning-of-school weeks. Stores know that you are desperate for supplies either early on (think beating the crowd) or last-minute, so prices are usually not as good. Finding the sweet spot, typically the beginning of August, mean consumers can take advantage of sales, rebates, and gift cards (as rewards for meeting a minimum purchase amount). And of course, the selection is best at this time as well.

8. Don’t skimp on quality where it matters.

Yes, the paper folders are cheaper than the plastic ones, but they are less sturdy meaning in a few months, you’ll be buying a second round of folders. The same goes for backpacks and lunch boxes. Sure, the $12.99 backpack is significantly cheaper than others, but if you wash it once and it falls apart, you’ll be at the store buying another backpack a few months into the school year. Shop smart the first time by purchasing quality items, using the aforementioned sales, rebates, and gift card rewards to your advantage.

9. Label, label, label.

Ever seen a lost-and-found box at a school? If you have, you know it’s heaping with unclaimed items. Prevent your child’s supplies from winding up there too by purchasing address labels and either handwriting or printing your child’s name on them. Clearly label everything that isn’t going to be community classroom property. Be sure to label your child’s first and last name in case your child winds up in a class with someone who shares their same first name. By taking time to label now, you’ll save money by not repurchasing those items when they get lost.

Most important of all is to remember this: Whatever money you save is money you can spend on that celebratory first-day-of-school mega latte. (And if that’s not motivation enough, I don’t know what is.)

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