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Money-Saving Tips for Back-to-School Shopping

By Cindy Livesey, Author/Frugal Living Expert: Living Rich With Coupons, Empowering Smart Shoppers to Live Rich. Found Editor:

It’s still August, I know, but let’s talk back-to-school shopping. Whether you love it or hate it, back-to-school shopping must happen.

To retailers and shoppers alike, the back-to-school season is has turned into more of a holiday in terms of spending, deals and the bottom line. In fact, the National Retail Federation announced total spending of students from kindergarten to college spent a combined $82.8 billion in 2018, making it the second largest spending holiday of the year (aside from the winter holidays, of course).

On average, this breaks down to about $684 per family in grades kindergarten through 12 and as much as $942 for parents with children going to college. That is why making it through back-to-school shopping season frugally and sane is as much an art as a science. So whether you are sending your first child off to kindergarten, your last child off to college, or any of the many milestones in between, keeping a rein on back-to-school spending is a challenge worth accepting, and we have some unique tips to help you do just that.

1. Timing Is Everything

Think you save more by shopping early? Not necessarily but it does help.

It’s a common battle cry, especially among savers: if you want to get the best deals on back-to-school, start early. And while that may be true on an item-by-item basis, its ultimate effects are a bit less clear. There will always be obvious exceptions, but according to a survey of back-to-school shoppers conducted by, shoppers who start getting those back-to-school deals starting at about 12 weeks prior to school will spend about 46 percent more than those who wait a little longer. However, with that said, those that wait until two weeks or less before school starts will spend about 100 percent more making the best time to really focus in on your shopping is at about four to six weeks prior to school starts.

2. Don’t Shop in Only One Store

When you’re pressed for time, it’s tempting to choose one big box store, take your list and check off every item. And while you will certainly save some money by shopping this way, especially on common items like notebooks or pencils, there will also be a number of items that are conspicuously marked up in order to snag those rushed parents like you (another reason you spend more when you shop last minute). It is far wiser and more frugal to shop on an item-by-item basis.

Now, of course, this isn’t always easy or possible since some parents only get supply lists at the last minute, but for those with a list or even once you receive yours, the best and actually the easiest way to save is by shopping at home before you show up in the store. In other words, monitor sales fliers, look for the best (or even just really great) prices, and then go into that store and purchase that item. As an added bonus the one-at-a-time method is usually less stressful and allows you to use those hand express checkout lanes.

3. Maximize Mobile and Online Deals

An interesting phenomenon regarding the back-to-school season is that, despite the exponential rise of online shopping in general, consumers are still flocking to brick-and-mortar retailers when it comes to back-to-school. Perhaps some of this is practical, especially when it comes to trying on clothing, perhaps some is nostalgic, either way, shopping in physical stores in the 21st century gives consumers a chance to use both old-fashion savings strategies (sales, coupons, etc.) as well as modern, technological ones. During this back-to-school season especially, pay attention to that latter category.

This includes monitoring social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter for major brands such as Staples, Office Max, Marshall’s and Best Buy. You also want to sign up for email newsletters from your favorite brands as well, since sales and coupons are commonly offered to subscribers first. Finally, utilize apps and text messaging to add in even more deals.

4. Don’t Bring the Kids

The focus of back-to-school shopping is, obviously, your student. However, this is also the person who is least likely to understand the financial implications of this increasingly more expensive shopping season. And while I am all for teaching kids about money, the simple fact is they usually want what they want, especially when they are bombarded by temptation and advertising and especially when they are very young kids.

It doesn’t take being a seasoned saver to know that character items and branded products cost more. But to kids who just want to be like everyone else or who obsess over a certain theme, the fact that a superhero pencil set costs up to five times the amount of a basic yellow one is lost. If your goal is to save as much money as possible with as little stress as possible when back-to-school shopping, leave the kids at home. Their life will go on if they need to use a plain blue folder. I promise.

5. Item Out of Stock? Don’t Give Up

When certain stores go for broke on deals (also known as loss leaders) – for example, offering crayon boxes for $0.25 – clearly, people respond. If you get to a store too late to cash in on a deal, don’t give up just yet. Because back-to-school shopping is the second-largest retail holiday of the year, competitors are hot on beating one another’s deals. Many will price match any item that is advertised, so learn who does what and get those ads ready. If you are smart, you can go next door or across the street and score the same deal on the same product where it is still in stock.

6. Wait for Back to School Clearance Sales

Finally, just as shopping early can end up biting you in the end, so, too can shopping late end up being your saving grace. Clearly, teachers want students prepared on the first day. Instead, prioritize and put off the items you can afford to put off. Usually, at about mid-September retailers will purge all their remaining school supplies in an effort to make room for the holiday rush (hello, Halloween). When this happens, markdowns from 50 percent to 75 percent or more are common. Therefore, by putting off the purchase of nonessential supplies, those your child doesn’t need in the first few weeks of school like calculators, science project supplies, even tissues you can save more money later on and still make sure your student has everything he or she needs for a school year full of success.

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