Back-to-school on the cheap

11 easy ways to save on basic supplies for the new school year

Last updated: August 2013

Back-to-school shopping is the second-biggest spending spree of the year. The average parent with kids in grades K-12 will spend more than $600 on supplies, clothing, and electronics for the new school year, according to the National Retail Federation. But you don’t need to fork over nearly that much if you allow yourself enough time and keep to a budget. Follow these money-saving strategies:

1. Gather supplies you already have

Sort through the stuff left over from last year. Chances are good you’ll find ruled paper, spiral notebooks, plastic rulers, and No. 2 pencils that were never used. Just make sure everything is in decent shape. Tip: Glue sticks can dry up over time, so make sure they still work.

2. Stick to the list

If you haven’t received a list of required supplies from your children’s school, check the school’s website. Nearby stores often have copies, too. Then don’t buy anything not on the list. That includes upgrades from, say, a plain, green pocket folder to a pricier one embossed with Batman or the Simpsons.

3. Learn regular retail prices

Once you’ve narrowed down what you need to buy, make a list of regular retail prices so you can confirm when something’s really on sale. Regular retail prices are easy to find online. Check out the back-to-school price list at You’ll find a list of 32 common school supplies with retail prices, prices to aim for, and prices so low you should stockpile.

4. Nab loss leaders

Between mid-July and the start of school, many retailers promote loss leaders—notebooks 10 for a buck, a bag of pens for a dime, and so forth—to draw you through their doors. Other basics that are often loss leaders: pocket folders, graphite and colored pencils, scissors, highlighters, erasers, three-ring binders, staplers and staples, and lined paper. Check weekly store ads and circulars. If the items are on your list, snap them up right away. Just don’t buy other overpriced supplies while you’re there.

Back-to-school shopping guide

From backpacks to cars and for grade school to grad school, our guide has you covered.

5. Use coupons

Clip coupons from weekly newspaper inserts and download them from company websites. You’ll also find back-to-school coupons on Facebook that may not be available elsewhere. Look for coupons in weekly store circulars, which are usually also posted on store websites. You can pick up a Walgreens coupon book at the front of the store or print it from the website. steers you to back-to-school deals and coupons, which change frequently.

6. Join rewards programs

You’re probably familiar with supermarket and drugstore rewards programs, like A&P My Rewards and CVS ExtraCare. They’re free to join and give you immediate discounts when you buy featured products or pay back with coupons you can use for any future purchase in the store. When you combine those with newspaper coupons, you can often get stuff free. But giant discount stores and big office-supply stores have rewards programs, too. For example, Staples pays you $2 in Staples Rewards for each empty ink cartridge you bring in.

7. Price-match

Avoid driving all over town by taking advantage of the price-matching policy at a store like Walmart. It promises to match the lowest advertised price on any brand-name products it sells. You’ll need to bring ads from everywhere else with you. Walmart excludes store brands, and sizes and quantities have to be exactly the same. But this strategy can still save you a lot of time and money.

8. Watch for special events

Teen Vogue is sponsoring Back-to-School Saturday on Aug. 10. Kids can download an app or use a code or coupon for one-day discounts at stores like Aeropostale, the Gap, and H&M. They can even get a free pretzel from Aunt Annie’s to keep their strength up as they work the mall. Just make sure you set a firm budget.

9. Skip the sales tax

Add to your savings by shopping for school supplies and clothes during a state-tax holiday. That’s when some states lift the tax on certain items, usually for just a few days, around this time of year. Go to the Federation of Tax Administrators website to find out if and when your state participates.

10. Shop at unexpected places

Many consignment stores have their best selection of gently used clothes in late summer. It’s also prime season for tag sales. Dollar stores are worth a look for pencils, pens, notebooks, and similar items. Try art-supply companies for crayons, paints, and the like.

11. Work the Web

Nearly 40 percent of parents will turn to the Internet for back-to-school shopping this year, the National Retail Federation predicts. And with good reason. You’ll find endless variety online. Retailers offer many of the same deals on their websites that they do at their stores. Also look for Web-only specials, free shipping, discount codes, clearance departments, and other deals. Cost-comparison sites like PriceGrabber and Nextag lead you to the best prices, and you can also use them to set price alerts. You indicate what you want to pay for, say, a scientific calculator, and you’ll get an e-mail message when it’s available at that price.

Sites to see

Find out where to buy what from four of our favorite school- and office-supply websites. These are courtesy of ShopSmart, our sister publication. All pass our tests for privacy, contact-information disclosure, and service.
Best for backpacks.
We found more than 800 backpacks at this outlet, and many are heavily discounted. The sort function is easy to use and thorough.
Shipping Free.
Returns 30 days from purchase.
Best for guaranteed deals.
If you find items cheaper elsewhere, it will match the price and refund you 10 percent of the difference.
Shipping: Starts at $5; free for orders more than $79.
Returns: Unlimited.

Best for bulk supplies.
Pool resources with other parents for bulk discounts, or stock up on filler paper, pencils, and pens. Use the price-match policy to save even more. We found eight-packs of Crayola crayons for $0.85 a box if you buy six or more ($0.95 a box for fewer), compared with $2.09 a box at
Shipping: $6.99 handling fee for orders less than $45; $1.48 handling fee for orders more than $45.
Returns: 30 days from purchase for most, store credit after; restocking fee for some items.

Best for one-stop shopping.
Your school or parent organization can send the official list, and parents can order a year’s worth of supplies. Or buy a kit with commonly requested items for your child’s grade level.
Shipping: UPS ground prices.
Returns: 90 days from purchase.

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