How to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Don't break the bank sending the kids back to class

Three girls at school walking outside Photo: Getty Images

Students will start heading back to class in just a few short weeks, which means it’s time to start your back-to-school shopping. In the past few years, families have faced new challenges when it comes to getting ready for the school year, from remote learning to chip shortages.

This year, parents and students are contending with significant inflation, so finding ways to save will be even more crucial. According to Deloitte’s annual back-to-school survey, rising prices have driven consumer spending up 8 percent compared to last year, with 57 percent of parents saying they’re worried about the impact inflation will have on the cost of individual items.

The National Retail Federation estimates that the average household will spend $864 on school supplies in 2022, and families with kids in college are looking at a higher budget of $1,200. Shopping online is the primary strategy for most shoppers, though many will also head to department and discount stores.

But no matter where you shop and what you need for school, there are plenty of ways to cut costs and stay under budget. Follow these steps to make sure you get everything on your list.

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Smart Shopping Strategies

1. Wait to buy. Don’t feel pressured to get every single item on your child’s supply list before the first day of school. Ask the teachers which items are needed right away, then purchase the remaining supplies later. You’ll still be able to find deals in September and beyond.

But Deloitte’s survey revealed that 63 percent of parents are concerned about items being out of stock due to demand and continuing supply chain disruptions. So prioritize in-demand items as much as possible, especially when it comes to clothing. Tech, on the other hand, is less in demand this year, with many parents reporting that their kids’ school provides tech devices for them. Both Deloitte and the NRF found that families plan to spend less on tech this year compared to 2021.

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2. Take advantage of tax holidays. Of the 45 states that collect sales tax, more than a dozen will have sales tax holidays during the summer, so it’s a good time to stock up. But keep in mind that every state has different restrictions. Some have limits on how much you can purchase tax-free, while others have rules about which items qualify. 

3. Go shopping with a plan. Set a budget for back-to-school shopping before you go to stores, then figure out how much you can spend for various items on the list. If you have older children, this process can be a valuable personal-finance learning opportunity.

“Having a clear list can help you avoid impulse purchases that can push you over your budget,” says Ben Glaser, a former editor at DealNews.

Do a quick inventory at home, too, to make sure you’re not stocking up on things like pens and pencils when you already have a decent supply. 

4. Compare prices before you buy. A few minutes of searching online can help you make sure you’re getting the best possible deal. Consumer Reports lists prices at various retailers for products we test, so you can get a quick snapshot of who’s charging what. And for items we don’t test, such as clothing, there are plenty of online tools, such as Google Shopping, that aggregate prices in one place to save time.

If you’re shopping in a store, many retailers, including Best Buy, Target, and Walmart, will match competitors’ prices, so you may be able to get a better price without even leaving a store. Every store policy is different, however. For example, Walmart will match the price on only one item per customer per day, and only from a select list of online vendors.

Target matches the price only if you find the item for less elsewhere after purchasing it at Target. It then refunds you the difference, but you have only 14 days after purchase to request a price adjustment. Best Buy will match prices during the return and exchange period, whether another retailer has a better price or the item goes on sale at Best Buy.

5. Spread out your shopping. Most shoppers will look to major retailers like Amazon, Target, and Walmart, but these aren’t your only options. Other good places to find school supplies are dollar stores, office supply stores, and wholesale stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club.

Wholesale clubs can be especially good for large families or multiple families that shop together and split up bulk supplies. Note that it’s probably not worth paying a membership fee solely to save on back-to-school shopping. But you can always team up with another family to split the cost of membership—and these stores usually allow you to cancel your membership anytime, so you won’t have to keep it if you don’t want it.

6. Consider buying refurbished electronics. Rather than splurging on a brand-new computer or phone, look for a certified used model from a reputable seller, such as Amazon, or the manufacturer itself. Especially now, as new laptops are in higher demand, this can be a good way to find a machine that will meet your needs at a lower cost. The same logic can be applied to previous-year models.

7. Keep an eye on sales after you’re done shopping. If something goes on sale after you buy it, you might be able to get some of your money back. Different retailers have policies for this, but you typically have about two weeks to request a partial refund. And if that doesn’t work, you can always return and repurchase the item to take advantage of the savings.