Kids getting on a school bus.
Photo: Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Many schools are returning to classroom learning this fall, so back-to-school shopping lists are likely to be longer and more expensive than a year ago, when COVID-19 shut everything down.

Families are expected to spend 16 percent more this year on everything from notebooks and pens to clothing to tech devices, according to a recent Deloitte back-to-school survey. 

Electronics sales will see the biggest growth, increasing 37 percent as overall learning becomes more digital, whether it’s at home or in classrooms.

But if your kids need new laptops, finding the right model might not be easy. Microchip shortages, which have affected everything from cars to appliances, are also slowing production of laptops, computers, and tablets. 

Spending for college students is expected to reach an all-time high as many return to campus, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade organization. Many families will need to buy laptops, headphones, coffee makers, dorm décor, and more.

But no matter 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 without breaking the bank.

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 remaining supplies later. You’ll get better deals in September and beyond.

“Retailers become more motivated to move that inventory once it’s been out for a while,” says Courtney Jespersen, a consumer savings expert at NerdWallet.

With warm temperatures lasting into the first few weeks of school in many parts of the country, it’s also a good time to purchase end-of-season summer clothing. Wait until October or November to purchase fall clothing. This is when retailers will start shifting their displays to winter wear, so you are likely to see prices fall.

More on Back to School

2. Take advantage of tax holidays. Of the 45 states that collect sales tax, 16 have a sales tax holiday during one weekend over 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, an editor emeritus at DealNews.

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

4. Shop the old-fashioned way. More shoppers than ever are doing the bulk of their spending online, and that holds true for back-to-school shopping. Deloitte’s survey found more shoppers will buy online this year. But while ordering online is easy, you may be looking at longer-than-usual shipping times—especially for laptops and other electronics.

Heading into stores means you’ll take your purchases home with you, no waiting. This may limit your options and come with a slightly higher price, however, so consider the next tip before you fill your cart. Spending a little more up front may be worth it if you need something in a hurry, but you might be able to save more if you can buy online. And don’t forget to take your mask when shopping in person.

5. 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 the better price without even leaving the 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.

6. 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 or wholesale stores, such as Costco and Sam’s Club.

The former is actually one of the top three places parents plan to shop for back-to-school supplies, according to Deloitte. And the latter is 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.

7. 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 as well.