Back-to-School Shopping Tips for Frugal Families

By August, many parents are ready for their kids to be back in school and for normal schedules to resume. This year that feeling is stronger than ever! In many families, the kids came home from school one Friday in March of 2020 and have yet to physically return to the classroom. But the bad news about the start of school? The bills! Back-to-school is now its own official shopping season, like Christmas. The National Retail Federation reported that in 2020 parents spent an average of $789.49 on back-to-school shopping on each child. That’s a big hit to many budgets. Not to worry, though. There are ways to save money while still making sure your kids have everything they need to succeed in school this year.

Get the List

The first priority? Get your hands on the supply list for all your kids. The harsh truth for parents is supply lists now ask for more than glue sticks and fresh packs of crayons. Cleaning supplies, tissue, reams of copy paper, nap mats, and more regularly appear on the average kid’s back-to-school list. So jump on the school’s website or email someone in the front office so you know as quickly as possible exactly what your kid is expected to provide for the classroom and for themselves. What you don’t want to do is spend money on supplies the teacher doesn’t need. Or, even worse, on things your kids aren’t allowed to bring to class. For example, some schools have rules about binders and backpacks. Once you know exactly what you need to buy you can start scoping scales and making a plan of attack.

Take Inventory

What’s one great way to save money? By not spending on things you already own. Start with clothes. Most kids start back to school in the heat of summer! Take stock of your kids’ summer wardrobes and focus on those needs first. Same with backpacks and lunch boxes. Are they in good enough shape to make it another year? Is your elder child’s nap mat tossed on the shelf over the washing machine? Rinse it off and use it for the next kid. Also, go through all art and office supplies in the house to determine what you have on hand. And don’t be afraid to get creative? Do you have a lot of loose markers and one empty box? Put together a fresh pack and forgo shelling out for another. And if you find a lot of supplies or clothes that your kids no longer need? Those are part of our next tip.

Hold a Swap

You aren’t the only parent trying to save money. Put the word out to other parents at your kids’ schools and your own friends and neighbors to organize a clothing and supply swap. Maybe your daughter is never going to wear her adorable 6x clothes again, but your neighbor down the street has a first-grader who will love them. And another neighbor might have a slightly older child whose former wardrobe your child will enjoy. Same with supplies! From nap mats to an oversupply of loose-leaf paper, you can get things you don’t need out of your home and get things your kids need. For free! That’s a win-win proposition.

Form a Partnership

No, I’m not suggesting you form an LLC and start importing school supplies (although…). No, this is a partnership with another parent shopping off the same supply list. Together, you can search out deals and hard-to-find items. Even more importantly? You can buy in bulk and split the cost. One box of tissue paper is far more expensive per box than a bulk package, but if the teacher has only asked for two and you don’t use disposable tissues in your home what are going to do? Split it with another parent (or two or three) who also has to send tissues to school.

Don’t Forget About the Dollar Store

One of the first places to check out for school supplies? The dollar store! School supplies such as pencils and paper, as well as classroom supplies such as hand sanitizer and face tissue are available at great prices. The Dollar Store is also a great place to pick up organizational supplies if maintaining an organized homework area is a goal for your family for the upcoming school year. Just remember experts suggest purchasing items like tape and batteries from traditional retailers.

Take a Holiday!

The kind of holiday I’m suggesting has nothing to do with the beach! Many states now offer a weekend where certain categories of merchandise are excluded from having to pay sales tax. These weekends often coincide with the back-to-school shopping season. Even better? Most retailers also offer special sales during this weekend to make sure they capture your consumer dollars. If your state doesn’t offer a sales-tax-free weekend and you live close to another state, it might be worth considering traveling over state lines to do some shopping.

Check Out Consignment Sales, Thrift Stores, and Garage Sales

Buying used is a great way to save a ton of money while still getting your kids everything they need to be properly prepared for the upcoming school year. Backpacks, shoes, clothes, lunch boxes, and various school supplies are sold for pennies on the dollar every day at garage sales, thrift stores, and consignment shops. With all these places, though? Time is of the essence. Start shopping as early as possible because other parents are going to pick the racks bare as the first day of school approaches. Experts suggest starting in the middle of July, but the best time to start is now! Find great clothes in your kids’ sizes and style, and then put them away until school starts so they feel fresh to your kids (it also protects the clothes from being ruined during summer fun). Granted, you are going to have to dig at thrift stores and garage sales to find gems. Consignment stores typically charge a little more, but the merchandise has been curated and it’s typically much better organized. Get on the email list or social media pages for local consignment stores and start watching for sales.

Use the Internet

All kinds of retailers run massive sales during the back-to-school shopping season. Clothing stores, office supply retailers, big box stores, online-only retailers-everyone wants your money and is willing to compete to win your shopping dollars. Once you know what you need do some online comparison shopping to know what stores have the best prices on the things you need to buy now. Sign up for any email lists, apps, and discount cards available to lower your total.

Time Your Shopping

Even with sales, the most expensive time to buy kids cold weather clothing and gear is when it first comes out in late summer. Instead, restock your kids’ summer wardrobes (which in many locations they’ll be wearing into October anyway) with clearance items. On the other hand, it might make more sense to buy extra crayons, pens, pencils, and notebook paper over the summer when they are being offered at rock bottom prices. Paying $.10 a pack for paper is much better than paying a dollar or more later. Also, it means you’ll have what your kids need throughout the year on hand instead of scrambling when you get told at the dinner table they are out of notebook paper and have math homework to do! All of these tips and tricks should save you money, but what if you are still a little short due to all the demands of the back-to-school season?

One of the positive aspects of school supply shopping is that you know it’s coming; it’s cyclical and predictable. Not all things are predictable and can be planned for; it’s those unexpected expenses can really throw families for a loop. In the event of an unexpected emergency, turn to TitleMax to help you make ends meet. We offer alternative lending options like personal loans, and car title loans that may be beneficial when trying to keep your family on the right financial track.

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