Back-to-School shopping can be one of our single highest yearly expenses. Because summer is busy and short, the start of a new school year sneaks upon us. We often forget to save or even budget for the cost of school supplies.
So, we end up shopping without a plan. We don’t give much thought to picking up a few notebooks at the grocery store, a pair of shoes while we’re at Target, and a backpack we run across online.
By shopping without intention, we fool ourselves into feeling like “I didn’t spend that much.”
But we can’t fool our bank accounts. And guess what? Most of us are spending – are you ready for this? – Nearly $700 per child! This is just for basic back-to-school items. If you include fees, equipment, and uniforms for extracurricular activities, that number skyrockets into the thousands.
In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, the U.S. spent $82.8 billion on back to school shopping last year. Yeah, BILLION. The most money was spent on clothing and shoes, followed by electronics, then classroom supplies. And Time magazine reports the average family spends as much as 10% of their income on sports.
There are better ways to make sure your child has everything he or she needs for the school year. The keys to securing school supplies are:
- Save ahead of time
- Start with a list
- Sweep your home for what you already have
- Swap with family, friends, and neighbors
- Search for the best deals
- Sales Tax Holidays
- Shop with intention
- Take advantage of money-saving apps
SAVE FOR BACK-TO-SCHOOL SUPPLIES
If you’ve been following The Budget Mom, you know I’m an all-cash spender. I plan early and save in advance. One of the ways I prepare for back-to-school expenses is to set aside a small amount each month into a sinking fund.
A sinking fund is designed to save for a specific goal, holiday, or event. You know what you are saving for, how much you plan to save, and when you will need to use it.
By using this method, I always have the money I need when the time comes. Now, if you are new to the idea of cash spending, that’s okay! I’m thrilled you’re here! We’re all on this journey together, doing what we can to live our best lives.
So, if you don’t have anything saved up this year, make sure you work sinking funds into your budget.
START WITH A LIST OF SCHOOL SUPPLIES
When it comes to finances, pretty much everything I do starts with a list. This ensures that you get everything you need and ONLY what I need. It simplifies the entire process. And honestly, having a list keeps me from feeling frazzled!
Your child’s school will most likely have a complete list online of the needed school supplies. This is a great place to begin. Add to this list everything else your child needs, from tennis shoes to a calculator to a winter coat, whether or not you already have it.
Once you have a complete list, you’re all set to start gathering what you need!
SWEEP YOUR HOME FOR BACK-TO-SCHOOL SUPPLIES
The second thing I do is a thorough search of my home, collecting anything and everything my son might need for school. You will be surprised at how much you already have!
I group items like office supplies and art supplies. Sometimes I find I can combine two or three partial sets of markers into one full set.
The same is true for packets of construction paper or bottles of glue. With just a little ingenuity, you can even turn old, used backpacks or lunch boxes into all-new creations your kid will love!
I also do a full sweep of my son’s clothes and shoes. My son loves to be involved! He gets a voice on what he likes to wear. In the process, I get him to try on the things I’m not sure about. This helps to narrow down the search for back-to-school clothes.
Once you have done a good sweep, cross everything you have found off your shopping list. Now, on to the next step!
SWAP FOR BACK-TO-SCHOOL SUPPLIES
A neighborhood back-to-school swap is one of the most brilliant ideas ever. And while most people have never participated in one, they are quickly growing in popularity.
If you don’t have one available to you, host it yourself! Start with neighbors, families, friends – whichever group makes the most sense for you. Then pick a time and venue. Saturdays always seem to work best, and the location should match your group.
If you’re going with a neighborhood swap, think of the largest, most accessible covered common area – a park pavilion, an apartment complex activity room, a church gym.
There are so many fun ways to organize a Back-to-School Stuff Swap.
- One way is a garage-sale style where everybody puts out their unneeded stuff on tables and hangers and prices it to sell.
- Another is to have everyone donate their supplies to one common sale in exchange for tickets or points.
- You can also do a simple barter-style – you offer me clothes your son has outgrown in exchange for art supplies. You get the idea.
However, you choose to participate, you’ll be able to cross several more items off your school supply list without spending a dime.
Side Note: If a School Supply Swap isn’t in your plans for this year, consider taking all your unworn and outgrown clothing to a reputable consignment shop. One that specializes in children’s clothing may serve you best.
If you do this early enough in the season, you may earn enough in-store credit by September to completely rebuild your child’s wardrobe.
SEARCH FOR THE BEST DEALS FOR SCHOOL SUPPLIES
This is a simple but intentional step. Don’t just pick stuff up here and there without doing your research first, especially when it comes to big-ticket items.
Check flyers and online ads for the best prices. Research coupon codes and upcoming sales at specific stores. Make notes on your list of the applicable dates and what items are on sale. When you use those coupon codes to save, make sure to use Rakuten (formerly Ebates) when shopping online.
Classroom supplies like notebooks, glue, calculators and such are best bought mid-July through August. This is when retailers buy the most stock and sell for the best prices. If possible, buy everything your kids will need for the entire school year.
Craft stores like Michaels, Hobby Lobby, and JoAnn’s Fabrics put these items on 40% off every few weeks.
On the other hand, July and August are NOT the best months to buy back-to-school clothing. Hit up garage sales (best on Friday mornings) and thrift stores (best on Tuesday mornings) for clothes and shoes.
As the school year begins, make the most of what your child already has, maybe adding one new outfit for the first day of school. After that, wait until the back-to-school items move to the clearance racks. Late September is the best time to purchase any additional clothing items your child needs.
Keep in mind when shopping for electronics and other bigger-ticket items that most discount and department stores sales begin on Sunday mornings. School items sell quickly, so shop these places early in the week. Merely knowing where and when to buy your back-to-school items can save you big money! Another great way to find deals online for such items is by signing up for Rakuten to get cash back.
SALES TAX HOLIDAYS
You may not be aware, but 16 states have “Sales Tax Holidays” for back-to-school shopping.
I should warn you that sales tax holidays are almost as crazy as Black Friday shopping. It’s worth it, but go early, avoid the peak times, and stick to your list.
I should also advise you to be smart about this. If you are shopping for big-ticket items or several children, it might be worth driving 50 miles to a neighboring state to take advantage of a sales tax holiday. But if you’re looking for a couple of items, be careful you don’t spend more on travel costs than you save
SHOP FOR BACK-TO-SCHOOL SUPPLIES WITH INTENTION
Finally, when it comes to shopping for school supplies, shop with intention.
For me, this means making a new, simplified list of the few things I haven’t been able to acquire by sweeping the house, swapping with friends, and searching thrift store and consignment sales.
Take into account the best days to shop, coupon codes, and upcoming sales, then make a plan of attack. Pay close attention to how many of each item you still need.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF MONEY-SAVING APPS
I love using apps like Ibotta which allows me to earn cash back on school supplies I was already planning on buying.
The best part is that you can earn cash back both in-store and online.
I do a lot of my back-to-school shopping at Walmart at the end of August to take advantage of huge clearance discounts. It’s also the time that I like to stock up for next year.
I use the Ibotta app to take advantage of their Walmart Online Offer. You can currently earn up to 5% cash back on your entire purchase (not including tax + shipping). It’s a great way to earn cash back on already discounted supplies.
“This is a sponsored post written by me in partnership with Ibotta. All opinions are my own”
STAY SMART WHEN BACK-TO-SCHOOL SHOPPING
If you follow these steps for creative ways to cross everything off your list, you aren’t likely to be over budget.
However, if your kid has had a recent growth spurt and needs all new clothes or your list includes a couple of high-priced items, consider alternatives. Spread out the shopping over the next few months, pick up a temporary job, or trade-off services for the things you need.
Whatever you do, don’t resort to using credit cards. If you want to learn how I budget, you can learn about my step-by-step guide here.
Remember: your number one goal is to get what your child needs for going back to school and survive the experience debt-free.