Published August 15, 2011
Fall is around the corner, and parents across the country are warming up their wallets to get their kids ready to return to school. Between school supplies and clothes and shoes, the return to classes isn't likely to be a cheap proposition; a recent survey by the shopping site PriceGrabber found that 48% of parents plan to spend $250 or more on back-to-school shopping this year.
Slashed school budgets are partially to blame for the mile-long lists of school supplies, says Lou Marino, a professor of management at the University of Alabama.
"One of the ways to make ends meet is to shift the cost to parents," Marino says. "Things the schools used to provide -- like paper -- are now the parents' responsibility."
While you may not be able to avoid the fall buying frenzy, you can reduce the back-to-school costs. Use a few of these suggestions to trim the fat from your back-to-school budget.
Start Your Shopping at Home
Why bother buying a brand-new pack of pencils when you have oodles of No. 2s sitting in your kitchen drawer?
"Chances are, you probably have binders, colored pencils and highlighters left over from last year," says Joanie Demer, a savings expert and co-founder of the blog The Krazy Coupon Lady. A few pens here, a sheaf of paper there -- these small already-have-its can add up to big savings on your school supply list.
Likewise, making an inventory of your student's wardrobe can also prevent overbuying. Often, parents will go on a back-to-school clothing shopping spree at department stores, forgetting about the perfectly good sweaters and pants lying forsaken in the backs of closets, says Stephanie Nelson, founder of the website CouponMom.com. Nelson suggests identifying the school clothes that will still fit your child -- that they will still agree to wear -- and donating the rest to charity. "Once you look at the clothes you have, the list of clothes you're going to need is going to be cut in half," Nelson says.
Know What You Want
Blindly heading to the mall with the generic task of "back-to-school shopping" in mind is a surefire way to spend more than you planned, says Marino. Instead, make a list of the specific school supplies that you'll need and seek those out -- you'll be less likely to fall victim to impulse purchases.
If your kids are old enough, consider setting a clothing budget before you leave the house and letting them choose the items that they want to spend it on.
"When they agree to the pact, it gives them boundaries they are more likely to not fight and (to) work with," says Susan Tordella, author of the parenting book "Raising Able." Make sure they know ahead of time that you reserve the right to veto any items that are ill-fitting or inappropriate for school.
For shopping trips for school supplies, you may want to venture to the stores alone with each child's school supply list, says Nelson. It's easier for you to ignore the "designer" folders and unnecessary products that lard the shelves and can bring up school supply costs.
"We can definitely save money by buying supplies on our own because we probably won't give in to impulse buys," Nelson says. "Your kids may say, 'Oh, Mom, I really need this special electronic pencil-sharpener thing.'"
Actively Seek Out Store-Specific Savings
Most major stores offer some kind of discount or loyalty program that can give you extra savings, either right at the register or a few weeks down the road. Three of the nation's largest office-supply stores -- Staples, Office Depot and OfficeMax -- all run fee-free programs that reward customers with store credit on a quarterly basis.
"My husband and I shop at Staples for office supplies throughout the year," says Julie Wheaton, a writer in San Diego. "I save the rewards points for school supplies. Just be aware of expiration dates -- you might have to buy notebook paper and binders earlier than usual to meet a coupon's expiration date."
When it comes to school clothing, many apparel and shoe stores also provide discounts in the form of Web-based coupons. These printable discounts are either available on the store's website or offered to customers who join the company's e-newsletter list. People who agree to receive emails from clothing giant Old Navy, for example, will receive a "$10-off when you spend $50" coupon in their inboxes as a thank you. And don't forget to check the website of your planned shopping venue, too. "Most people don't think of going to the shopping mall's website to get coupons, but you'd be surprised how many you can print," Nelson says. "I've found this to be especially true of outlet malls."
Wait to Shop
While your student will likely need a backpack, lunchbox and crayons by the first day of school, items such as sweaters and corduroy pants can wait until at least a few weeks into the semester. Fall apparel items are priced highest at back-to-school time, and retailers will usually discount them by mid-September at the latest, says Nelson. If your child wants a new outfit for his or her first week back, buy a few clearance-priced summer items.
"My kids are going back to school in August and they don't need fall clothes yet," Nelson says. "I think we tend to get caught up in buying clothes when retailers tell us to, not when the weather dictates it."
You can also cut back-to-school costs by scouring office-supply stores after the back-to-school rush is over, says Demer. Most retailers will put leftover school supplies on clearance, enabling you to scoop up supplies for next year at up to 90% off.
"Paper, crayons, folders and glue sticks always seem to be in high demand when children are in the house, so stock up now," Demer says.
Shop on Tax-Free Days
Nearly half of all U.S. states now designate a few days in late summer where school-related items can be purchased free of sales tax. Clothing and shoes under a certain dollar amount are usually included in the list of eligible items to help parents save on back-to-school costs. Some states allow tax-free purchases of school supplies as well. Hoping to lure in value-conscious consumers, a few stores also offer special sales events on tax-free weekends.
"You actually see some of them bringing in items and doing specialty buys," Marino says. "It's like another Christmas shopping season, almost."
To avoid the crush of shoppers that descend on stores during tax holidays, Marino advises going early on the first day, or even selecting your items the day before the event and having them held. "There are a lot of stores that will allow you to pre-shop and put (clothes) aside for one or two days," he says.
If you're unsure whether your state has a sales-tax holiday, check the website of your state's department of revenue. If one doesn't exist, consider driving to a nearby state to participate in theirs if possible.