Sense & Centsibility Blog
Mom and daughter buying back pack

Eleven tips for back-to-school savings

Updated 8.18.23

While summer is singing its swan song, students are preparing to go back to class and are eager to show off their new school clothes and gear. However, buying their clothes and supplies doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are several ideas for back-to-school savings.

1) Determine What You Need

Take inventory of the school supplies you already have and your children’s clothes that still fit. Get the list of the supplies that the teacher requires or recommends. Determine if anything else is needed; then create your shopping list and a budget for how much you plan to spend. 

2) Get Your Children’s Input – Up to a Point

Some kids have strong opinions about what they want to wear. Before you put together your list, ask them now what their favorite outfits are and why. This can help avoid early morning arguments later when they get ready for school.

At the same time, don’t let your kids pressure you to buy unnecessary or overly expensive items. In one NerdWallet survey, at least 6 in 10 parents say social media and friends influence their children about what to get for school and parents get pressured to purchase them. Tell your children you’re sticking to your list and your budget and can’t buy all of the latest trends. This not only keeps you from overspending; it teaches your kids a useful lesson in personal finance at the same time.

3) Use Dollar and Thrift Stores

Dollar stores often sell high-quality school supplies at a fraction of the cost at drug stores or retail chains. Plus, they often have the same major name brands. Secondhand and consignment stores typically sell quality clothing, sporting equipment and musical instruments at much lower prices than retail stores. Like dollar stores, they have brand name merchandise, too.

4) Comparison Shop

Go online and see what different stores charge for the same products. Check for “end of summer” sales. Retail clothing chains usually offer deep discounts in late August/early September to make way for their fall clothing line.

Price comparison apps can also help. Many of them use your phone’s camera to scan a product code right there in the store. You then see prices and information about similar products sold online or in stores. Free apps that are rated highly in multiple reviews include ShopSavvy, BuyVia, MyCartSavings and ScanLife.

5) Ask for Price Matching

If you’re in one store and find a lower price for an item elsewhere, ask the clerk about the store’s price-matching policies. You might be able save money without shopping at another store. Price matching policies can vary widely from one retailer to the next, but it never hurts to ask.

6) Buy Supplies in Bulk

There are certain school supplies that are necessities; for example, paper, pens and pencils. Purchasing these in large quantities creates a supply which can last the entire year.

If your child goes through clothes quickly — e.g., they are on a growth spurt or damage clothing easily through spills, heavy activity and the like — buy extra when they’re cheap so you’ll have replacements on hand.

7) Wait to Buy Some Items

You don’t have to complete all your back-to-school shopping before the new school year begins. For instance, when purchasing fall and winter clothes, wait a few months into the school year when those items will be on sale.

If it’s difficult to afford everything on your list right now, only buy what your child needs for the moment. Then wait until you run out or a new semester begins. While waiting, watch for sales, and set aside money in savings to spend when you need to replenish your child’s supplies.

8) Consider Items That Save Money in the Long Run

Multiple, smaller notebooks often run out of paper before school ends. Instead, consider buying a hard-cover, three-ring binder with a set of dividers and filled with regular paper. It may help you avoid buying items — i.e. extra notebooks — that you didn’t expect.

Consider a waterproof backpack, too. Your child’s backpack might fall in a puddle or a slushy pile of melting snow. If textbooks are damaged and you have to replace them, this could get costly very quickly. A waterproof bag will protect its contents better and last longer than a cheaper model.

9) Avoid Credit Cards; Pay with Cash or Debit Card

Paying with money you have now prevents you from building up debt that you’ll have to pay back in the following months. It also helps minimize unnecessary expenditures. When paying by cash, withdraw a limited amount of cash, and watch it decrease as you spend it. Physically parting with money helps you see exactly how much you spend and better control that spending.

If you must use credit cards, pay the balance off quickly — preferably in the same month your next statement arrives. Otherwise, the interest charges eat away at any savings you’ve otherwise gained.

10) Take Back Unused Supplies

If you went over budget this year, see what items your child hasn’t used, refuses to use/wear or doesn’t need after all. See if stores will let you return those items.

Ask the store about refund and return policies at the time of purchase. Save any receipts that you might need. When shopping online, keep copies of your order number, the refund and return policies, shipping costs and warranties.

11) Prepare for Virtual Learning Costs

During the height of the pandemic, you might have incurred extra, unexpected expenses. These included higher utility bills, upgraded internet packages for additional bandwidth to accommodate your children’s computers and data needs, and the possibility of a new laptop or tablet if the school didn’t provide one. Although schools are back to in-person learning, there continue to be occasional spikes in COVID cases, and your child could contract the coronavirus and be home for a few days of virtual learning once more.

Add money monthly to emergency savings as a cushion in case learning moves from classroom to home. Use last year’s internet, utility and computer bills as a guide on how much to set aside.

If you would like further advice on budgeting for and managing back-to-school spending, LSS Financial Counseling is here to provide you support. We also provide support on creating monthly budgets, taking control of expenses and tackling debt. Contact us at 888.577.2227 for free, confidential appointments, or get your support online.

Dan Park


Author Dan Park is a Certified Financial Counselor for LSS Financial Counseling.