Seven Real Strategies for Back to School Shopping from a Parent of Three School Kids

Back to school season is here, with many schools starting classes in August and September after a nice summer break. I have two children going to middle school this year and another going to upper elementary, which means this is my ninth (tenth? sheesh, who can even count the years at this point?) year of dealing with back to school supply shopping.

Along the way, I have learned several lessons about effective back to school shopping for clothes and school supplies that have helped cut the cost way down. Here are seven really effective things we do each year to keep the costs low.

Hand things down

Lots of school items can be handed down from older siblings to younger ones or even to first cousins. Clothes can be handed down as children outgrow them (provided they haven’t been extensively worn down). Backpacks and lunchboxes can be reused for years and handed down if school requirements change. Non-consumable school supplies can definitely be handed down – things like rulers and binders and compasses and protractors can be used for many years.

Our strategy is that when a school year ends, we put away all of the school supplies until the end of the summer, and then our first pass for school supplies comes from the leftovers from the previous year. We’ll stow all of the unused boxes of pencils, the rulers, the compasses, the protractors, the lunchboxes, and so on in one or two of the backpacks from the previous year and we’ll just pull all of that stuff out and use it to mark things off of the school supply lists for the coming year.

Shop at secondhand stores and thrift stores first

We start at these stores for things that aren’t consumables – items like clothes, backpacks, rulers, lunchboxes, and shoes. (There’s a reason for this rule, which I’ll get back to later.)

What we’ve often found is that many families purge last year’s wardrobe late in the summer, cleaning out stuff that doesn’t fit any more or that their kids didn’t like or didn’t wear, and all of that stuff shows up in secondhand stores and consignment stores in a giant wave in August. It’s not hard at all to find new or nearly new children’s clothes, bags, and school supplies at really steep discounts at a secondhand store this time of the year.

We’re still picky about the shopping. We let our kids make the choices and we generally only pick things that appear to be new and/or well made.

Often, we can take care of almost all of our back to school clothes shopping at secondhand stores, with only a few items to pick up elsewhere. We have found great backpacks in such stores in the past as well.

Check for tax free holidays

If you do find yourself having to buy things like clothes, shoes, backpacks, and other such more expensive items, check to see if your state has a tax free holiday on clothing or other materials related to school. Many states do this in early August, though some tax free holidays spread into other parts of the year.

While this won’t be an enormous savings by itself, you’ll find that in many states with a tax free holiday, stores will push nice sales on those days to coincide with the holiday in order to pull in customers who might be shopping for such supplies.

Buy consumable school supplies at a single big box retailer

Trust me, after nine (10?) years of doing this, I’ve come to realize that there is no retailer that universally has the best price on all school supplies that your kid needs, but that the big box stores (namely Target and Wal-Mart) tend to be close enough on price on most of the stuff I buy – and ahead of other competitors such as dollar stores and office supply stores – that I just shop at one of those for school supplies.

This is something I’ve checked and checked again – in terms of just buying all of your school supplies in one place, picking all of them up at Wal-Mart or Target is almost always the best option. They won’t each have the lowest price on every single item, but unless you’re willing to store-hop to save $0.20 on a box of pencils or something akin to that, you’re better off picking one store, getting all of the supplies there, and sticking with it.

“What about price matching?” While price matching items from another store’s flyer can save you a little, I’ve often found that during back to school weeks, the prices on most of the sale items are really close. As I noted above, you can go to the customer service area and point out how a $0.40 item you just bought is actually $0.35 at another store and end up saving a few dollars overall, but you need to have the competitor’s flyer in hand when you do this.

“Why just consumable stuff?” The non-consumable stuff, like backpacks and lunch bags and rulers and so on, are usually handled through hand-me-downs and secondhand stores, as noted above. By the time we’re buying notebooks and pencils and glue at Target, our actual list is pretty short and usually just consists of those consumable items.

Don’t sweat matching the specific brand.

If a school supply list identifies a particular brand, don’t sweat matching that brand perfectly. In my experience, almost always, a brand is listed to identify a “preferred brand” when parents are looking at six different kinds of pencils and are unsure what to get.

As a frugal shopper, don’t worry about it. Get the inexpensive stuff. Get the $0.20 notebooks with a plain cover and the $0.05 plain folders. Don’t sweat finding the exact brand listed on the school supply list.

Yes, once in a while, you’ll find a teacher that’s a brand stickler. This is usually a new teacher that hasn’t yet had to deal with the realities of parents trying to make ends meet for a school supply list. Again, don’t sweat it – they’ll make do with whatever you buy.

Handle picky kids with an “upgrade allowance.”

Kids like to have notebooks and folders with designs on them. They like to have fancy pens. They like to have the glittery glue. That’s fine and all, but that’s also much more expensive than the bargain options.

Our solution – one that makes everyone happy – is that we give them an “upgrade allowance” on their school supplies. It’s usually about $5-10. Each child can “upgrade” some of their supplies to fancier versions – we’ll pay for the basic version and then the difference between the basic version and the nicer version comes out of their “upgrade allowance.”

Let’s say one of our kids desires a folder with Roman Reigns on it. A blank folder is $0.20. The Roman Reigns folder is $1. They can get the Roman Reigns folder, but it eats $0.80 of their “upgrade allowance.” That might mean that they have to choose ordinary glue instead of glitter glue or something like that.

I have one kid that absolutely loves nicer notebooks. Another kid of ours is a stickler for pens (like their dad, I guess). Another kid almost always wants folders with bizarre designs on them. Those kinds of “upgrades” come out of their upgrade allowance.

By allowing them this choice, it cuts down on arguments about other items that we purchase.

Get a cheap pack of stickers for personalization

One last thing that we do is that we get each child an inexpensive pack of stickers of their choice to personalize their notebooks and folders. We’ve also helped them make book covers out of paper bags so that they can personalize their school books, too.

This usually costs $0.50 or $1, but it gives them the chance to add some individuality to a pile of plain notebooks.

Again, one of our children usually chooses letters and neatly labels each notebook by purpose, while another kid often gets the goofiest stickers he can find and covers his notebooks with those things (last year, this involved stickers of a Japanese wrestler and the year before all of his stickers were French fries).

This costs $3 at most for our three kids and it really cuts down on the discussion about school supplies. They’re usually fine with the cheap notebooks if they can be heavily personalized. The reality is that what they want are notebooks and books and folders that are distinct from the items owned by their siblings and friends, and a bunch of markers (which we already have) and stickers enable plain inexpensive notebooks and folders to be made distinct at a very cheap price.

Even better, I find that this process tends to get all of them excited to go back to school. After a session or two of personalizing notebooks and packing their bag for the first day, they’re usually quite ready to get back to the school routine.

Final Thoughts

Back to school shopping is a reality of our August each year, and over the years Sarah and I have had to continually refine our practices in order to keep the costs of all of this back to school shopping low. Each year, we try a few new things, adapt some older things, retain things that were successful in previous years, and drop things that didn’t work out.

These seven things have become our consistent tactics, year in and year out. They worked well in preschool, early elementary, late elementary, and even into middle school without much of a hiccup. Compared to buying everything new at ordinary prices, these strategies easily cut our back to school cost by two thirds, if not more.

If you’re new to all of this, try out these tactics. Do a “first pass” for clothes, bags, and other things at secondhand stores and try to fulfill your needs there. For non consumable school supplies, check secondhand stores, but also save them at the end of the year and reuse them in subsequent years (we usually store them in backpacks). Buy all of your school supplies at a big box retailer and price match on the items that other retailers are selling for less. Buy the cheapest versions of items, let your child select just a few upgrades from that, then encourage them to personalize their notebooks and other items with art supplies you already have and a fresh pack of stickers. You’ll be surprised how much less you spend this way.

Good luck!

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