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Back to School Shopping on a Budget

Back to School Shopping Saving Tips


Young mother and son in bookstore
Michael H/Digital Vision/Getty Images

For kids, one of the best parts of going back to school after a long summer vacation is all of the new things they'll be getting for the school year, but for parents, those back-to-school lists can put a real strain on the budget.

According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, families with school-age children were expected to spend around $634.78 on back to school apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics in 2013. The amount is cut in half if electronics are not on the list. The good news is that there are ways to avoid spending an outrageous amount of money, yet still making certain wardrobes are up to snuff and they are well stocked with school supplies.

General Tips

  • Never stop shopping for back to school merchandise. Buy the basic items when you seem them  on sale and then pack it all away until school starts.
  • Dive into the super discount bins at stores such as the Dollar Store, Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens, CVS and Office Depot. You can find significant savings on notebooks, pencils, erasers, clips, socks and underwear.
  • Buy clothing off the end-of-season final sale racks that your child can grow into, especially tops that are easy to fit. Avoid buying trendy items that will quickly go out of style.
  • Hold off on buying trendy book bags, lunch boxes and other school gear until a few weeks before school begins. What your child likes in June may not be what they like in August.
  • Shop at home. Many items on the school's supply list are items that you already own. Motivate your child's creativity by decorating notebooks and book covers with a collage of summer pictures or magazine cutouts.
  • Keep a copy of your school's list on you so that you know what you are purchasing is a necessity. This will you avoid buying items that your child really does not need and will probably not use.
  • Earn extra cash on barely worn clothing, uniforms, backpacks and lunch boxes and bags that your child has grown out of by placing them in a consignment shop or listing the items on Craigslist.
  • If your state or one near by has tax-free shopping days for back to school, take advantage of the extra savings and plan to do the bulk of your shopping on those days. Combine this with coupons and price comparisons which you can easily find by using popular shopping apps to help  maximize your savings.

Shop the Outlet Malls

Shopping at the outlet malls for back to school clothing is an great way to get more bang for your buck. What you can expect to find includes:
  • Many popular brands, including designer brands, at lower prices. Right off the rack, you can expect to save 20 percent at the very least. If you go during peak sale time and holiday weekends (like Labor Day) then you can look to save up to 70 percent.
  • The regular-price stores that also have outlets send many of the past season's merchandise to the outlets. If you are looking for basics, such as khaki pants, cardigans, hoodies, polos, sweats, shoes and accessories you will be able to find a better a better selection of the drastically reduced items by shopping at the outlet store.
  • Outlet stores are as promotional as the regional malls with coupons, bounce-back coupons, outlet mall customer appreciation programs and group discounts. Sign up to receive promotional emails and mailers from the outlets that you shop.
The days of outlet malls being filled with damaged merchandise is long gone, however you will come across slightly irregular merchandise. Usually it takes a magnifying glass to see the problem, but it's best to play it safe and inspect everything you plan on buying.

Department Stores, Big-Box Stores and Chain Stores

Stores like Macy's, Sears, JC Penney, Wal-Mart, Target, Carter's, Old Navy and Gap get aggressive with marketing when back to school time rolls around. You can expect to find decent inventories in school uniforms, but they sell out fast. June and July is the perfect time to browse the sale racks, especially if you are not limited to buying just uniforms.

Supermarkets and Drugstores

Browse the weekly circulars for the back-to-school deals going on at your supermarket and drugstores like CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid. Expect to find deep discounts on notebooks, notebook paper, pens, pencils, rulers and other basic supplies. This is a good time to stack coupons since most of these stores will let you combine a store coupon with a manufacturer's coupon.

Organize a Swap Meet

Get in touch with neighbors, friends and family who have young children and host a back to school clothing swap party.

Tip: Sending invitations is a fun way to get the swap going and offers a good opportunity to lay down the ground rules such as the clothing should be clean and rip and stain free.

Consignment Shops and Thrift Shops

Using consignment shops as a way to help with back-to-school expenses is a growing trend. Not only will you get back a percentage of the cost of the clothes your child has outgrown, but also the "slightly worn" replacement clothing you might find may be a pleasant surprise. Many of today's consignment shops only accept top-brand clothing in very good condition.

There is no reason to shy away from stores like Goodwill. Some retailers donate the older, unsold merchandise to charitable organization like Goodwill.

Consignment shops are often hard to find and hidden away in small strip centers. KidsConsignmentSales.com has a list of local consignment shops by state and town.

Garage Sales

Garage sales can be a fantastic place to find back-to-school supplies. Common items found at garage sales are children's backpacks, lunch boxes, erasers, clothing and accessories. I have even found unopened packages of notebook paper, pencils, pencil sharpeners, notebooks and learning tools such as dictionaries and basic math books.

For the college-bound student, you can find new and used books, luggage, computers, calculators and other useful high-price items at one-tenth the original price.

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