Adopt creative savings methods that have worked for other parents.
Take inventory of what you already have so you don’t buy unnecessary items.
Don’t feel that you have buy everything before the first bell of the semester rings.
If it feels like money just seems to fall out of your pocket during back-to-school season, you’re not alone. According to a survey from the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics, back-to-school spending for 2023 is projected to surge to $41.5 billion, up from $36.9 billion in 2022.
The survey also found that as of early July, 85 percent or respondents still had half their shopping to do. That means there’s still time to take advantage of savings opportunities. We asked parents for their best back-to-school cost-saving hacks. Here are some of their tips.
1. Look to parents of older students
“Check with friends, family and neighbors with kids who recently finished school to see if you can buy leftover supplies from them. I have older kids and now have a ton of unused things in my old school supply cupboard that I would happily give away to a younger parent. If you don’t know any of these ‘seasoned’ parents, post on the neighborhood Facebook page to see if anyone is out there; they probably never thought about offering!” — Michelle, Ocean City, New Jersey
2. Do a sibling swap
“I got tired of four kids requesting new (and trendy and expensive) backpacks every year. So I would buy durable ones in neutral colors, wash them frequently to keep them nice, and then would have the kids swap them after every school year, sometimes even switching them out over the long holiday break, so that the backpack was ‘new’ to them. I seriously can’t remember when I last bought a backpack.” — Carey, Carmel, California
3. Shop early—or late
“A lot of stores are having blow-out sales in August. If your state has a tax-free shopping day, that’s a time when retailers really pull out all the stops. But sometimes you can get a better deal by buying late, if it’s something that your child doesn’t need as soon as school starts. Most school supply items are available year-round, and waiting allows us to capitalize on the best deals as stores realize they need to make room for other goods after the back-to-school buying rush. A little patience can save you a significant amount of money each year.” — Thai-Anh, Saugus, Massachusetts
4. Shop your own house
“Now that my daughter is in college, I miss the traditional ‘back-to-school’ prep. But we have managed to not buy a single basic school supply yet for college (she's heading into junior year) and haven't since freshman year of high school by finding what’s in our own house. This works particularly well for the high school/college years when they don’t need specialty items. Start by grabbing a large laundry basket and go through each room collecting all the office/school supplies—you’ll be surprised what’s being squirreled away in kitchen and bedroom drawers. Sort them all into their individual sub-categories (pens, pencils, notebooks, etc.). Once that’s done, check that they still work, then have them take what they need for class, which is probably less than you expect. Chances are good that this treasure hunt means you won't have to go shopping at all.” — Bonnie, Amherst, Massachusetts
5. DIY single-serving lunches
“Instead of buying prepackaged items for school lunches, I buy full-size versions and re-portion them into reusable containers. Sometimes I buy a couple of six-inch subs at the grocery store and cut them up to make four or five small sandwiches. That way the kids eat the entire thing instead of part of a whole sandwich, and you have lunch for a couple of days for one price. The same principle applies to taking large bags of chips and making your own zip-top snack packs, rather than buying the more expensive single-serve bags.” — Cheryl, Salem, Oregon
6. Set limits on after-school activities
“Costs can easily add up if you have kids who want to try different activities, especially those that need a lot of equipment or otherwise have a big start-up cost. I set a per-child activities spending limit. It not only encourages them to choose something to focus on that really interests them, but also leaves space for family time, chores and other activities that can get overshadowed when kids are over-scheduled.” — Elizabeth, Nehalem, Oregon
7. Give your kids some skin in the game
“When it comes to clothes, my daughter sometimes wants Lululemon on a Target budget. I help her see the big picture, then make choices. So if her set budget for back-to-school clothes allows her to buy, say, three shirts and two pairs of pants at one store versus one pair of pants at the other store, we talk through the decision. If she wants to go beyond the budget, then she has a choice to chip in for the difference—but we also talk through those consequences. She might have other ways she’ll wants to use that money in the future, such as going to the movies with friends. I offer guidance as she makes spending choice and then support her decisions, which helps her learn about budgets at an early age. — Alesha, Plano, Texas
8. Hold off on trendy styles
“As soon as our kids started middle and high school, they often wanted to wait until they were back in the classrooms to see what kinds of clothing would be trending in school, not just what they were seeing at the mall or on social media. Not only were we able to skip the stress of busy stores in the weeks leading up to school, but we often were able to take advantage of deals over Labor Day weekend and beyond.” —Sarah, Tucson, Arizona
9. Stack all the discounts you can
“Most people know to tap sales, but there are other ways you can get great prices on supplies and clothing. As you’re getting ready to make a purchase, check sites like CouponCabin and Honey, which aggregate coupons and deals from a variety of places. You can also shop through sites like Ibotta or Rakuten that offer cash back on purchases.” —Laurie, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
10. Only buy what’s necessary off the school list
“Ask teachers if your child really needs all the items on the lists. I volunteer a lot and found cupboards full of tissues, erasers, wet wipes and more because the lists hadn’t been updated every year, or the school just found a generic one online that didn’t match up with the planned curriculum. You can also often find unused supplies at stores like Goodwill.” — Kristin, Tigard, Oregon