As a mom of three, I used to approach back-to-school shopping with dread. Online shopping is convenient. But each kid had their preferred style and wanted to pick out their own stuff, which sent us straight to the stores — and the bargaining table.

From the wardrobe refresh to the endless supply list, families will rack up $29 billion in back-to-school shopping expenses this year, according to a survey from Deloitte.

Here are my back to school shopping tricks … and how I saved money.


Some parents will hate this suggestion. After all, buying your supplies all boxed up usually doubles as both a fundraiser and a time saver. Who wouldn’t like that? But the two times I bought the box o’ supplies, I was disappointed. First, my kids were bummed; turns out they like to shop for supplies and weigh the merits of various folder designs. Secondly, I was almost 100 percent sure it cost a lot more than I would pay searching out the items myself.


I’m not shy about admitting that many a year, I’ve launched the backpack into a corner on the last day of school. Then it usually sits there until the night before the first day of school. In addition to old granola bars (hopefully nothing worse!) and projects they have totally forgotten about, I often find leftover supplies — like scissors and pencil cases — that don’t wear out and with a quick wash can look brand new again.

Sometimes saving a buck on stuff you want to go the distance can cost more in the long run if you have to replace it.

If there’s something on the supply list you have an inkling you already own, send your kid up to their room to find it. You might be surprised how many flash drives and three-ring binders you round up — and then don’t have to buy.


Part of our job as parents is teaching our kids how to budget and comparison shop, and buying school supplies is an ideal exercise in this. Have the kids scour store fliers to see what’s on sale and when, and then have them track the items via an Excel spreadsheet (yes, this is overkill, but it’s good practice for when they have a real budget to manage). Have them indicate which item is on sale, where the store is and where it fits into your weekly routine. For example, if Store A is near swimming lessons and Store B is near their favorite park, they can put together a plan to visit the stores when it’s convenient. Because while you might be going a little bit out of your way to save $4 on dry-erase markers, the goal is not waste that $4 on gas.


Don’t overlook special savings when you download store apps or follow them on social media. You don’t have to keep them forever, but many offer special incentives. Some stores also send coupons if you subscribe to their email list. Start a Gmail just for special offers and only visit it when you are setting out to shop rather than having endless promotions clog your regular account.


Sometimes saving a buck on stuff you want to go the distance can cost more in the long run if you have to replace it. Backpacks and cases that protect tech, phones or computers are good places to spend a little more for quality.

And, ditto the one thing your kid has his or her eye on. Yes, the glittery planner might cost three times as much as the plain one, but if its shiny good looks will make your kid use it more, it could be worth it. They also can chip in if it seems super outrageous to you. And, pity the parent who doesn’t invest in a new lunch box, even if the old one seems good enough. The “pick a new lunch box” ritual can be the crown jewel of the shopping trip. And you didn’t really want to wash out the old one anyway, did you?


It’s never fun to splurge on the cool shoes your kid wants only to find out — belatedly — that they are “so last year.” The trick is to get them a couple of cool outfits they can wear in the first week of school but not to overhaul their entire wardrobe. First, the weather is probably still pretty darn hot so they are likely to keel over in their new plaid leggings. Second, what they saw on Instagram and what their friends are actually wearing might be two separate things. And finally, I’ve found it can pay to wait because the best sales kick in about two weeks after school starts.

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