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10 Ways to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Good shopping requires good planning

Published on: August 21, 2017

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Most of us would rather spend the waning summer having fun than go back-to-school shopping so it’s easy to make a few rushed trips to the store to stock up. But that will hurt next month when the credit card bill arrives at the same time as payments are due for band, soccer and that last-minute Labor Day trip to the lake.

The National Retail Federation’s annual survey estimates that families will spend more than $83 billion this year just to get kids ready for reading, writing and Intro to App Development. College students account for a huge chunk of that money — $54.1 billion — but K-12 parents will still shell out an average of $687 to get kids ready to go back to school.

Thankfully, there are more ways to save money than ever. But good shopping requires good planning, so grab a pitcher of your favorite beverage and a snack, and plan to spend a couple hours getting organized.

  1. Take inventory. Before you do anything else, go through the kids closets and dig out the things you may have purchased on deep discount last year and forgotten about. Clothing is the item people will spend the most on ($10 billion expected this year!) so inventory closets and make a list of what is needed. Many fall clothes will go on sale before Halloween so try to restrain from buying too much now and plan another trip later.
  2. Shop second-hand. Kids grow like weeds, so check out consignment shops first. Clothes are usually pre-screened well enough that they’re in good condition at fraction of original cost.
  3. Trade up. Check apps and sites like Letgo or local Facebook buying groups for people selling or trading items they don't need. Clothes, sports equipment and electronics are usually pennies on the dollar.
  4. Shop with cash. Limitations are powerful and so simple that they’re easily overlooked. If you can only afford to spend $50 out of this paycheck, then only take $50. Even if you’re not budgeting relentlessly every dollar saved is a dollar that can be spent on Christmas, prom or, let’s face it, vacation. It’s also good for kids to see their parents handing over cash every now and then. Too much credit card use diminishes the reality that purchasing always come back to cash.
  5. Go high-tech. There are plenty of apps to make shopping easier and cheaper. GeoQpon sends alerts for in-store and online coupons and sales, and stores shopping lists and loyalty cards. Ibotta alerts you to nearby deals and gives you shopping point rewards. Shopkick lets you trade points for gift cards. Some stores also have custom apps featuring special deals so check before you buy.
  6. Check all the deals, not just for the kids. Don’t overlook other household items that might be on sale. Even if you have elementary kids, do you need sheets or cleaning supplies that are on sale for college students?
  7. Take advantage of credit and travel rewards programs. If you save points these programs are perfect for large items like computers. Look at the rewards websites for airline, travel or credit card points.
  8. Leverage price matching. Nearly every major chain will price match, even against online retailers like Amazon. Staples has brought back its popular 110 percent guarantee for back to school season. Best Buy will match at the time of purchase and Target will honor competitor prices up to 14 days past your purchase. Ask the store’s policy and you won’t leave money on the counter.
  9. Comparison shop. Several websites have hard-working elves keeping up with the circulars for us. Two of the most popular, The Penny Pinching Mom and Passion for Savings have coupons, supply lists, and searchable databases covering major discount and office supply stores.
  10. Harness parent groups. Query parents in your social groups to see who’s up to swap or buy in bulk. You may not need a whole case of paper but this tactic saves when you find sales and split things up. Create a Google doc where people can list and trade, or get creative and host a trading party.

It’s easy for all of us to get overwhelmed in stores, but that's even more true when the aisles are crowded, disheveled and exploding with color. Lack of pre-planning is a recipe for ending up with duplicates, or items the school doesn’t allow or kids won’t use.

Before you shop, sit down with the school supply list to discuss limitations and preferences. Talk things through to decide what your child most wants vs. what’s allowed, and avoid the dawdling indecision that leads to frustration, tempers and snap purchases.

And whatever you do, don't forget the snacks. A snacking child is a quiet child.

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