Your Complete Back-to-School Shopping Guide

Photo Courtesy: ediebloom/iStock

With inflation soaring, budgeting for costs like back-to-school shopping is especially important this year. Fortunately, retailers are actually taking steps to alleviate some of the pressure. Back-to-school sales are starting earlier than ever before, allowing parents to snag great deals and spread out purchases before the first day of class rolls around. If you want to streamline your back-to-school shopping and avoid busting your budget, here’s a quick back-to-school shopping guide that can help.

Set a Budget for School Supplies

Having a budget can help keep your back-to-school spending under control. If your child’s start of the school year is still weeks away, you can potentially create an overall budget and then break that spending down into smaller chunks. For example, dividing it by the number of paychecks you have between now and then could make the cost feel more manageable.

When it comes to determining the total you’re planning to spend, use information from past school years as guidelines. For example, in 2021, families with K–12 children expected to spend around $850 on back-to-school items. This issue is that figure won’t account for inflation. If you increase that by 8.6% — based on early summer inflation figures — then it may be smarter to use about $920 as a baseline.

If that’s within your budget, make that your high-end target. If that isn’t in your budget, you’ll want to determine what you can reasonably cover. Once you’ve settled on that number, you can create a back-to-school shopping list to outline how much you want to spend in various areas. Keep in mind that it’s often easier to find deals on basic supplies like pencils, notebooks and folders. Since that’s the case, you can plan to pinch pennies there and spend more money in areas where discounts are harder to find.

Make a Back-to-School Shopping List

Having a back-to-school shopping list helps you coordinate your efforts and ensure your child heads off to class with everything they need. For K–12 students, schools often release recommended or required supply lists, which are essentially convenient cheat sheets to guide your shopping.

In most cases, supply lists include item types or categories, so the majority of what you’ll need isn’t usually limited to a single brand. The only exceptions are items like scientific calculators — some textbooks reference a particular brand and model directly — or books from reading lists. If you’re on a tighter budget, note the minimum number of items the teacher suggests you purchase, and stick to it. That reduces the odds of overbuying by mistake.

Identify the Best School Supplies Sales

Once you have your back-to-school shopping list, look up the non-sale prices on those items at retailers in your area, as well as on popular back-to-school ecommerce stores. The idea is to get a baseline of what the products normally cost, which then makes it easier to spot a great deal when an item goes on sale.

Precisely what constitutes an amazing deal may vary depending on baseline prices in your area. However, for back-to-school basics like composition notebooks, 1-inch binders and five packs of mechanical pencils, $0.50 to $1 often represents a bargain. For one-subject spiral notebooks, something closer to $0.25 may be a wiser target.

However, you’ll want to factor in more than the package price tag. By looking at the per-unit price, you can figure out whether single items or multi-item packages are the better option. While it’s easy to assume that buying in bulk always works in your favor, that isn’t always true. That’s why calculating the per-unit price is vital — you can determine which items are genuinely the best deal.

Bring Coupons Into the Mix

Along with sale prices, factor in the value of coupons. Many major school supply manufacturers start offering coupons at around the same time the sales begin. If you can match a coupon to a sale price, you can get high-quality items at bargain-basement prices. Plus, if you couple that with cash back through rebate apps or cashback websites, you might be able to save even more.

What Are the Best Places for Back-to-School Shopping?

Certain retailers are known for fantastic discounts on back-to-school items. Whether you want to shop in-person or online, here are some stores to consider first:

  • Amazon
  • Office Depot
  • Staples
  • Target
  • Walmart

While you might assume that dollar stores are also a great option, that isn’t always the case due to back-to-school sales. As mentioned above, many items are available for $1 or less once discounts start rolling out. That can end up making dollar stores the more expensive option.

If you need school uniforms, Old Navy is often one of the most affordable options. However, you can also find that kind of attire at Land’s End, Target, Kohl’s and various other department stores if you want to comparison shop.

When to Shop for Back-to-School Sale Items

Generally, you want to buy back-to-school sale items as soon as they go on sale. Exactly when that happens depends on how a particular store schedules its sales. For example, Walmart launches sales on Wednesdays, while Walgreens releases new discounts on Sundays.

The main reason that you want to get to the store as soon as possible is that the best sale items may run out of stock quickly. If you wait, there’s a good chance the product selection will be limited, and certain items may not be available at all.

You should also find out if your state is doing a back-to-school sales tax holiday. If you need to buy items that typically don’t go on sale or are higher cost, waiting until the sales tax holiday and shopping locally could save you quite a bit. Sometimes the sales tax holiday even coincides with a sale at a major retailer, which could allow you to save on two fronts.

Ultimately, saving on back-to-school shopping requires a bit of planning and research. However, by doing the legwork, you can save a bundle and ensure you don’t bust your budget while still getting everything your student needs.