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Your ultimate guide to back-to-school savings


Back-to-school costs can pile up quickly, but they don’t have to empty your bank account. Here are several ways families can save on top spend categories for back-to-school expenses.

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Americans are projected to spend a whopping $80 billion in back-to-school costs this year. That breaks down to nearly $700 for every K-12 student and nearly $1,000 for back-to-college shoppers — both all-time-highs when it comes to school shopping expenditures.

This upfront spend is only a mere fraction of what American families will spend on total school-related expenses this year. According to a recent study from Deloitte, back-to-school season accounts for only about half of all annual school-related purchases.

But it doesn’t stop there. As Paula Hall, a mom of three and an elementary school teacher with the Independent School District in New Caney, Texas explains, back-to-school costs are a struggle for teachers, too.

“Teachers buy supplies to supplement as supplies are used — and to cover for students who do not bring supplies,” she said. “Teachers also usually add to their libraries every year and update classroom decor.”

Fortunately, there are several ways both teachers and families can rein in those costs and save some cash. From adopting a savvy credit card strategy to taking advantage of tax-free sales and bulk discounts, back-to-school costs don’t have to mean emptying your bank account.

Savings by category

Back-to-school costs vary widely based on category, with clothing and accessories making up the biggest chunk of expenses for many families. School supplies come in next, followed by electronic gadgets and computers and hardware. 

Let’s look at some ways you can save in each category:

Clothing and accessories

This category accounts for the largest share of back-to-school expenses for most families. In fact, according to the Deloitte study, Americans will spend more than half their back-to-school dollars on clothing and accessories alone, clocking in at nearly $300 per student, on average.

To save on your family’s back-to-school clothing costs, consider:

  • Maximizing your credit card discounts. Many rewards cards offer store-specific discounts that change month to month. Know what stores your cards can help you save at and try to purchase as many of your must-haves there before the promo period runs out.
  • Know when stores have sales. Target reduces its pricing on kids’ clothes every Monday, while Old Navy does it on Thursdays. Study up on when your favorite stores typically reduce prices and time your shopping accordingly.
  • Be smart when shopping online. Amazon has affordable clothing, and apps like thredUp and Wish make buying consignment a breeze. Target’s Cartwheel app can also clue you into valuable clothing discounts.
  • Use online shopping portals. Have any credit cards, mileage cards or rewards accounts with their own shopping portals? Use these to home in on budget-friendly buys. You can even save on big-name brands and retailers if you’ve got the right card on your hands.

If your school requires a uniform — but not one from a specific store, then head to a Target, Walmart or major department store instead. Stores such as JCPenney, Target, Old Navy, Walmart and Kohl’s offer uniform pieces in various sizes and colors. You might also try if you want to save even more.

School supplies

According to the study from the National Retail Federation, families will spend about $6.1 billion on school supplies going into the 2019 school year, accounting for about 22 percent of their total back-to-school spending. 

To reduce your spend in this category, always check in on last year’s supplies. Many things like binders, folders and other basics can be repurposed and reused. You can also:

  • Clip coupons or use couponing apps like Ibotta, Cartwheel, SnipSnap and more
  • Buy in bulk, especially on items like pens, pencils, tissues, etc.
  • Use reward-earning or store-specific credit cards to maximize your discounts
  • Sign up for retailer email and mailing lists to get special deals and promotions

You should also consider shopping at stores with price matching policies. Just bring in any circulars or store-specific coupons you have, and head to the customer service counter to get the reduced price. This will keep you from having to shop multiple stores.

Electronics and gadgets

Families are planning to spend about $800 million more on electronics and gadgets this year than they did in 2018. They tend to rank among the most expensive back-to-school items you can buy, clocking in at more than $300 per student, on average. 

Here are some ways you can reduce your household’s gadget spend:

  • Consider buying refurbished model. Whether it’s a computer, phone, tablet or even just a fancy calculator, buying a refurbished model can save you significant cash. Just make sure you get a licensed refurbished model from the manufacturer (these usually come with warranties to protect your investment).
  • Use cash-back rewards cards when making your purchases. Then, funnel those rewards dollars right back to your credit card bill, offsetting your gadget costs and reducing your overall back-to-school spending on the whole.
  • Rent-to-own your electronics. Places like Rent-a-Center and Aarons let you rent-to-own computers and other electronics you need for school, spreading out their costs over several months or even years.

You may also consider purchasing older-model electronics and gadgets. If a new model has just been released, you can usually get a good deal on products that are a few generations earlier. 

More ways to save on back-to-school

One of the best ways to save on back-to-school costs is to utilize your local tax-free shopping weekend. State tax-free shopping weekends vary by date, what’s covered and whether counties and retailers can choose not to participate. Click on your state below for tax-free holiday details.

You should also:

Look to local nonprofits and churches.

Churches and nonprofit organizations can be a good source of back-to-school supplies as well. Katie Coleman, a fourth grade teacher at Eanes Elementary in Austin, Texas, encourages her students’ parents to reach out to local churches. 

“Most churches do back-to-school drives based on the school’s supplies lists,” Coleman said.  “Contacting the church office about getting supplies for your kids is a good way to go about it, even if you don’t go to the church.”

Stack your rewards.

Don’t let a simple sale or tax-free weekend be enough. Maximize your savings by using cash-back or reward-earning credit cards when making purchases during any promotion. This essentially “stacks” your savings, allowing you to save on multiple levels for those back-to-school must-haves.

Buy discounted gift cards.

Sites like Raise and Gift Card Granny offer discounted gift cards to all sorts of retailers, including places like Kmart, Target, TJ Maxx, H&M, Best Buy, Walmart and more. You can even buy brand-specific cards for names like Nike and Under Armour.

Donate your old supplies — and claim the deduction.

At the end of the school year (or right before the next one), donate your unwanted clothing and dorm decor or, better yet, participate in a program like Operation Backpack that gives unused supplies to students in need. You’ll get rid of the clutter, and you can also claim it as a charitable donation on your annual tax returns.

Check price adjusting apps.

Stores are always adjusting their pricing, and when they do, you can often get cash back if you overpaid by using price-adjusting apps. One option is Paribus, which scans your inbox for online shopping receipts and then looks for any price reductions. Walmart has its own similar tool called SavingsCatcher. Both give you money back when prices drop on items you’ve purchased.

 The bottom line

American families are going up against some serious costs as the school year approaches. Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce these costs or, in the case of reward-earning and cash-back earning credit cards, even offset them. The key is to prepare early, set your budget and have the right financial tools to assist along the way.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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