After the holiday season, back-to-school shopping is the second-largest spending event of the year. That means this time of year can really bust parents’ budgets.

In the upcoming school year, Americans will spend an estimated total of $108.1 billion on learning materials for grade school and college, according to the National Retail Federation. This is a record-breaking amount of money and the highest documented spending in the survey’s history.

However, it is collective. When you break that number down by individual families with kids in elementary through high school, for example, the average American’s back-to-school budget is $848.90—a $59 increase from 2020.

You may be wondering where all of this money goes. Here is a breakdown of what the average back-to-school shopper might spend on:

  • $295.65 on electronics such as computers, calculators, or phones
  • $253.46 on clothing or school uniforms
  • $161.04 on shoes

“Consumers are spending more on items like electronics and clothing as they make plans for students to resume activities in person this fall,” said Prosper Insights Executive Vice President of Strategy Phil Rist. “For those in particular with children in elementary to high school, shoppers are putting the largest portion of their budgets toward electronics, new clothes, and accessories.”

As the cost of back-to-school materials rises, it’s important now more than ever to cut down your budget. In fact, a 2021 LendingTree Survey shows that one in three parents will go into debt while shopping this year. That’s why we’ve created this helpful guide to navigate back-to-school shopping deals and maximize your savings. So you can give your child everything they need to succeed in school without compromising your finances.

No one actually likes back to school shopping:

In 2018, two polls were conducted about back-to-school shopping, and both concluded everyone hates it—we’re talking about both parents and their children.

“A majority of American parents (75 percent) and teens (73 percent) say back-to-school shopping causes tension,” says one BusinessWire survey.

Most teens complain their parents “wait until the last minute to do the shopping,” while most parents complain their teens “want the name brand when they can only afford the budget item.”

That same exact sentiment was corroborated in the Coinstar Back-to-School Survey. It details that 70% of parents consider back-to-school shopping “stressful” because of the peer pressure their children face to buy trendy clothing and the latest electronics.

Stress less—make back-to-school budgeting a fun learning experience

While shopping might be tense, it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of picking out items for your kids, try this: Give them a budget for back-to-school shopping.

You may be thinking, “If I give my kid $300, they’ll buy one gadget or one outfit, and no new underwear or notebooks.” That’s why you should modify their allowance. Basically, jot down a list of categories your child must cover, like clothing, pencils, books, etc. As long as they purchase all those items—and you approve of their selections—they can use the leftover money for a toy or something else they might want for school. However, they must get all those items.

This will not only make shopping for essentials more entertaining for your children, but it will teach them a valuable lesson about money (and affording the latest fashion).

How to save money in your back-to-school budget

Step 1: Buy when the time (and sale) is right 

Most kids around the country head back to school sometime between mid-August and early September, but back-to-school shopping starts way earlier. In fact, 59% of parents do their shopping by the end of July, according to a study from consulting firm Deloitte.

While you may be thinking this is a good way to save, when it comes to back-to-school deals, the earlier you shop the more you end up spending. If a store has a big amount of inventory for a long period of time, they become motivated to get rid of it. This is why many sales tend to happen at the end of August and early September, when the season ends and the demand for back-to-school items dwindles down.

Parents should also consider doing their shopping at the end of the summer to take advantage of tax holidays. Various states offer a weekend or an entire week-long period where you can shop tax-free. This is a great time to stock up on all of the items on your list. But keep in mind that every state has different rules about what and how much you can purchase tax-free.

Step 2: Compare prices, but don’t go crazy

Before hitting the store, spend some time looking up prices and deals online, in the mail, or even in newspapers. You’ll have a wider range of prices to choose from, and it’ll be easy to find the best deal. For textbooks, use sites like SlugBooks to find the cheapest option for almost any book on your class materials list. You can also use the lowest price you find for a price match at stores with a price adjustment policy. Just don’t go overboard with your research to save a few dollars—your time is worth something, too.

Step 3: Shop wherever you’ll find what you need when you need it

Sometimes, it makes sense to order online if it’s cheaper. But if you need something by the next day, you can check out Walmart, Target, or even a local drugstore for quick school supply items.

College students can also utilize their free 6-month trial to Amazon Prime Student. A great time to activate your account is right before school starts, so you can purchase all essential supplies with next-day or two-day shipping—but still have the subscription during your next semester. Then, even when the trial ends you’ll be able to keep your subscription for half the cost.

Step 4: Be wary of some deals

A sale doesn’t equal a good deal. Don’t get drawn into the clearance section and buy a bunch of clothes out of impulse because they’re inexpensive—in the end, it adds up. Also note that cost can be different depending on the sizing, and certain deals may not apply to an item in the size you need. So be sure to double-check pricing before you get to the register.

Step 5: Invest in second-hand items

A new school year doesn’t have to mean new clothes and supplies. With class materials lists getting longer each year, you can save big by getting essentials second-hand.

Browse thrift stores, consignment stores, garage sales, and even Facebook Marketplace for quality used items. Of course, you might not be able to find every single thing you need, but these are great places to look for textbooks, electronics, backpacks, lunch boxes, folders, and binders. Hand-me-downs are another great second-hand option. Ask friends and family if they have any items they don’t use anymore. You can get lots of free clothes, shoes, and even required books by simply reaching out.

Step 6: What you can’t buy second hand, buy at a discount store

Discount stores like Ross, T.J. Maxx, and Marshall’s sell cute clothes at a way lower cost than other department stores. They have great clearance racks and back-to-school deals, so be sure to do the rest of your shopping at one of these stores—as opposed to somewhere more expensive like Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Step 7: Leverage coupons and student discounts 

Couponing is the age-old tip for saving money. You can find them in newspapers, magazines, weekly ads, and the easiest way, online. You can find them on websites, like our very own coupon center, or by adding web extensions like Honey that automatically search for discount codes as you’re online shopping. Coupons are especially useful when buying big-ticket items like computers, other electronics, and dorm furniture.

Also, leverage student discounts with coupons. Many stores offer students up to 15% off on all purchases, and all you have to do is show your school ID. If you’re in college, you can sign up online for a free Unidays account and get access to student-only deals on 150+ well-known brands.

Step 8: Get cashback

Sign up for cashback programs online to get free money while you shop. Apps like iBotta and Rakuten can help you get rebates at countless popular stores like Target, Nike, and Old Navy. With iBotta all you need to do is download the app, shop in-person, and then upload a picture of your receipt to be reimbursed. For those who like to shop online, try Rakuten. Simply add the Rakuten web browser extension, shop for what you need through the site, and you’ll automatically receive money back–no photo or upload needed.

Step 9: Alter and upcycle older pieces at home

Get creative and upcycle old clothes. If you’re crafty, this is a great way to DIY that trendy shirt your kid really wants. There are tons of easy ways to make cute clothes, like ironing on a design or adding some glitter pizazz. For kids who love animals, get cost-effective plain shirts and sew-on patches to give them personalization. For more inspiration check out Pinterest and Youtube.

You can also alter old pieces that might not fit anymore to save. If you have clothes that are too big, and a sewing machine at home, use some of these hemming hacks. Don’t have a sewing machine? Follow these steps for basic alterations that even beginners can do.

How to save during COVID-19 and remote learning:

Last year when school went remote, many parents had to make a difficult choice between their job and their children. In fact, one out of ten parents said they would quit their job if their kids couldn’t go to school in person, reported a Debt.com survey.

Although you may receive benefits from unemployment, the advance child tax credit, and the CARES Act for students financially affected by COVID-19, it might not be enough to afford your child’s education. If your child is still remote learning in the fall, there are other ways to save without having to quit your job.

Here are our top tips for students going back to school online…

Step 1: Keep up with your “in-person” benefits

Even though school might be online you may still be able to receive the in-person benefits you qualify for. For example, if you’re eligible for free or subsidized meals, you will most likely still be provided the food in one way or another.

In March 2020, when schools first shut down, meal programs quickly adapted. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which normally serves approximately 20.1 million free lunches and 1.7 million reduced-price lunches, helped set up new ways for families to access their benefits.

According to the SNA, “81% of responding school meal programs distribut[ed] grab-and-go meals at drive-through pick-up sites, 42% deliver[ed] meals directly to student homes and 32% utiliz[ed] school bus routes to distribute meals throughout neighborhoods.”

If you qualify, fill out the SNA’s waiver and once you’re approved you can use the USDA’s Meals for Kids tool to find a site serving free student meals near you.

Step 2: Look into stable, and cheap, WiFi

Working and learning from home can be tough on both you and your WiFi. Before the school year starts, make sure you’re happy with your connection—and the amount you pay for it. Try negotiation for a better deal or better service, and if neither works, maybe it’s time to consider a new provider. Services like TrueBill and BILLSHARK can also help you negotiate a better price or find a more affordable service if you’re not having any luck on your own.

Step 3: Repurpose old electronics

Last year, you most likely ran into a situation where you had to scrounge up a device for you or your kids to learn on. For those who struggle financially, this was not an easy task—and many are still having trouble finding the necessary electronics to keep up with online school.

If you are in need of a learning device, try repurposing an old iPad or computer. Broken computers can always be refurbished, and usually at half the price of a brand new one.

Certain districts also give students a tablet or electronic device, while others sell them at discount. If this isn’t available in your area, reach out to your child’s school or your school system’s representative to see what they can offer.

Step 4: Live at home

This last tip is for college students. If you’re going to class online, why not spend the semester at home? You’ll save a couple of thousand dollars on rent or room and board, plus you can use that money to invest in your own place post-graduation.

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Article last modified on August 20, 2021. Published by Debt.com, LLC