The Parents Guide to Saving Money on Back-to-School Expenses

·6 min read
Mom shops for school clothes with her son
Mom shops for school clothes with her son

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It's no secret that back-to-school shopping really puts a strain on your budget. In 2021, families planned to spend an average of $848.90 on back-to-school items for kids in elementary school through high school, according to an annual survey from the National Retail Federation. Parents of college students expected to dish out a whopping $1,200.

To make matters worse, inflation has led to price surges on everything from gas to groceries, so back-to-school costs will likely soar even higher this year. Many parents are wondering how they'll afford everything on their child's shopping list, including clothing, school supplies, technology, dorm furniture, and more.

Need some cost-saving inspiration? We rounded up 16 tips for cutting costs on various back-to-school expenses, whether you're child is heading to elementary school, middle school, high school, or college.

Back-to-School Clothes

Take advantage of seasonal sales. As the new academic year approaches, you'll find plenty of back-to-school and end-of-summer sales—both online and in person. These sales generally run until the end of August or early September and can help save big bucks on your clothing haul. You can also sign up for email notifications from major retailers, which alert subscribers about markdowns and provide discount codes.

Host a clothing swap. Kids tend to grow out of clothing items quickly. Instead of bringing used clothes to the donation center, consider hosting a clothing swap with relatives, friends, or neighbors. Your kids will get a refreshed wardrobe—and you'll get a clutter-free closet!

Try secondhand shopping. Your child can still develop their personal style without shopping at big-box retailers. Instead, bring kids to a secondhand store and let them choose items off the rack. Most clothing at thrift stores is great quality, and you'll score it for a fraction of the original sales price—just make sure to shop early before the best items are already sold out. You might also find some gems at consignment stores and garage sales.

Be creative with school uniforms. Does your child's public or private school require uniforms? Sure, uniforms allow less fashion creativity, but they also save money because kids can rewear versions of the same outfit. To make uniforms even more budget-friendly, consider organizing a uniform swap with other students at the school. You can also buy basics (like khaki pants or button-down shirts in solid colors) at secondhand shops, or take advantage of back-to-school sales at big-box stores.

School Supplies

Take inventory of what you already have. There's no need to start from scratch each year! As long as they're still in good shape, items like backpacks, lunch boxes, pencil cases, and binders can be reused. You might find some keepers hidden in your office drawers or closets.

Share bulk items. Do you have multiple children that need folders, loose-leaf paper, facial tissue, and pencils? How about neighbors or cousins with a similar back-to-school shopping list? You can save costs by purchasing select items in bulk and splitting them with other students.

Find coupons online. Some websites, blogs, and social media pages provide coupon deals for school supplies. Our favorite accounts for back-to-school savings include Deal Chasing Mama and Mama Deals.

Shop strategically. Does your child have a knack for picking the most expensive school supplies in the store? Consider leaving them at home when stocking up on folders, notebooks, and pens. It'll be easier to find the best prices without deviating from your shopping list. (Alternatively, set a budget for your child and encourage them to follow it when choosing supplies). Always do your research to learn when stores offer their biggest discounts of the season.

Technology and Gadgets

Find cheaper tech alternatives. Technology comes in a wide range of price points; opt for gadgets that give the most bang for your buck. For example, instead of buying your child a laptop, you might choose a tablet and keyboard (it has similar functions for less overall cost).

Buy refurbished gadgets. Whether you're looking for a tablet or laptop or iPhone, buying pre-owned gadgets is an effective way to save. Just make sure you're choosing reliable items. Some companies provide warranties and money-back guarantees, according to Consumer Reports, and reputable sellers might offer "certified" refurbished tech.

Set up price alerts. Price tracking apps help you find sales and save money.  ShopSavvy, for example, sends alerts for price drops and deals, and it compares costs across thousands of retailers. Along those lines, some big-box stores will match lower prices on items you find elsewhere.

Seek out student discounts. Select retailers offer discounts specifically for students. You'll probably need to show your student ID at checkout. Examples include Adobe, Apple, Best Buy, Dell, HP, and Microsoft.

Dorm Furniture

Focus on the essentials. It's easy to get carried away with over-the-top dorm inspiration on Pinterest or Instagram. But be realistic—does your kid really need a fancy espresso machine or high-end throw pillows? (Of course, they might think these items are necessary, which could prompt a conversation about financial responsibility). Stick with the need-to-haves instead of the nice-to-haves. Your college might provide an essential dorm room shopping list, or you can find one online. Also ask other college students in your life about their experience—what items did they use often, and which ones weren't really needed?

Buy multifunctional furniture. Most dorm rooms supply basic furniture like a bed, desk, and dresser. If you're looking to add something extra, multifunctional pieces can cut costs (and you can use them for years to come!) Some ideas: a couch with storage underneath the cushions and a nightstand that doubles as a computer desk.

Search the house before purchasing new items. Just because your kid is moving into a new space doesn't mean they need all new things. Try to repurpose what you already own, whether it's the spare comforter in the linen closet or the old set of dishes in the basement. Relatives might also be willing to offer hand-me-downs.

Split costs with your roommate. A dorm room doesn't need two microwaves, two fridges, and two garbage cans. Have your child reach out to their roommate before school starts to coordinate packing lists. Maybe one person brings a printer and another purchases the coffee maker. You'll also save space in the dorm by eliminating duplicates!