WRAL SmartShopper

WRAL SmartShopper

Conquering back-to-school spending

Posted July 8, 2013


The back-to-school deals are starting up this weekend and it's time to think about paper, pens, crayons, backpacks and much more! Here are some tips to remember when gathering all the items from the long list of supplies that your kids are expected to bring to class.

The list for one of my girls a couple years ago had 23 items on it and the list for my other daughter had 21 items. If I paid full retail for the 23 items on the first list (including a college dictionary, binders, baby wipes and book covers), it would cost approximately $72.00! I have two children but I know many families who have 3 or 4 children and the supply cost really adds up when you have a big family!

So, what is a parent to do? Your child needs the paper, pens and notebooks, but you also need to pay the mortgage. If you are feeling the pinch of school supply costs, it’s time to get creative so you don’t overpay for supplies that you can find for a fraction of the retail price.

First step – shop your house! Before heading to the store to buy supplies, take a look around your own home to see what you may already have. Did your child’s teacher send home any extra supplies at the end of last year? Determine if they are in good enough shape to use again this year.  Items like scissors and rulers can be used for more than one school year. Before going school supply shopping, I always “shop” the plastic storage container under our bed with school supplies I have bought frugally over the last year, including the back to school clearance last September.  When it comes to clothes, look at hand-me-downs from the older siblings.

Hold a clothing swap: Holding a clothing swap in your neighborhood, religious organization, or club is an inexpensive way to find clothes for your children, share clothes with other families and clean out the kids closets. Give away what the kids no longer wear and take home clothing at no cost that is “new” for your kids.

Know where the deals are: Stores that offer excellent school supply sales include drug stores (especially with free after rebate deals), office supply stores (there will be plenty of items that are 1 to 10 cents) and big box stores. Each week I’ll post the best school supply deals on the blog so you can stock up now, even if your little ones don’t go back to school for more than a month.  Even some of the grocery stores will offer good deals.

DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT buy all your school supplies at one place. Many stores will be offering great loss leader buys starting in the next couple weeks. These sales involve selling a few items at really low price, where they may actually lose money to lead you into the store. They realize that once you are in the store, with your long school supply list, that you will be tempted to just get everything at that store so you can be done with the shopping. So, you end up paying $3.00 for a pair of scissors that you could have bought for FREE after rebate at one of the drug stores or office supply locations.

Price match to cut down on trips to different stores. Target, Walmart, Staples, Office Depot and Office Max all price match identical items (same brand and size) so bring in the competitor ads and save yourself some time. Some of the best deals are on store brand items, which you won’t be able to price match, but there are always some excellent buys on name brand items like crayons and colored pencils. You can read the various price match policies at the links in the box above.

Buy a few extra supplies for later in the year. By February, kids often run out of paper, pencils, notebooks, etc and need new ones. They will not be 10 cents during Valentine’s Day, so now is the time to stock up. February is when I go shopping in the storage container under the bed that I mentioned earlier.

Hit the tax-free holiday held August 2 – August 4, 2013 in NC. School supplies and clothing with a sales price of $100 or less per item are included in the tax-free weekend.   Sports equipment and computers are also included. For all the details on items that are exempt from tax see the NC Department of Revenue website at the link in the box above. Also keep in mind that many school supplies will be much less expensive on other weeks so don't wait to buy on the tax-free weekend when you can get some of those same items for much less with back-to-school sales in the coming weeks.

Don’t assume you need to buy name brands. Often, the brand name crayons, colored pencils or glue sticks are twice the price of the generic brands. Some will argue (and have commented in years past ), that some brands work much better than others.  The good news is that even the name brands go on sale during these next 8 weeks so look for those sales on the brands you love.

Let the kids contribute. If there is a particular item your child wants for back to school, but doesn’t really need, let your child know that he can buy it with his own money. If he really wants it, then he can have it….at his own expense. If there is an item he needs but he wants a more expensive version than another one that is just as good, let him know that he can have the more expensive version if he pays the difference with his own cash. I have done this a few times with my teenage daughter and it works beautifully. She often chooses to keep her money and opt for the less expensive item that mom is willing to pay for in full.

Use your rewards. Many credit card companies and retailers offer rewards like gift cards and rebates when you buy qualifying items. You may be able to cash in your Visa reward points for a Walmart , Staples or Target gift card that can be used to lower your out of pocket cost for school supplies.

Hit the clearance sales after school starts. By mid-September, stores are marking down school supplies and that’s a great time to do a little more stocking up for later in the year and even for the next year.

Consider buying a few extra of the very best deals for those who can’t. There are usually a couple kids in each class whose parents are unable to afford their child’s school supplies. When you find 2 pocket folders, crayons and pencils packs for 5 - 10 cents each, that’s a great time to buy a few extra to give to the teacher for those kids who don’t have any supplies.

The key when buying school supplies is to only buy what you need and shop the best deals each week until school starts. With a little patience and a few extra trips, you can save hundreds, which you will need for the back to school clothes, sports gear and instrument rentals!  As I always say, it’s your money – spend it wisely!

Please share any other back-to-school saving tips you have!


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  • scoutmomof2 Jul 9, 2013

    I have always been good about buying extra for the class for those kids whose parents either can't or won't buy them. I still do it for teachers who are friends of mine.

    Also keep in mind that teachers have different limits on the sale items then normal customers at a lot of the stores. So if you are a teacher always ask (sometimes it is substantially higher).

  • scoutmomof2 Jul 9, 2013

    I am so happy my kids are in college and out of the school system where they dictate what supplies they need. I had a few pet peeves about that. One year my oldest was really stressed out because his teacher wanted them to have a pink folder and we couldn't find them anywhere (really???? If you are going to be that specific and it is that difficult to find, let the parent know where to get it). I finally gave up and got a red one and in big black letters wrote "PINK" across it, gave it to my son and told him to have his teacher call me if she had a problem with that. The second one and this is huge, I always try to get everything on the list and used to even send in extra. What a lot of the teachers I found did was collect the supplies from the kids and divy them up. The problem is that a couple of those years my kids were using used IBM and CISCO folders??? Really, I bought their supplies and they get to use used supplies that didn't meet the criteria on the list.

    I have always been

  • Faye Prosser - Smart Shopper Jul 8, 2013

    stephlw - I would love your help! Send me an e-mail at :-)

  • bparrish004 Jul 8, 2013

    Last year the community ministry I am involved with gave away 300 bags of back to school supplies at our local elementary school. Our group was there on "open house" night and each child that attended got a bag and they were able to register to win one of the 15 back packs full of school supplies. We drew winners at the end of the night. Extra supplies were left at the school office to distribute as needed. It was a blessing to be able to be part of this and to see the thankful reactions of the adults. The teachers were super excited. Proud to say that my niece who just graduated from college will begin her teaching career at this school, the same school she attended. She's going to be a great 1st grade teacher! Our group plans to distribute school supplies again this year. Thanks Faye for good deals list that help us shop for these supplies!

  • rohu Jul 8, 2013

    Target is selling 3 ring binders right now for $3.50 and each binder contains additional Target-brand coupons ($5.00 worth) for school supplies. I was only buying the notebooks so I'm not sure if you could take them out at the checkout to use on other school supplies being purchased.

  • skkdouble Jul 7, 2013

    Staples offers a Back to School Discount card. You pay $10.00 for the card and it saves you 15% off all school and office supply. The card is good until September 21st. I bought the card and saved an addition $7.73 today. The card took 15% off the 1 cent paper. so it was a money maker.

  • stephlw Jul 7, 2013

    I think the biggest thing is looking at the list for the next grade NOW for those in year round. Last year I bought stuff that the 4th grade wanted for this past year and the supply list is very similar so I haven't had to buy anything for this year because I got it all free or very cheap at the sales last year. I store everything in a closet. Binders are so expensive but Staples had a ton of deals this past year where binders were free after rewards which saved us a ton of money. I was also able to outfit my good friends 3 kids with almost everything they needed for school this year as well. I donate a lot as well and give kids in my classroom stuff if needed.

    Faye -- if you need help with the deals list let me know. I send out an email to parents at my school that sign up for it and go through the major stores each week. Target has great regular prices (50 cent poly folders) but Walmart has the best price so far for Crayola crayons -- 50 cents. I LOVE school supplies!

  • grkmiley Jul 6, 2013

    Thank you Faye - This is such wonderful information. I'm very excited to see the sales over the next few weeks. Onward!

  • cmk617 Jul 6, 2013

    Faye, thanks for mentioning the idea of donating extra items to the classroom. I teach middle school and last year some people from my church donated supplies. We kept them in a file cabinet and handed them out to kids who needed them. This was so helpful! I spent $80 at Target this past week for my 2 kids' school supplies. With year-round school starting Monday, we don't always get the benefit of back-to-school sales. We do pick up extras when they are on special over the next month or so.

  • teacher56 Jul 6, 2013

    Also look to various churches in your area as many give away backpacks filled with supplies. Put in a request as soon as school begins with the school counselor...they usually have various supplies as well as backpacks and clothing items that can be given out to the needy.