Did you know the average cost of back to school spending for kids from K-12 is $634.78 per child? Whoa! That’s a lot, especially when several kids are involved. Do you also have a big kid going to college soon? That can make the regular back to school costs look like pocket change. The National Retail Federation estimates that parents will spend $26.5 billion dollars on back to school items this year. That’s an increase of 5% from last year and these prices consistently rise.

Back to school is big business for many retailers and this is in part because many parents specifically put off “back to school” shopping until late in the Summer. The major retailers literally bank on people’s procrastination.

With all the fun activities and excitement of being out of school, it can be tempting to put these tasks off until the last minute, but there are some budgeting strategies that will allow you to save money and spread the extra spending out over the course of the year. Shopping this way ensures that these expenses don’t pack as hard of a punch.


The most important element to any budget is planning. Create a detailed list for each child of what they will need for the year ahead and update the list every time you make a purchase or their needs change.

You won’t just need the list of supplies the school hands out, you’ll also need to consider clothing, shoes, coats, backpacks, lunch boxes, gym uniforms, electronic tablets or computers and any supplies needed for extracurricular activities. If you child plays a sport, this will take up a large portion of your budget.

If you are going to use a credit card for purchases keep all back to school purchases on one card. Pay it off on time to get cash back rewards or points. Only do this if there is an incentive or savings to do so, otherwise stick to paying cash.

Only purchase what you truly need and will use. A “good deal” isn’t so great if you end up spending money on extra items that go to waste.

Pool Resources

Early summer is a great time to organize a back to school swap meet in your neighborhood or among your church group. During the meet, participants gather and exchange gently used clothing that has been outgrown, extra supplies from the previous year, sports equipment and more.

If you can’t arrange for a swap, be sure to use the summer months to shop garage sales, flea markets and rummage sales to find good prices on clothing, books and even future college dorm items. Thrifting is a great way to find items for your dorm room up to a year in advance.

In our district, elementary schools in particular have very long supply lists, but without fail, my kids come home with extras at the end of the year. We save these items for the following year or use them as part of an exchange. It doesn’t make sense to always purchase more than we need 2 weeks before school starts.

Take advantage of social media! Craigslist and Facebook marketplace allow you to list items for sale you no longer need and you can often find good deals. Many towns and neighborhoods have their own Facebook groups. These are good resources for seeking needed items and selling or trading. Always practice safety when meeting with buyers/sellers, but don’t underestimate this resource.

Retail Shopping Tips

Shop end of summer sales for basics like short sleeve shirts. These “summer clothes” can still be worn well into the fall and even winter months in many areas. Short sleeved t-shirts with a favorite character or logo can be layered over a solid colored long-sleeve shirt when it gets colder.

Many states do a “tax free” holiday in the summer specifically for back to school purchases. This is the best day to do your local shopping.

After the holidays, stock up on items like socks and winter clothing. Purchase the next size up when they are on clearance so you have them for the following year.

Online shopping can save money, not to mention time, vs. running around to multiple locations. If you have Amazon Prime already, take advantage of it year round for school items.

Use apps like ebates or befrugal to earn cash back on certain purchases. Befrugal.com is free to add on to your browser. You can earn up to 10% cashback on online purchases from major retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Staples and more. I used this to get my son a new pair of shoes on Amazon. I saved more money than I would have at the store and I get a few percent back. With multiple purchases made each year, it makes sense to have a cashback app so long as you only use it for items you would have purchased anyway and not for frivolous spending. Be mindful and it’s a great way to save.

When visiting retail stores, shop at locations that use price matching to get more items in the same place and avoid multiple trips.

Dollar stores are not the best place for school supplies. You can find better prices on many items at other locations. Glue might be 50 cents somewhere else. Look for the best prices and save more.

Wait a few weeks when possible. Labor day sales mean good bargains on summer clothing, furnishings and many electronics. If you can wait, shop these sales a few weeks after school starts. Many times there are school supplies on clearance where they are marked down even further to make room for incoming holiday merchandise. This is the best time to stock up on notebooks, folders, and other things that can be easily stored away for the following year.

It’s also important to remember sometimes less isn’t more. A cheap backpack purchased at the box store will likely mean having to replace it mid-year. Instead, spend a bit more for a better brand and you’ll get at least one full year and sometimes 2 from one purchase.

If your child takes lunch, avoid “single serving packs” they are always more expensive per ounce. Buy in bulk and create your own packs. Get a reusable bottle or thermos for drinks and quit purchasing juice boxes. Lunches are a huge expense for many due to poor planning and using disposable items.

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For college students, think “good enough” and not top of the line when it comes to things like laptops. Do you really need that MacBook that costs a couple of grand Or can you make a more inexpensive laptop work. This can apply to phones too. Do you really need the newest model the instant it comes out? Your kids may try to convince you that they do, but do your research first. Most classes don’t require resource intensive software. Even if they do, use the computer labs for that work.

Freeware and open source software can save you a bundle. I use LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office. It’s free, completely compatible with office documents and has all the features I need to run my business. GIMP is a great free alternative to Photoshop. I also use Inkscape instead of Illustrator. With a bit of research it’s simple to find free and low cost alternatives to pricey software.

The Google Suite is also used in many schools. Google docs and a considerable amount of drive space are 100% free, simple to use and easily shareable with classmates and teachers.

Put several people on one phone plan and split the bill. Many carriers offer discounts for additional lines.

Save on College Textbooks

Renting textbooks can be a much less expensive proposition than purchasing books from your college bookstore. Chegg.com is a top resource for textbook rentals.

This is one time it may pay to wait rather than purchase or rent prior to classes starting. In several of my classes for example, instructors were required to have a text book for the course, but seldom used it. There were a few classes where I was able to get away without the textbook because of this and a few classes where I wasted a couple of hundred dollars on books I didn’t need.

Procrastination is often costly, but this is one time where it sometimes pays to take a bit of a gamble if you are not positive how much that book will be used. Can you get the same information from other less expensive resources? Are you doing a more hands-on course where the printed material is secondary? Everyone’s experience will be different, but be mindful and perhaps consider renting a book after the class has started and you know exactly how much (if at all) you will truly use it.

Back to school doesn’t have to be a last minute burden. Proper planning and timing will help you budget effectively and save money throughout the year.

About Christin Sander

Christin is a simple living, frugal, DIY enthusiast who loves showing others how to live their best by embracing simplicity. She works full time as a freelance writer and artist.


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