Back to School on a Budget

School supply lists have grown and with them, the price of preparing for a new school year. But with some advance effort, you and your child can be ready for the school year without breaking the bank. Here are 10 ways to make the most of your money during back-to-school shopping.

1. Take Inventory

Before you hit the store, make sure to do a deep clean to see what you can come up with around the house. A little rummaging could result in deep savings. Make it a game, involving your children by placing a basket in a central location and giving each family member a zone to search (looking for items such as pencils, pens, highlighters, rulers, crayons, art supplies, notebooks and Post-Its). The person who finds the most wins! Only after you assess what you currently have in your home should you build a list of items to actually buy at the store. Likewise, do an inventory within your kids’ closets to see what they’ve outgrown and what, if anything, can be passed down. By doing a little decluttering, you make room for new items but also get a better idea of what clothing items will be necessary for the upcoming school year.

2. Build a Budget and Stick to It

Christmas always falls on Dec. 25, yet the cost of holiday shopping comes as a tremendous surprise for lack of a plan. Back-to-school shopping is no different. One of the best ways to stay within budget is to actually build one in advance. Track your spending from previous school years to determine a realistic amount to allocate for the upcoming year (make sure to provide margin for miscellaneous expenditures). According to the National Retail Federation, parents are spending 55 percent more on back-to-school purchases than they were a decade ago (not surprisingly, the Rubicon Project’s Back-to-School Consumer Pulse Survey confirms that 61 percent of parents expect to pay more this year than the previous one).

Back-to-school budgeting is a great way to introduce your child to financial planning, given the immediate personal impact it leaves. Let your student help with building a plan while encouraging him to make smart decisions. Use a cash system to give a sense of finality when all is said and done (both debit cards and credit cards can give a false sense of security when limits are breached), and evaluate needs vs. wants. If your budget doesn’t allow for excess, communicate that you will provide for needs, but your child will have to cover additional purchases. And don’t underestimate the power of simply saying no. Teaching the importance of staying within a budget empowers kids to make smart financial decisions long term.

3. Think Long Term and Buy Accordingly

Some items are worth splurging for while others are not. Backpacks, for instance, may be worth a little investment. By purchasing a good quality one with a lifetime guarantee, you may spend more up front, but in the long run you’ll save quite a bit by not having to replace it year after year.

4. Buy in Bulk

Oftentimes, buying in bulk at wholesalers like Costco or Sam’s Club is cheaper than hitting seasonal sales elsewhere. If you need 100 Ticonderoga pencils to make it through the school year, a bulk buy is for you! But if you don’t, a bulk buy could still be a smart choice. After all, by going in with a few friends or family members on a bulk purchase, you can divide the price and items evenly and all come out ahead.

5. Hit the Dollar Store

If you aren’t already a frequenter of dollar stores, now is the time to start. Office supplies and paper goods are one of the best finds within dollar stores. From planners to protractors, construction paper to index cards, the dollar store has many must-have school supply items already cheaper than seasonal sales.

6. Shop on Tax-Free Weekend

Missouri’s tax-free weekend falls on the first weekend in August and covers clothing, school supplies and computers.

7. Consolidate Your Shopping to One Location

Tracking down the best deals might not actually be a good deal if you find yourself traipsing across town, hitting multiple stores. Look for one-stop venues where you can hit multiple stores within walking distance, such as Legends Outlets or Summit Fair.

8. Utilize Online Cash Back Programs

If you prefer to shop online, use a program such as Ebates to do so. Ebates acts as a shopping gateway of sorts, allowing you to purchase from large retailers like Walmart and Kohl’s all while giving you 6 percent cash back on your purchases. Shoppers also receive exclusive coupons, offers and free shipping. The average Ebates user earns more than $300 in the course of the year, a hefty chunk of change that can be used to cover school supplies.

9. Use Gift Cards

If you’re sitting on unused gift cards to stores you seldom frequent, exchange them for ones you can use for back-to-school shopping. Sites like, Gift Card Granny and CardCash provide buy/sell gift card services (and you can find gift cards up to 25 percent off face value!).

10. Timing Is Everything

Late July and early August are peak time for back-to-school sales. But if you can resist the urge, wait it out for even greater savings. Many retailers, in an attempt to regain shelf space, will place items on clearance within the month. Although this strategy doesn’t play well when specific items are needed, it can be a great way to stockpile for the upcoming school year.


Lauren Greenlee is a school supply junkie, a boy mom and a freelance writer hailing from Olathe.

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