10 Tips for Back-to-School Shopping on a Budget

Long before COVID, another pandemic would hit America every August – the Back-To-School Blues. After a blissful summer, countless kids grumbled about having to return to class.

Now there’s a new strain and it’s afflicting parents. Their problem isn’t having to go back to school. It’s having to pay for it.

“Back-to-school shopping is stressful even in the best economic times,” said Matt Schulz, LendingTree’s chief credit analyst.

Anyone who’s ventured near a grocery store or gas station can tell you these are not the best economic times. That same inflation has hit school supplies, and millions of parents are struggling to cope both financially and emotionally.

About 75% of consumers are stressing out over back-to-school costs, according to a Lending Tree survey of 2,000 parents. That’s understandable, but do not despair. It may be hard to beat the inflationary Back-To-School Blues, but there are ways to mitigate it.

How Bad Are the BTS Blues?

The National Retail Federation (NRF) projects families will spend $864 on back-to-school items this year. That’s $168 more than 2019.

A Deloitte study says families will spend $661 per child. That’s up 37% from 2021.

But Lending Tree’s survey says families with students 18 or younger will spend $409, which is $89 less than a year ago. So, who knows?

The truth is that costs vary from household to household. But no matter who you are, getting kids ready for the opening school bell isn’t going to be cheap.

The retail analytics firm DataWeave priced a basket of 12 school supply items and found the haul cost 15% more than last year. Backpack prices are up 12% and average $70.

Adding to the whammy is the fact most households have less disposable income. Millions of parents received $1,400 supplements for every dependent as part of federal COVID relief packages. That check is no longer in the mail, and neither are tax credit allowances.

“Lots of families are going to have to make some real sacrifices and have some uncomfortable conversations this back-to-school shopping season,” Schulz said.

College Sticker Shock

Those conversations could be especially uncomfortable with college students. The NRF projects families will spend a total of $37 billion on high school students and younger. That jumps to $74 billion for college students.

They require more than pens, pencils, notebooks, and new shoes. College students need everyday household essentials like bedding, detergent, toothbrushes, electronics, snacks, and Che Guevara posters for the dorm room wall.

The only good news is if they live on campus, they probably won’t have to buy a lot of $5-a-gallon gas to get to class.

Back-to-School Shopping Tips

Back-to-school buying is more like going to the grocery store than Christmas shopping. The items are necessities, which makes it harder to scrimp and save.

A successful excursion largely depends on two things – having a budgeted plan and the resolve to carry it out. Here are some specifics that should help ease the pain.

  1. Don’t fly blind: Make a list of everything you need, then assess how badly they are needed. Does your kid have to have the 240-count pack of Crayola crayons, or will the 24-count pack suffice?
  2. Inventory what you already have: You may have a 24-count pack of crayons stashed in a closet, or some notebooks and binders in a desk drawer. School supplies usually don’t have expiration dates, so anything you find can and should be used.
  3. Take a Holiday: Nineteen states offer sales-tax holidays for school-related items. To see if and when your state offers such a tax break, check the Federation of Tax Administration’s website.
  4. Make a Trade: If you have friends with older kids, see if they’re willing to trade books, uniforms, calculators or other school supplies that their kids have graduated from.
  5. Be Cheap: There is no law requiring students to have a new lunchbox or backpack every school year. If such items are still functioning, keep using them.
  6. Don’t Be Too Cheap: Don’t send your kid to school in worn-out shoes. Just don’t feel the need to buy $200 Air Jordans when $40 Pumas are available.
  7. Be Patient: Labor Day Weekend is a big time for sales. If you can, wait until then to shop for items like electronics. Wait even longer for seasonal items. If your kid needs a new winter coat, there’s no need to buy it in August unless it’s on sale.
  8. Shop Around: There are bargains to be had. For instance, Walmart has priced 100 school supplies at less than $1, including scissors, notebooks, and crayons. Kohl’s has dozens of backpacks marked down 25%, and Levi’s clothes are 40% off.
  9. Join Loyalty Clubs: Target offers a 20% student discount for loyalty program members. The Container Store offers a 15% discount that increases to $25% for orders over $200.
  10. Plan Ahead: When you’ve finished this year’s shopping, resolve to start saving for next year. The long-range economic forecast isn’t very sunny, so put a few dollars into a piggy bank every week.

That won’t cure next year’s Back-To-School Blues. It will hopefully make them a lot less stressful than this year’s version.

Tom Jackson focuses on writing about debt solutions for consumers struggling to make ends meet. His background includes time as a columnist for newspapers in Washington D.C., Tampa and Sacramento, Calif., where he reported and commented on everything from city and state budgets to the marketing of local businesses and how the business of professional sports impacts a city. Along the way, he has racked up state and national awards for writing, editing and design. Tom’s blogging on the 2016 election won a pair of top honors from the Florida Press Club. A University of Florida alumnus, St. Louis Cardinals fan and eager-if-haphazard golfer, Tom splits time between Tampa and Cashiers, N.C., with his wife of 40 years, college-age son, and Spencer, a yappy Shetland sheepdog.

A young girl holding school supplies


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    1. Delfino, D., (2022, July 9). 75% of Parents Stressed About Paying for Back-to-School Shopping, Up 12% From Last Year. Retrieved from: https://www.lendingtree.com/credit-cards/study/back-to-school-shop/
    2. N.A. (2022, July 14). Families Prioritize Back-to-School and College Spending Amidst Rising Inflation. Retrieved from: https://nrf.com/media-center/press-releases/families-prioritize-back-school-and-college-spending-amidst-rising
    3. N.A. (ND). 2022 Deloitte back-to-school survey. Retrieved from: https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/retail-distribution/back-to-school-survey.html.html
    4. Goldsmith, B. (2019, September 16). Back-to-School Blues. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-fitness/201909/back-school-blues