Tips for Smart Back-to-School Shopping

By Tracey Dowdy

School supply displays have been in stores pretty much since school got out last term and retailers have been targeting you and your kids all summer with what’s trending. That marketing has made an impact and your kids know exactly what backpack, tech, and clothes they want for this Fall – and I bet you do too because you’ve probably heard it a thousand times.

Sixty percent of parents say their kids influence at least half of their back-to-school purchases, which explains Money Magazine’s findings that parents with school age children will spend an average of $630.36 on back-to-school shopping, earning retailers a whopping $24.9 billion.

But before you panic, take a few minutes to review these tips to keep both your kids and your budget under control:

1. Before you step foot outside the door, set the ground rules. Grab your list, let your kids know how much flexibility there is and what you’re willing to spend, and whether you’re going to splurge on extras. Set boundaries like “You can have a new lunchbox or a new outfit” or “You can choose one item with characters or a name brand logo.” It’ll cut down on in-store meltdowns and save you both frustration in the store.

2. eBates splits the commission they receive from retailers with you so you get cash back for online purchases. Right now they’re offering special back-to-school deals with double cash back for purchases from retailers like Lenovo, Old Navy, and Staples.

3. Sites like giftcards.com often offer cards at a 5-10% discount and when layered with in-store sales and coupons those gift cards translate into significant savings.

4. Take an inventory of what you have so you don’t end up buying items you don’t need. Good quality backpacks and lunchboxes can sometimes last more than a year and some of what your fifth grader used last year can be passed down to your seconder grader. I have a drawer of random pens and pencils, odd sharpeners and rulers, so I always “shopped” at home before shopping in-store.

5. Buy your basics in bulk to stock up for the year. Items like paper, pencils, erasers and tape all go on sale as soon as school starts and stocking up in September means you’re set for the rest of the school year.

6. Make sure you pay attention to what’s approved and not allowed based on the list sent home by teachers or the school. Some teachers specify the exact calculator they need or may not allow notebooks with cartoon characters. Paying attention the first time means you won’t have to go back and replace items.

7. Instead of sending in the entire supply list at once, send in only what’s needed at the beginning of the school year. A smaller supply tends to make kids more conscious and less likely to lose or give everything away. Re-stock the supplies as needed throughout the year.

8. Buy local or at least shop at mom and pop shops when you can. We all love a bargain and school supplies can add up but buying from local stores rather than the big box retailers will stimulate your local economy and help a neighbour at the same time.

9. Let your kids buy the trendy items with their own money. If they absolutely have to have that Star Wars backpack or Minions lunchbox, let them pay for it out of their allowance or savings. Having them spend their own money on an item will make them think twice about what they really need and will make them less careless about losing the item or treating it poorly.

10. Take the time to network with other parents to find the best deals, find out which lunchbox stands up to the wear and tear of an 8 year old, or where to find that one style of folder your 13 year old insists on. There are Facebook groups, online discussions and parent/caregiver groups connected to your child’s school.

11. Mail in those rebate coupons. Don’t choose a product for the rebate if you’re not going to take the time to mail it in. Those rebates add up and it only takes a few minutes to complete the information – and it feels like free money when that check arrives in the mail!

12. Wait to buy clothes until after school starts. I know it’s all about the first day of school but most of the best deals come later in September. Items like boots, denim jeans, sweaters and coats always come with bigger discounts later in the fall.

13. Many states offer tax-free days, so make sure you take advantage of those opportunities. Again, stacking your deals – coupons, rebates, in-store sales – coupled with tax-free shopping can mean big bucks.

14. Consider shopping earlier next year. Many schools send home the next year’s supply list at the end of the year, so once those school supplies hit the shelves in June start stocking up a little at a time. Retailers rotate sale items on a weekly basis so chances are you’ll be able to scoop up deals throughout the summer.

15. Finally, make the whole experience a teachable moment. Help your kids to understand basic marketing principles, like where items are placed in the store to get their attention – e.g. the most kid-appealing products are displayed at their eye level. Teach them the difference between wanting something and needing something – “You need gym shoes” vs. “You don’t need $200 gym shoes.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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