50 Tips for Back-to-School Savings



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Learn All the Tricks

Families plan to spend an average of $519 per student this year on back-to-school expenses for kindergarten through high school kids, according to an annual survey by Deloitte, and total spending is projected to reach nearly $28 billion for the 2019 back-to-school season. With expenses sure to pile up in the near future, use these tips to help shave some costs right away, and in the months ahead.

Assuming Bulk is Best
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Buy Food in Bulk

Instead of going for single-serving packaged foods designed for school lunches, buy in bulk and portion out favorite foods in reusable containers. For example, on Walmart.com, a box of 30 individual 1-ounce portions of Cheez-It crackers comes to 34 cents an ounce. A family-size box of the same crackers is about 20 cents an ounce — more than 40% cheaper. 

Shop at Warehouse Clubs
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Shop at Warehouse Clubs

Whether you prefer Sam's Club or Costco, warehouse stores are the place to stock up. Although there are many perks of membership, consumers can sidestep the fee by shopping with a member as a guest and reimbursing the member for any purchases. To make this an even better deal, consider splitting bulk purchases of grocery items and school supplies.

Jansport Superbreak Backpack

Think Long Term

Try to buy supplies that can last children longer than a single school year, such as a good-quality backpack. A name-brand backpack such as a JanSport can cost $30 to $50 compared with $15 to $25 for a generic-brand backpack. However, as with most things, you get what you pay for. A good backpack will last at least one more school year, saving $15 to $25 that would otherwise be spent on a new backpack each year the bag is reused. Opting for a solid color or pattern, instead of favorite characters, can help ensure the backpack won't be declared "babyish" as a kid's interests change.

Swap Instead of Buying

Swap Instead of Buying

Check websites such as Swap.com and Gumtree to see if someone else has something your children need. The Freecycle Network claims to have 9 million members around the world interested in recycling goods. A quick search on Freecycle uncovered plastic clothes hangers, language study books, and an office chair, all for free. Picking up all those items could easily save $100 or more.

Amazon Can't Be Ignored

Never Pay for Shipping

Check out FreeShipping.org, search online for free shipping codes, and check for special offers in RetailMeNot's free shipping section. Avoid small online purchases that don't reach the minimum threshold for free shipping. On Amazon, the magic number is $25, and at Target, it's $35.

Stores With Strict Holiday Return Policies

Ask About Return Policies

Be sure a backpack or graphing calculator bought at a discount can be returned if necessary. Check store policies to see how long you have to bring back an item and whether a receipt is required to make the return.

Use Cash-Back Apps

Shop With a List

Many schools enumerate all the supplies recommended for the year. Stick to that list in the store to avoid buying things children don't need or going over budget. (Shopping without the kids can also help.) Some schools offer boxes of the needed supplies, which are sold at bulk rates and completely eliminate the possibility of an extra item or two sneaking its way into the cart.

Share Back-To-School Expenses

Share Back-to-School Expenses

Go in with a classmate, neighbor, friend, or family member to share costs for music lessons, parking passes, or a cellphone plan. An "unlimited basic" phone plan with Sprint costs $60 a month, but a second line with the same carrier costs $40 — and third, fourth, and fifth lines cost nothing extra. Sprint caps the plan at $100 whether you have two or five lines. Divided equally among four people, a $100 monthly bill becomes $25 apiece.

Kids Eat Free Houston

Don't Pay for Kids' Meals Out

As your family's schedule gets busier, research which area restaurants offer kids-eat-free specials. There might be a nearby deal for any night of the week that's too hectic for preparing dinner. Most offers involve buying one adult entree and receiving a kid's meal for free. A family of four could save, on average, $12 to $15 a meal by eating out only on nights when children eat free.

Programmable Thermostat

Put on a Sweater

As the weather starts to get cooler, resist the urge to crank up the thermostat. Lower the temperature at night, when everyone's snug under the covers, or install a programmable thermostat so no one has to remember to manually do it. Setting the thermostat back 7 to 10 degrees for eight hours every day could save as much as 10% on your heating and cooling bills every year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. 

LED Light Bulbs

Replace Light Bulbs

As the days get shorter and you need more artificial light in the evenings, switch out any traditional incandescent light bulbs that you may still have for LEDs to get 25 times the longevity. A traditional light bulb costs around $1 and lasts about 1,200 hours. An LED can cost up to $8 but last up to 25,000 hours. The initial price may be higher, but if an incandescent bulb has to be replaced every year and an LED could last more than 20 years — while using less electricity — by one estimate you could save more than $150 over the lifespan of the LED.

Be Strategic About Filling the Tank

Be Strategic About Filling the Tank

Think about where to stop for gas — the cheapest station or the closest? If the cheapest is far away, it won't necessarily save money. Download a gas app like GasBuddy to help find the best place to top up.

You'll Only Do Laundry as a Last Resort
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Do Less Laundry

Don't get too excited — the idea here is to do a few large loads of laundry instead of many smaller ones. And skimp on detergent, even for those larger loads. An average detergent costs 50 cents per load. The average American family runs 400 loads of laundry per year — a cost of $200 a year in detergent alone. Using half the amount of detergent won't be noticeable in any way and can save you $100 each year.

Unplug to Save Energy

Unplug to Save Energy

Put the computer in "sleep" mode rather than "idle" and unplug electronics when they're not in use to save some money on your electric bill. The savings are typically small but could really add up when you consider how many electronics are in your home. Keeping a desktop computer on in "idle" mode costs an estimated $74 a year. "Sleep" mode takes the cost down to about $21. 

Go Generic

Go Generic

Simply switching to store brands for school-lunch staples and other grocery-store necessities can save money. Store-brand products such as Target's Market Pantry ketchup and Trader Joe's cottage cheese have proved indistinguishable from name brands, or even better, in taste tests.

Shop on Tax Holidays

Shop on Tax Holidays

More than a dozen states collect no sales tax on select merchandise on certain days at the end of July or early in August. The eligible items almost always include clothing and school supplies. This can save you up to 7% on purchases in the select categories.

Buy at the Right Time
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Buy at the Right Time

With retailers of all stripes advertising aggressive discounts, many school supplies are at their cheapest in August. Couple those sales with the tax holidays for even bigger savings on eligible items. For other purchases, though, it may be worth waiting for Labor Day clearance sales in September.


Use Free Software

There are open-source alternatives to many expensive software programs, including Gimp, a capable substitute for Adobe Photoshop. Using it would save the $21 a month for an Photoshop subscription.

Take Advantage of Scholarships

Take Advantage of Scholarships

Students headed to college should treat applying for scholarships as a job. Hunt for college scholarships online and get advice from the school guidance counselor. Schools have academic scholarships available, but many companies offer private scholarships. AAA, for example, offers $100 and $1,000 scholarships to college students who are former Safety Patrol members. There are even many scholarships for students whose grades aren't top-notch.

Add AP and IB Classes to Students' Schedules

Take Advantage of AP and IB Classes

Taking college-level classes in high school, through the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, can cut down on the number of classes students have to take — and pay for — in college. The average cost of a college credit is nearly $600.

Evaluate Your TV Habits

Evaluate Your TV Habits

See if a streaming media player such as a Roku and services such as Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video offer enough programming to justify canceling a cable or satellite subscription. If not, try to get the company to reduce the bill. A Hulu subscription is $6 or $12 a month, Netflix costs $10 to $17 a month, and an Amazon Prime membership runs $119 a year (less than $10 a month). The total cost per month with these services' top-tier plans would be about $39, or $468 a year. An average cable bill runs about $107 a month, or $1,284 a year. This simple switch could save more than $800 a year.

Be Aware of Your Bank Account

Be Aware of Your Bank Account

Before ramping up back-to-school spending, sign up to get notifications when an account balance falls below a set amount, to avoid overdraft fees, or opt out of "overdraft protection." Otherwise the bank may charge up to $45 per item. Try to get overdraft fees refunded if you are a first-time offender.  

Coola: Cons

Pay With Hard Currency

Paying with cash instead of credit can force you to stay within a spending limit. There's something about having to hand over a stack of bills rather than a piece of plastic.

Consolidate Back-To-School Spending on a Single Credit Card

Consolidate Spending on One Rewards Card

If you do pay with credit, focus on one cash-back or rewards card, instead of diffusing your spending and earning power across several cards. This our back-to-school purchases are more likely to add up to meaningful rewards. Cards with rewards programs can earn you as much as 1.5% to 5% cash back on all purchases. That means spending $500 with a rewards card could easily save you $10 or more.

Apply for the National School Lunch Program
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Apply for the National School Lunch Program

The federal government provides free and reduced-price lunches and after-school snacks to millions of children. This offer is extended to families with income at or below 130% (for free lunch) or 185% (for reduced lunch) of the federal poverty level, which is around $25,000 a year for a family of four. School lunch can cost up to $3 per meal depending on geographic location. Free lunch would save $60 a month.

Buy a Coffee Pot

Remember What They Say About Lattes

After dropping off kids at school on another early, crazy morning, it's tempting to stop for a specialty coffee drink. Instead, order a small cup of regular — or, better yet, make morning coffee at home or at work. Saying "no" to a specialty drink can save about $1.50 a day, and not stopping at all can save up to $4 a day or $20 a week.

Pack Lunches in Reusable Containers

Pack Lunches in Reusable Containers

Go green to save money on school lunches. With lunchboxes and reusable containers, you don't have to buy plastic or brown paper bags all year, every year. You can get 500 paper bags for about $19 and 300 plastic sandwich bags for around $5, but a reusable lunchbox can be purchased for as little as $7 or $8 and used year after year. For just one year, that is a savings of about $15.

Eliminate Excuses to Eat Out

Eliminate Excuses to Eat Out

Pack lunches the night before and let a slow cooker get dinner ready while everyone's gone for the day. If you do go out for lunch, try picking up a lunch special to stretch into a dinner. When cooking, make enough to send for lunch the next day or turn leftovers into another dinner. Skipping a meal out can quickly save at least $10 per person.

Summer Fruit Cup Salad
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Preserve Summer's Bounty

While the market is still overrun with cheap, fresh fruits and vegetables, buy them in large quantities and can or freeze them to save money on meals. Save even more by growing your own produce.

Fast Food Menu Hacks

Observe National Food Holidays

Nearly every day and certainly every month marks some sort of national food celebration. Pay attention to the calendar and take advantage of promotions from food manufacturers and eateries year-round.

Look for Coupons Everywhere

Look for Coupons Everywhere

In the age of mobile coupon apps and websites, the newspaper circular is hardly the only place to look for bargains. Shoppers can print online coupons, or show them on a phone at some stores. Look for coupons on the back of ticket stubs, packaging, and receipts, especially grocery store receipts, and in mailers that appear to be junk. Throw away coupons for items you don't need, though, and avoid temptation.

Buy Only Items You Know Your Family Will Use
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Buy Only Items You Know Your Family Will Use

Don't buy something just because it's a good deal. Think about what's necessary for the coming year, and what will turn out to be useless. Why do children need an electric pencil sharpener, for instance, when there's one in every classroom?

Ask About Car Insurance Discounts
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Ask About Car Insurance Discounts

A teen with a new license can drive up rates, but many providers offer auto insurance discounts up to 20% for academic achievements such as a spot on the dean's list or even a B average. Companies including Allstate and Liberty Mutual also reduce premiums for students who complete the TeenSmart crash-reduction program. A 20% discount would save $20 a month on an average $100 insurance rate.

Ditch Bottled Water

Ditch Bottled Water

Individual bottles of water cost more than buying gallons of water. A home filtering system and reusable water bottles may cost more up front but save big in the long run. The average price range of a water filter pitcher is $15 to $35. A 12-pack of 8-ounce water bottles costs around $3. You could easily recoup the cost of the filtering system in as little as a few days or weeks, depending on the number of people in the household. Over time, this could save hundreds of dollars per year.

Consider Extended Product Warranties Carefully
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Consider Extended Product Warranties Carefully

Weigh the costs and benefits of paying extra for warranties on big-ticket items before signing on the dotted line. Not all are necessary, although there are some consumers who can benefit from extra protection.

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Remember the Power of Negotiation

Savvy shoppers can negotiate the price of some high-cost goods such as electronics, furniture, appliances, jewelry, and cars. Visit a store during non-peak hours when seeking to negotiate the best deal. Ask for better rates on monthly contracts such as gym memberships and phone service, as well.

Buy Secondhand Musical Instruments, Bicycles, and Exercise Equipment

Buy Secondhand Musical Instruments and Bikes

Kids outgrow and lose interest in these quickly, so it doesn't make sense to go all out for new models when used equipment is in plentiful supply. A new clarinet can cost around $400. A used one, however, can be purchased for about half that; sometimes even less.

Repurpose Instead of Buying New

Repurpose Instead of Buying New

Check the backs of closets and storage spaces before running out to the store or clicking "Add to Cart." Reusing, repurposing, and recycling are kind to the environment and your wallet.

Review Receipts
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Read the Fine Print on Price-Match Policies

Many retailers match competitors' prices — with a host of caveats. Still, shoppers who know the rules can save time and gas by shopping locally with ads in hand.

Know What to Buy at the Dollar Store
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Know What to Buy at the Dollar Store

Some items are a good deal at the dollar store and others are not. Dry-erase boards, storage containers, hangers, and plastic utensils are all good buys. Steer clear of dollar-store batteries, power cords, power strips, and anything else with a plug. Don't waste money on goods that just won't last or are woefully inferior.

Ken Wolter/shutterstock

Take Advantage of Student Discounts

Just showing a student ID can yield discounts on dinner, movie tickets, and clothing. Many clothing retailers offer savings of 15% or more.

Crazy Donuts You Have to Try

Cash in on Birthday Savings

Is there a birthday coming up in your family? Sign up for birthday freebies and coupons everywhere from the Children's Place to Dunkin' Donuts. You can score coupons, free food, and even cosmetics.

Visit the Doctor
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Establish Healthy Habits

When kids start a new school year, they tend to start sharing bacteria and viruses. But there are ways to avoid some common, school-sourced illnesses and save your family money and misery. Just walking in the door of the doctor's office costs most patients a $20 to $30 co-pay. Add the cost of prescription and over-the-counter medications, and each preventable illness could rack up a bill of $50 or more. 

Leverage Gift Cards

Pay With Gift Cards

Sites such as Gift Card Granny and CardCash sell unused gift cards online. Buy gift cards at a discount and use the full value at the stores you plan to frequent for school shopping.

Publish a Book

Comparison Shop for Textbooks

Instead of going to the bookstore, use textbook websites and apps to get the cheapest college textbooks. According to online vendors, you can save 40% to 90%.

Health Insurance

Review Your Health Insurance Plan

Open enrollment will begin before you know it. For Americans buying through the federal health insurance marketplace, the date is Nov. 1. Take the time to re-evaluate your coverage and consider your deductible. Determine if your current plan is still fitting your needs.

Start a Compost Pile
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Start a Compost Pile

Fall delivers dry leaves (brown material) to balance out kitchen scraps and other green material in a compost heap. Careful tending can create free fertilizer by next summer. A cubic yard of compost would cost an estimated $25 to $35 through a supplier.

Exercise Equipment

Skip the Gym

As the lazy days of summer wind down, there are ways to start working out at home for far less than the cost of a gym membership. Even purchasing a piece of home gym equipment like a treadmill can actually save money in the end. Assuming a price of $50 or $60 a month for gym membership, even a $1,000 treadmill would pay for itself within two years.

Be a Frugal Role Model

Be a Frugal Role Model

Back-to-school shopping is a chance to teach children about things like needs vs. wants and sticking to a budget. This can have at least as much impact as some of the knowledge they gain in school.

Diversify Your Portfolio

Try a No-Buy Month

The idea behind a no-buy month is to commit to purchasing only what's absolutely necessary. A Cheapism contributor who took the challenge saved hundreds of dollars each time. Try this in September instead of August for one less day of scrimping and a chance for your budget to recover from all the back-to-school spending.