The list of required school supplies varies by grade and school, but there are staples that nearly every child needs. With a few sharp tactics, shopping for school supplies can be less of a financial strain especially for those parents raising a child on a budget. Here are 10 ways to save during this upcoming back-to-school season.
We compared prices on five basic classroom supplies -- pencils, loose-leaf paper, glue sticks, crayons, and three-ring binders -- at Costco, Walmart, Target, and Amazon. Costco and Walmart were competitive, with each leading on two of the five items. While Amazon had the best price on glue sticks (a pack of six Avery sticks for $2), Target led in none of the categories. It means parents might have to shop around, maybe going to Costco for Dixon Ticonderoga HB #2 pencils, which sell in 96-packs for $15.39, and Crayola crayon, which sell in 12-packs for $9, but to Walmart for a dozen 1-inch Office Impressions binders for $18.60 and 500 sheets of loose-leaf paper for $2.50. Maybe nearly 100 pencils or a dozen binders sounds like overkill, but these bulk buys can be split among everyone in the family, or with a neighbor or friend.
August is the most popular month for buying school supplies but isn't always the best. Although big-ticket items such as laptops tend to be at their lowest prices, a lot of school supplies go on clearance in September as demand tapers off. Moreover, coupons often trickle out over several weeks, so penny-pinching parents may want to wait to fulfill each item on the list until the relevant coupon appears (and combine coupons with store sales to save even more). On the other hand, when ordering school supplies online, don't wait until the last minute. Expedited shipping fees can wipe out any savings.
Some of the best sales on school essentials, including clothing, arrive too late to take advantage for the current year. But frugal parents can stock up on things they know for sure children will need next year (and won't expire in the meantime); check with the school for guidance. This definitely requires some forward thinking but has the potential for a big payoff.
This is particularly important for families with several school-age children. Perhaps there are leftover pencils from last year, or perhaps a pencil box that a particular teacher requested for the first child can be recycled for the second. To make the sorting-out easier, combine new items with leftover supplies in a designated tote or cabinet.
Many teachers provide a detailed list of required supplies for the school year, complete with unit counts and sometimes even specific colors. Take the list to the store and don't deviate from it, or risk blowing your budget. There are plenty of items that would be "nice to have" or your child "might need," but if they aren't on the list, don't open your wallet.
A child may want a new backpack or lunchbox, but if last year's are still in good condition, there's no need for replacements. When buying items that can be used year to year, consider making a deal at the start of school that these items are going to be used for the next two school years -- at least. The same can apply for pencil boxes, binders, and coats (if they still fit). Limiting the purchase of brand-name or endorsed items can also help teach children the value of money while improving the bottom line.
Some schools offer supply kits that are already stocked with the necessary items. Not only are they typically no more expensive than buying all the items separately, they save lots of time and energy. The kit shows up at the doorstep in advance or in the child's classroom on the first day of school.
Many retailers match competitors' prices on identical items. This saves shoppers the time and gas money it would take to run around to multiple stores to get the best prices. Just be sure you know the rules for successful price matching. For example, many stores require a competitor's ad as proof of the lower price.
The supplies are for the kids, but the kids can derail the plan and the budget as they spot things they insist they have to have, whether for school or not. Do the shopping alone instead, and keep the receipts in case of a meltdown, to save time, money, and a headache.