Summer can be a particularly expensive time of year — the good weather has more people out and about, families with school-age kids tend to take their vacations during the summer break, and weddings, sporting events, and outdoor concerts fill calendars around the country.
These elevated summer expenses combined with a significant jump in the inflation rate —according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2022, clothing costs were up 5% year over year, and groceries were up 11.9% — are leaving some consumers dreading back-to-school shopping.
According to a National Retail Federation survey published in July 2022, consumers are steeling themselves for higher prices on back-to-school items and adjusting their shopping strategies accordingly.
Of those shopping for elementary and high school students, 43% said they would do more comparison shopping online to try and find the best prices, up from 28% in 2019. Thirty-five percent reported that they would purchase more generic items than they have in the past, up from 24% in 2019. And 24% said they’d be using more coupons, up from 20% in 2019.
If you’re hoping to save some money during the back-to-school season this year, these five tips from experts may help.
1. Create a budget and stick to it
Having a set number in mind before you start shopping can help you prioritize spending on what’s most important and prevent shelling out unnecessary cash on extras. Involve your kids in the calculations — this can be a great opportunity to teach them about spending within your means.
Once you’ve set your budget, figure out creative ways to get everything your kids need without exceeding it.
Melanie Hanson, editor in chief of education research organization EDI Refinance, recommended contacting your child’s teacher before heading out shopping. “In many cases, schools, grade levels, or subject matter departments will put out required supplies lists that don't exactly fit each teacher's requirements for their classrooms,” she said. “In many cases, checking with the teacher first will give you a chance to avoid buying a few things.”
Going forward, Hanson suggests encouraging your kids to save supplies at the end of each prior school year. “The end-of-year frenzy to clean out desks and lockers and get out of the building can lead to a lot of wasted supplies,” Hanson said. “Set clear expectations with your kids to take home anything they have left at the end of the year — and maybe grab anything that other kids were going to throw away.”
2. Use your network
“Reaching out to the community has always been a good strategy,” Andrei Vasilescu, co-founder and CEO at coupon site Dontpayfull, said. “If you have a Facebook account, you can join a ‘Buy Nothing’ group in your neighborhood.” The Buy Nothing Project is a global gifting economy with local chapters around the US and the world.
“You might not find everything on the school supply list, but you could get a new or gently used backpack and some other items,” Vasilescu said. He added that you should always use your local Buy Nothing group in the spirit it was intended. “It would be in good taste if you could, if at all possible, also donate anything you don't need in the future,” he said. “Someone else might be in the same position as you were previously.”
Another way to mobilize the power of your connections is to reach out to other parents in your children’s school who may also have sticker shock at the cost of school supplies this year. “If you have a network of friends with kids in the same school, consider joining forces, buying bulk, and splitting the costs,” Joel Ohman, a certified financial planner and CEO of insurance education and review site Clearsurance, said.
3. Know where to splurge and where to cut costs
Hanson said that distinguishing when to buy the best quality and when to go for the budget option can make a big difference.
“There's a big dichotomy in school supplies between the cheap consumables — like loose leaf paper and crayons — and the expensive, durable items, like calculators and scissors,” she said. “Spending more on the latter will get you products that will see your kids through years of school, while spending less on the former isn't going to lead to a huge loss in quality.”
For those items that fall under the “cheap consumables” category, you may want to check your local dollar store. “Surprisingly, dollar stores often have a school supplies section, so check there for pens, pencils, and other items from your list,” Ohman said.
4. For the things you absolutely have to buy and struggle to afford, use a 0% interest credit card
Of course, you want to avoid spending more than you have if possible, no matter the circumstance. But American families are feeling the pinch of higher costs at the gas station, the grocery store, and more. So many people may have no choice but to put their expenses on a credit card and pay it down over time.
If this is the route that makes the most sense for you, consider opening a balance-transfer card with a 0% interest rate for the initial promotional period. Many of these cards have promotional periods between a year and 21 months during which you’ll pay nothing in interest. That will free up extra money for you to chip away at your balance.
With any balance transfer card, you’ll want to make sure that you’ll be able to pay off the balance in full before the promotional period ends and the card starts charging interest.
5. Start now — and watch for sales
Back-to-school shopping may traditionally be an end-of-August activity, but this year, starting early could pay off. In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, 25% of back-to-school shoppers have already started.
“Start scanning store ads now,” Ohman said. “If you wait until the last minute, you’ll pay full price for everything, but if you keep your eyes on sales, you can pick up discounted items through the summer.”
Once you identify those sales, plan your shopping trips around them and keep an eye out for additional discounts.
“Look for manufacturers' coupons. They’re usually available in paper form in magazines and newspaper ads, but they’re also available in digital format from the manufacturer’s website,” Ohman said. “If you stack coupons with store sales, you’ll get hard-to-beat deals.”
Back-to-school items are likely going to take a bigger bite out of your budget this year than they have in years past. But with some creative budgeting and strategic shopping, you can get what you need without breaking the bank.
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