How to Save Money on Back-to-School Shopping

Smart tips and strategies to make back-to-school shopping easier on your wallet

back to school supplies
Saving on school supplies is easy with a few smart tips. Slobodan Vasic/Getty Images

As every parent with a child in school knows, back-to-school shopping can take a toll on your family's budget. But these smart money-saving tips can help ease the financial strain of getting ready for back to school.

1. Take stock of what you already have.
Sort through your child’s things to see what can be reused. Is that clipboard still in good shape? Does he still have notebooks or folders from the previous year that can be used or pads of paper that still have blank pages?

By gathering up the things that you already have, and in some cases, making it look like new by decorating it with washi tape or stickers, you accomplish several things: You save money, you are organizing your home, and you are being kinder to the environment by reusing and buying less.

2. Set up a school supply savings jar.
Every new school year, your child will probably have some hefty expenses for, say, a pricey calculator or a rental fee for a musical instrument. Be prepared for the big and small expected and unexpected expenses by setting up a separate fund for school necessities. It can be as simple as a jar into which you put in spare change from your wallet every day. Before you know it, you'll have money saved up to cover this year's expenses, and possibly the next's.

3. Steer clear of cheap items.
This may seem counter-intuitive given the fact that we are talking about saving money.

But if you buy a cheap backpack that doesn’t make it through the school year, then that bargain will end up costing you more money in the end. Stick to name brands such as Lands’ End, LL. Bean or JanSport and High Sierra, which are more likely to be used for years and can even be handed down to younger siblings.

4. Search out store brands.
Office supply stores such as Staples often feature their own brand of notebooks, paper, and other school supplies at a lower price than name brands at mass retailers such as Wal-Mart.

5. Arrange a back to school swap.
Gather your friends and relatives with kids of approximately similar ages and have them bring fairly new or unused school supplies and clothes that can be exchanged. Your child may love a barely-used backpack that a cousin doesn’t want, or a friend of hers might want to exchange clothing with her. It’s fun and smart way to save money and reuse items.

6. Take advantage of back-to-school sales tax breaks.
Many states offer sales tax breaks on back to school supplies. Some states such as Illinois offer significant tax reductions -- 1.25 percent rather than the usual 6.25 percent -- on everything from coats to rulers to glue. The drawbacks: Each state has specific laws (some states limit the tax breaks to school supplies under $20 or $10, or limit breaks on clothing to items under $100, for example).

And many have blink-and-you’ll-miss-it back to school sales tax break weekends rather than an extended period of a week or more.

7. Don’t buy everything early.
Buy what you need for the first day of school but don’t buy too much for the rest of the year. Some items, such as pencils and pens, might be useful to stock up on if there is a great sale. But since many stores overstock on items, you may actually be able to find some bargains by scanning for sales after the back to school rush is over.

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