6 ways to save on back-to-school shopping

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The pandemic may be changing the way Americans shop for back to school, and the costs of social distancing appear to be taking their toll.

Households with kids in grades K-12 are expected to spend $789.49 per family for the 2020-2021 school year, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). That’s up just more than $90 from the $697 families spent on average last year. Conversely, families of college students are expected to spend an average of $1,059.20 this year, compared to $976.78 last year.  

If you’re looking for ways to pay for school supplies and some “extras” like masks and hand sanitizer, it’s smart to keep your eyes open for deals. Here are some of the best ways to save money on school shopping this year whether you’re heading back to a physical school, e-learning at home or doing a combination of the two.

1. Take inventory in your home

Laurie Hise, founder of Passionate Penny Pincher, says the best deal on school supplies is the one you get for free. After all, it’s common for families to buy extra school supplies they never use then stash away and forget about.

“Shop your home first before heading out to buy school supplies,” Hise says. 

“See if you have highlighters, pens, pencils, notebooks and other school supplies saved up from past years before heading out to shop.”

If you have some items that match up with your back-to-school shopping list, mark them off and focus on the rest of the supplies you need.

2. Look for loss leaders

Hise recommends keeping an eye out for “loss leaders,” which are items stores advertise at low prices (or even at a loss) in order to lure customers into their stores. 

Stores like Walmart and Target offer big discounts on school supplies beginning in July that typically last until September, she says. But also watch for a few loss leader items each week at stores like Staples, Office Depot, and even Walgreens or CVS. Hise says you can expect to find items as low as 25 cents.

She also says to check out the Dollar Tree if you live near one. 

“The Dollar Tree has great prices on things you might not expect,” Hise says. “Pick up 1-inch binders for $1, get a two pack of Sharpie markers for $1 and look for manuscript tablets for kids there, too.”

3. Look for refurbished gadgets

Consumer finance expert Andrea Woroch says it’s no wonder back-to-school spending is up kids need their own devices if they will be doing video calls from home.

However, Woroch notes that you can save hundreds of dollars on a like-new computer for your kids by purchasing a refurbished model. 

“Just make sure you buy from a certified seller,” Woroch says, adding that eBay often has great options from Acer, Dell Outlet and more and they come with 90-day warranty, 30-day returns and are backed by eBay’s Money Back Guarantee. 

Woroch also recommends looking for refurbished or barely used items on OfferUp, a localized deal website where individuals buy and sell with people in their area. “You can find gently used desks, table lamps and other items you need to create that school zone in your home for a fraction of regular retail price,” she says. 

4. Comparison shop online

Whether you don’t want to go to the store in person or you just want to find good prices, comparison shop online. 

Tanya Peterson, vice president of brand and creative at Freedom Financial Network, says that so many sites make it easy to price items and find great deals. Check out Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Target.com and other similar sites, keeping an eye out for websites that may publish more back-to-school deals as Labor Day approaches. 

Just make sure your calculator is handy so you can get the best real deal, which means accounting for the cost of shipping, she says. 

5. Use cash back shopping portals

While you’re shopping for school supplies online, Freya Kuka, founder of Collecting Cents, recommends clicking through a shopping portal that lets you earn cash back. 

“Cashback websites like Rakuten and Ibotta are both amazing resources for parents who want to stock up on school supplies while keeping costs in mind,” she says. 

With Rakuten, you can also get a $10 bonus just for signing up, and the cash back you earn can come in the form of a check or payment through PayPal. 

6. Double up on rewards with a cash back credit card

If you plan to shop online or in-person, you can earn rewards that you can use to defray the costs involved in heading back to school. Just remember that getting the most of a rewards credit card requires you to pay your balance in full right away, so don’t pursue this option if you have a tendency to rack up debt.

Many cash back credit cards offer an initial bonus you can earn for meeting a minimum spending requirement, but you’ll also earn rewards for each dollar you spend. With the Chase Freedom Unlimited credit card, for example, you would earn a flat 1.5 percent back on back to school shopping and a $200 bonus when you spend $500 within three months. If you spent $790 on school supplies like the average family this year, you would earn $211.85 in cash back that you could redeem for statement credits to reduce the amount you owe. 

This is just one cash back credit card you could consider, so make sure to compare all the top rewards cards on the market today. Some let you earn more rewards in some stores where school supplies are especially prevalent, like at grocery stores or on Amazon.com. 

Bottom line

It’s almost time to head back to school, but you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg. With some careful planning and some time spent shopping around, you could shave some cash off of your school supply budget for 2020. 

Featured image by FotoAndalucia of Shutterstock.

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