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9 ways to save on back-to-school shopping

A father and daughter go back-to-school shopping.
FotoAndalucia/Shutterstock
A father and daughter go back-to-school shopping.
FotoAndalucia/Shutterstock
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Back-to-school shopping may take a bigger bite out of families’ wallets in 2022, as decades-high inflation could mean you’ll pay more for everything from pencils to clothing to laptops.

The amount spent on back-to-school purchases has mainly been increasing since 2015, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). It surveyed households with kids in grades K-12, and reported they planned to spend an average of $848.90 for the 2021-2022 school year. This reflected an increase of $59 from the previous year.

Families of college students planned to spend an average of $1,200.32 on school items for the 2021-2022 year, according to the NRF. This was an increase of $141 over the previous year.

Keeping your back-to-school spending under control can be difficult when inflation is soaring, but you can help minimize costs with some careful planning and shopping around.

1. Take inventory in your home

It can be common for families to take advantage of big sales on school supplies by purchasing extra items for the future. Before heading out to the stores, look around for anything you may have bought in advance, as well as for any supplies that are left over from last year.

“Shop your home first before heading out to buy school supplies,” says Laurie Hise, founder of the Passionate Penny Pincher blog. “See if you have highlighters, pens, pencils, notebooks and other school supplies saved up from past years before heading out to shop.”

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, Hise 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.

3. Look for refurbished electronics

Budgeting blogger Andrea Woroch says it’s no wonder back-to-school spending is up — kids need their own devices.

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 shoppers can find refurbished computers made by Acer, Dell and more on eBay, and some models come with warranties that are backed by eBay’s Money Back Guarantee.

Woroch also recommends looking for refurbished or barely used items on OfferUp, a website where people buy and sell items locally. “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

Comparison shopping online can help you save money, and it can also save you the time and effort of driving from store to store in search of the best prices.

Tanya Peterson, vice president of brand at Freedom Financial Network, says that many sites make it easy to price items and find great deals. Check out Amazon, as well as the websites of retailers such as Walmart and Target, keeping an eye out for more back-to-school deals as the start of the school year approaches.

When comparison shopping, have your calculator handy so you can determine the best deal, which includes accounting for the cost of shipping, Peterson says.

5. Use cash back shopping portals

While you’re shopping for school supplies online, Freya Laskowski, founder of personal finance blog 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 when you sign up and place a qualifying order, and the cash back you earn can come in the form of a check or payment through PayPal.

6. Earn rewards with a cash back credit card

Whether you plan to shop online or in person, you can earn rewards that may help defray the costs of 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 the benefits can be negated if you end up incurring debt.

Many cash back credit cards offer an initial bonus for meeting a minimum spending requirement, but you’ll also earn rewards for each dollar you spend.

Some rewards credit cards earn you more rewards at places where you happen to purchase many of your school supplies, such as grocery stores or on Amazon.

7. Look for student-specific discounts

Various retailers offer discounts or other benefits to students on items from clothing to electronics to vitamins. Through Amazon Prime Student, for instance, students are offered access to the online retailer’s Prime benefits — such as free two-day shipping — at a lower price than that of a standard Prime membership. Other stores that offer discounts to students include Apple, GNC, J.Crew, Nike and some Goodwill locations.

Deals on a range of products and services can also be found at Unidays, a student shopping website that’s free of charge and available to students ages 16 and older. Participating merchants that offer discounts include Apple, ASOS, Expedia, Express, Hollister and Levi’s.

8. Split bulk deals with others

You may find buying some school supplies in bulk results in a lower cost per item. This might be the case for pens, pencils, markers, crayons, notebooks, or facial tissues. Splitting such large-quantity purchases with friends can end up costing you less money than if you bought smaller quantities for your child only.

Warehouse stores such as Costco or Sam’s Club are known for their oversized packages of goods, some of which might be items on your back-to-school list.

9. Wait for other deals after the back-to-school rush

Many deals on school supplies can be scored in the months of July and August, but it might pay off to wait until after school has started to purchase some things. If you can hold off on buying your student a new laptop, for instance, you might find better deals — and more availability — once school is in session.

Certain items your student will need might be on sale at other times of the year. If your college student will be moving into an apartment, for instance, the best time to buy furniture is said to be the month of February. Purchasing a calculator around Black Friday or Cyber Monday might score you the best deal.

Bottom line

Despite rising inflation, it’s possible to shave a significant amount from your back-to-school budget through methods like comparison shopping, student discounts, cash back rewards and the timing of your purchases.

Written by
Karen Bennett
Consumer banking reporter
Karen Bennett is a consumer banking reporter at Bankrate. She uses her finance writing background to help readers learn more about savings and checking accounts, CDs, and other financial matters.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor