Back-to-school shopping can be very costly if you don’t have a sound strategy.
Households are expected to spend an average of nearly $697 on back-to-school shopping, according to a National Retail Federation study. That’s an increase of about $12 from last year. Families of college students are expected to spend an average of $977, the study found.
Meanwhile, a recent Bankrate survey found that 43 percent of parents who have been back-to-school shopping feel pressured to overspend on items such as clothing, school supplies and tech products.
By planning ahead and developing a strategy to buy what your children need, you will have a better chance of shopping smart and not overspending.
Depending on their age, involving your children in the budgeting and shopping process could be fun, says Rachel Cruze, a personal finance expert and New York Times best-selling author.
“Sit down and show them what you’ve budgeted and talk about why it’s important not to spend more than you have planned,” Cruze says. “Take them shopping with you and, if they’re old enough, let them be in charge of staying on track.”
The following six tips can help you shop smarter and save on back-to-school shopping.
1. Plan ahead with a budget
Unlike an emergency, which strikes unexpectedly, back-to-school happens every year. And that means you can map out a saving and spending strategy ahead of time.
“If you plan ahead, you’ll have time to search out the best deals and maximize your budget,” Cruze says. “When you wait until school is about to start, you’re likely to overspend because you don’t have time to hunt for the best deals.”
Create a budget for your back-to-school purchases, and stick to it, Cruze says.
“You can add a line item into your budget at the beginning of summer and start setting aside money for back-to-school purchases,” Cruze says.
If you involve your child in the budgeting process, the teachable moment will be when items that are outside the budget present themselves.
“It’s an opportunity for you to step in,” Cruze says. “If they’ve worked and have some of their own money to spend, let them make up the difference. Getting your kids involved teaches them that money doesn’t come from Mom and Dad’s back pockets. It comes from work.”
2. Stick to the teacher’s list
When it comes to shopping for school supplies, keep it simple.
Be sure to make a list and stick to it, says Sara Skirboll, shopping and trends expert at RetailMeNot.
“The long list of needs that teachers ask their students to bring is daunting enough, so make sure you stick to the items that are necessities and less on the wants,” Skirboll says.
To avoid buying things you don’t need, check to see if you have pens, notebooks or calculators left over from last year that you can still use, Cruze says.
“Take inventory of what you already have on hand,” Cruze says. “You’d be surprised at what’s left from the previous year.”
However, there are exceptions to the sticking-to-the-list rule. For instance, if you can look at the school year as a whole there might be some items that you know your child will need in the future. So buying a few extras at sale prices may be a wise move.
“But only stock up if it fits your budget,” Cruze says. “If it puts you over budget to buy in bulk, stick to the amount you need. There will always be other sales, so don’t feel pressured to plan for the whole year if you can’t afford it.”
3. Look into sales-tax holidays and sales
You can really maximize your spending when you combine a sale price and not paying sales tax. If you live in a state with a sales-tax holiday, try to not miss these days for eligible items.
“Take advantage of the sales and focus on apparel the kids can wear all year long,” Skirboll says. “You may even want to combine this shopping outing with the tax-free weekends where shoppers can buy items without the sales tax.”
Also, hold off on buying clothing until the end of summer when sales will begin, Skirboll says.
While planning ahead is a key strategy, also consider sales that happen after school starts. If there isn’t an immediate need for some items, you may be able to take advantage of sales later in the year.
“Labor Day weekend is notorious for having great sales, so that’s a perfect time to shop for things like clothing,” Cruze says.
But don’t feel pressured to buy something just because it’s on sale, especially if the item isn’t on your shopping list.
“It’s only saving you money if you were already planning to purchase it,” Cruze says.
4. Don’t overpay for tech gadgets
We’ve all bought some expensive technology only for it to eventually serve as a paperweight.
“I would resist the urge to buy your kid the newest, most expensive computer or phone,” Cruze says. “Odds are, all of these items will need to be replaced before they leave for college anyway. Think about what they really need these things for and stick to the basics. And don’t forget to ask about student discounts. Most major computer and software brands offer discounts or special deals for students.”
When you’re buying expensive items, such as a tablet or calculator, make sure you compare prices at different retailers to make sure you’re getting the best deals, Skirboll says.
5. Don’t cut corners on items that might break
If a sale item comes in the form of a low-quality product, you could find yourself making the same purchase again later in the school year.
“If you can afford to spend a little more, sometimes it’s worth it to invest a little more money on certain items,” Cruze says.
For instance, a backpack is likely going to be needed each year.
“Instead of buying a cheap one that will probably fall apart by the end of the semester, it might be worth spending a little more on a backpack that could last one to two years,” Cruze says.
If you use this approach, make sure it’s not a backpack that may go out of style for next year.
6. Save money by comparison shopping online
Shopping online can help you save in many ways.
You’ll save on gas for your car or the cost of transportation. But most importantly, you’ll probably find better deals by quickly comparing different sites instead of the time it takes to go to different stores in person.
“You’re more likely to stick to your shopping list when you shop online, which is a money-saver in itself,” Cruze says. “Not to mention, you can easily search across multiple retailers to find the best price.”
But impulse purchases aren’t exclusive to brick-and-mortar shopping. So, make sure you focus on your shopping list while shopping online as well.