Back To School Tips For Saving Money

Can you feel the excitement in the air? It is almost time for many kids to head back to school. Okay, so maybe it is us parents who are most excited! As a kid I remember feeling equal parts excitement and dread about the upcoming school year. One of my least favorite parts of this time of year was the back to school shopping. I guess some things never change, but I have managed to compile a lost of back to school tips and shopping strategies.

Fortunately, my wife is an excellent back to school shopper, and over the years we have improved on our bargain hunting prowess while managing to fully equip our kids for the next school year. It takes a little planning, but the savings make it well worth it to work out a strategy before blindly walking into the mall with store credit cards primed.

Frugal Tips For Back to School Shopping

1. Shop consignment stores in your area. Over the years, many quality consignment stores have cropped up that offer cash or store credits in exchange for gently used clothing. Not only are these great places to generate some quick cash for cleaning out a closet before school starts, they are also a good place to look for deals on designer clothing, if that is something you’re after. Think of it as shopping for a used car – someone else paid for most of the depreciation.

2. Buy articles of clothing that go with (almost) anything. Unless you have an unlimited supply of money, you will discover quickly that coordinating outfits do not have a lot of room in the average kids’ closet. Instead of buying a coordinating shirt, pants, and shoes that go with nothing else, opt for versatile articles of clothing that work well with each other, multiplying the number of potential “outfits” available.

3. Shop for off-season, clearance items. When it is 97 degrees outside it is hard to think about shopping for long-sleeve shirts and coats. However, it’s a great time to pick up clearance deals on these winter items as stores will practically give them away to make room for fall arrivals.

4. Look for bargains on Thursday nights. Many department store sales run Thursday thru Sunday. Most of us who work Monday thru Friday save shopping for the weekends, meaning a Thursday night trip to a department store could yield big savings and plenty of options. By Sunday night all that remains are leftovers, as popular sizes and styles are the first to go.

5. Watch the Sunday paper for store sales and coupons. This past weekend, a department store in our area offered two coupons–one flat percentage off your total bill, and the other offering $15 off if you bought $75 worth of merchandise. My wife and I split our transactions so that each of us could use a coupon to realize maximum savings.

6. Forget about designer labels. Most stores now have their own label that competes with larger, name-brand designer labels. I have found that in most cases the quality of clothing is comparable, and the premium for designer labels just isn’t worth it. That’s especially true when you consider how quickly kids outgrow, or wear out, their clothing.

7. Buy school supplies in 3’s. My wife is a master at shopping for back-to-school supplies. One strategy she uses is when she finds a great deal on basic supplies such as paper, pencils, crayons, binders, etc, she stocks up with at least three of each item. The kids are well-stocked for the first day of school, and we can restock at least twice later in the school year.

8. Shop on sales tax holidays, if you dare. Many states offer sales tax holidays, usually lasting an entire weekend near the end of July or early August. On these days a number of items are exempt from sales tax. The list varies from state to state, but if you have large-ticket items (such as computers) that are included, it might be worth it to fight the crowds.

9. Start a “Back To School” fund. Much like we’ve done for other once-a-year-expenses, we recently started a back-to-school shopping fund at a good online bank. Consider your most recent school shopping experience to set a budget for next year. Divide that number by 12 (monthly), or by the number of paychecks you expect next year. Deposit that amount each month (or payday) into a designated back-to-school at an online savings account. When next summer arrives you’ll have the cash available and a pre-determined budget to limit your spending.

Back to school shopping can be a stressful time for both kids and parents. Make it a happier experience (or at least less painful) by implementing a few of the tips above. Since we have a little shopping left to do, I’m interested to hear your favorite back to school shopping tips in the comments below.


  1. Shop for clothes at thrift stores. The Salvation Army in my area sells clothes for half of on Wednesdays. Here is website to find a store in your area:

    If you can find out a reading list, get the Cliff Notes, Spark notes now. Project supplies for Science and history can be gathered now and kept in a bin to pull out use without having to go to the store at the last minute.

  2. Stick to your budget.
    In my case, each kid got $200 and in August we went “over the hill” to the big discound stores and went clothes shopping. (We only have one store in town and it is expensive)

    Out of the $200, they were to buy a 6 pk of socks and undies, 1 pr of everyday shoes, 2 pairs pants, and 4 tops. And whatever else they could get for the money. I bought the winter coat. This actually forced them to think about money as Mom was not gonna cave in and splurge if they couldn’t stick to the budget – I just kept saying no until they had the basics (the list) and then they could buy other clothing and/or accessories.

    This taught them very early on that they could stretch their money farther and get more ‘cool’ shirts, if they did not buy the fancy brand name sneakers and jeans. Luckily my kids, being farm kids, didn’t give a hoot about brand names, and they became very savvy shoppers early on 🙂

    Remember that there will be other sales and opportunities to buy more clothing later in the eyar. And by Christmas time, all were ready for some new things. Plus, they’d often grown yet again 🙂

  3. Start shopping for school supplies in July. Staples, CVS, Walgreen’s, etc., have weekly deals. Last week I got 10 pack of Bic pens for 10 cents, Scotch tape for 25 cents a roll, and Elmer’s glue for 25 cents. This weeks Staples has HP 4gb flash drive for 9.99 and a $5 of $30 in store purchase that will let me buy three of the flash drives for $25.00 (regular price 17.99 each). These weekly deals sometimes have limits, although I seem to recall that Staples will let teachers buy unlimited quantities so they can stock up their classrooms.

  4. My kids are all in preschool, but I’ve found that a couple of brands hold up well and are worth buying (especially with coupons and discounts, of course): Gymboree and Carter’s. Resale of some higher-priced brands on ebay and consignment may be worth the initial purchase price, if you’re like me and get plenty of wear (including passing down stuff from the first daughter to the second) before sending it back out.

    But I’m always amused by makers of baby and preschool clothes who have no idea of how a baby actually works. For example, the Ralph Lauren baby clothes I got as gifts look so pretty — but are made for diaperless, flat-bottomed babies or have tiny buttons. What baby sits still for buttons at all, much less tiny ones? What toddler stays motionless long enough for you to tie shoelaces rather than velcro them in a flash?

    I’ve found that by sticking to a few brands I know fit my kids (like Stride Rite shoes) I can pick up newish stuff that I don’t have to worry about not fitting, not wearing well, etc. — and I don’t waste my time and money buying cheaper but non-fitting clothes and having to return them.

    I’d also recommend that you think about where your clothes go after your kids use them, beyond just saving money for yourself. I got so many wonderful hand-me-downs, still new with tags, from my cousin that I could give many near-duplicates away to a couple of friends with kids the same age. And consignment will bring in some income if you need it, but I felt like with so much bounty that I’d feel better donating the gently-used clothes we had to needy women via various church ministries. I hope it’s clear that I’m not judging those of us who need to resell or consign at all… but consider whether someone else might need the free gift more than you need the extra cash.

  5. I’m in New England, so the actual clothes they wear on the first day of school aren’t clothes they’ll be wearing for very long. I typically buy clearanced summer clothes in a slightly bigger size to get them through September and then the following spring. Actual fall clothes will be bought when the weather cools and clothing is marked down. I have enough left over from end of season last year (bought big) to get them through until the sales.

    They each got new snakers for camp, so replacement decision will be made based on the condition and fit. My son will get new Merrills. Last year I bought a knock-off brand and was not happy with how they wore, so this year I’m opting to spend more for the quality since they pull double duty for both casual and dress. My daughter will get the same knock-off Uggs she got last year that she pretty much lived in — they did hold up.

    This past weekend was our town’s sidewalk sale, and I splurged and got them some high-end outfits at a fraction of their original price. These will be used for special occasions, including the Jewish holidays in the fall, for which a nice, new outfit is akin to an Easter dress.

    We’re fortunate that our PTA covers the bulk of school supplies, but I still take advantage of the amazing sales to restock the art bin. You can’t have too much glue or tape in our house!

  6. I’d add shopping at thrift stores to the list of must-do’s. They mostly carry clothing and it’s dirt cheap. I have a post about it on my web blog that goes into detail on the do’s and don’t’s (there are a few), but it’s well worth the time, and the clothing is just a few dollars ($2-$5) per article.

    Another thing we’ve been doing with our kids is to downplay the importance of “having it all” by the first day of school. We’ll buy them one or two outfits for the first day or two, but after that, it’s back to their regular clothes, the same ones they wore the year before.

    We’ll gradually add to their wardrobes after the first day, which not only takes the pressure off of the start of school, but also enables us to budget better by buying their clothes gradually. Also, since school actually starts in summer, they’ll need new clothes in a few weeks anyway when fall hits and they need cooler weather gear.

  7. Great article.

    I disagree with you on one point and that is buying the non-brand name clothing. I’m finding it isn’t worth it. I buy tonnes of stuff second hand, including online through forums and such, which is great. Other than that I do the huge sales at places with good clothing. Gymboree works well for us, but I wouldn’t go anywhere near the full prices 😉 Compared to cheaper clothes like Children’s Place or real cheap stuff like Old Navy, it lasts way longer, stains come out better and it holds it shape. When you’re done the next child can have it, or it can be sold for a reasonable amount. Children’s place stuff I can occasionally get for a bit less than the Gymboree sales, but the resale is no good and Old Navy stuff, well, she has a shirt that she has a Canada shirt she has worn 3 times and is horribly worn/stretched, $5 for that and I know I could have gotten better quality for a top at GYmboree, we just happened to want a Canada Day one, so a one time splurge 😀

  8. Great timing – I just picked up my daughter’s back-to-school shopping list (provided by the school). She’s starting kindergarten this fall, so this is all very new to me! Thanks for the great tips. I’m heading out this afternoon to get some shopping done.

  9. Just thinking about back to school shopping when I was a kid makes me feel sick. I hated it because my mom was a teacher and summer was a very lean time for my family. I never had new clothes or school supplies. Obviously I survived, but to this day whenever I need a notebook, I buy the expensive brand that I coveted in elementary school. Weird how things like that stick with us.

  10. Another plus in my book for homeschooling! I get to avoid all this and wait for whenever the opportunity presents to purchase clothes as needed on sale, etc. 🙂

    But, when my kids did go to school, I would always wait to get new school clothes until about October. There was always bound to be something that was the “style” and as a mom of twin girls, I was always glad to wait and see what the girls were going to want to wear instead of stocking them up on something they wouldn’t be caught in!

  11. Great tips in both the post and in the comments! I want to echo Anna’s comments about starting to shop early. The more time you have to look for the best deals on items you know you’ll need, the more likely you are to save some cash. Every time I’m at a drug or department store, I make a pass through the school/office supplies aisle to see if items I might soon need are on sale. Then I stock up when they are on sale. It saves me money and stress.

  12. The cheapest time to buy school supplies is during the summer. I have found that kids need 2X as many set of markers, etc that they put on the list. Buy extra now while it is on sale and keep it on hand for the middle of the winter when they run out. Also, the next time you are at the dollar store, pick up some bristol board. When they tell you at 10pm that they need some for the next day you will not have to run out and buy some at a premium price:)

  13. Checking the sunday paper ads is especially important for school supplies- as Ann commented above. Office Depot, Staples and probably others as well have started their 1 cent and 10 cent sales on many items. Plus they have weekly free-bates for other items like scientific calculators that are more expensive. We got a huge box of supplies last year for under $15. A 12 pack of pencils and notebooks were a dime each. Folders and pencil sharpeners were a penny. These sales have started for this year already, so check them out now.

  14. Thanks for the advice. I’m going to share this on my blog. I really like the idea of buying in 3’s…you can take advantage of the sales in late summer and have them last throughout the school year!

  15. There’s a new service called which is perfect for back to school shopping, especially last-minute b2s shopping because it shows you what’s in-stock now at schools in your area so you can just go pick up what you need!

    Parents love it to compare prices online and then shop offline.

  16. To save erious money, get your kids off contract based cell phone plans and switch to prepaid! This summer I got rid of my family plan with AT&T w/ whom I had four lines and paid $185 a month fro 750 share mintes. I bought the 3 kids TracFones which carries a monthly cost of $50 total. I bought Straight Talk for me and for only $45 i have unlimited calls, text and 30 mb of data. It’s also nationwide srvice so I can call my mom who lives in San Diego at the same local rate.