12 thrifty parents share their best back-to-school budget hacks

While some of us may feel like summer just started, parents know that kids will be back in school before you know it. And that means it’s back-to-school shopping season. When you’re buying school supplies, snacks, and updated wardrobes for your school-aged children, the bills can really rack up. So some thrifty parents spoke to HelloGiggles about their best back-to-school budget hacks, and their tips will (hopefully) help you avoid breaking the bank before the school year starts.

Deloitte reported that back-to-school shopping season is the second busiest shopping season of the year (second only to Christmas). And the company’s annual back-to-school survey showed that households plan to spend an average of $510 each on school-related purchases in 2018.

The National Retail Federation’s 2018 numbers are even scarier, with a consumer survey showing that back-to-school spending for kindergarten through college in the U.S. is expected to be about $82.8 billion nationwide.

As many parents we spoke to noted, there are just some pricey purchases you won’t be able to avoid when the school season starts. For instance, a higher-quality backpack will be worth it in the long run, and electronic purchases may set you back. But there are plenty of other ways to save money—and these real parents are here to help you this school season.

1Follow coupon pages.

“I follow The Krazy Coupon Lady and she posts a lot of back-to-school items for super cheap. I buy most of my school supplies at Staples—believe it or not, they have the best sales. Last time I went, the salesperson told me the August sales are the best. I bought composition notebooks for $0.50 and everything else I got was a dollar or less. On Amazon, I buy highlighters and glue sticks in bulk for $3.99. I also will put things in my [Amazon] cart—mostly Ticonderoga pencils—and wait until they go on Lightning Deals.”

— Megan, New Jersey

2Label what you buy.

“I have been known to print out my kids’ names and tape it on every crayon and pencil with double tape, so my kids can reclaim their items from ole sticky finger Katie who thinks she can have all the pink crayons.

I also always find common items needed and get them in bulk and store them for the upcoming school year. I reuse things like binders that are standard between grades.

Mom groups are great for younger kids, too. When our kids would grow out of their clothes, we would pass them to a kid who wears that size. It’s a great way to save money.”

—Teri, New Jersey

3Be practical—not trendy.

“Don’t just get the cool, trendy, everyone-has-this school stuff. 1. Because your kids’ stuff will certainly get mixed up when everyone has the same thing 2. Trendy stuff isn’t always the best functional choice. Look at practicality and price when it comes to back-to-school shopping—from school supplies to lunchbox items. Then, if you do need something on trend (like jeans, shoes, etc.), go with a fashion piece, which can create confidence in your kid and be re-worn throughout the school year.”

— Caroline, Canada, founder of Parent Club

4Wait for the teacher’s list.

“Don’t waste money or time buying anything until you get the teacher’s list if you have younger kids. I bought my son a backpack for preschool, but his teacher only wanted tote bags, so I ended up having to buy two bags.”

—Erin, New Jersey

5Buy in bulk and stash for midyear replacements.

“My school sends the school supply list in June with the year-end report card. I place a copy in my glovebox and then I shop around this time. Since two of my kids are a grade apart and their teachers’ needs are similar, I buy in bulk. I think parents who are new to elementary school don’t know that kids will need a supply refresh midyear, so that’s why I buy extra at the sale price.

Dry erase markers are cheaper in bulk at Costco. And it’s cheaper to buy glue sticks in bulk and divvy them up between kids. Post-it Notes are also used a lot, so I get a brick of them at Costco. Don’t skimp on quality. Crayola products are the best and they last longer, so when Target has those on super sale, buy and stash for midyear requests.

High-quality backpacks are also very important. The cheap cartoon ones are garbage. Kids tend to drag them on the ground and then they get holes midyear. Same with lunch bags—the insulated ones are great to wipe out and are durable.

For clothes, I have three kids and I do hand-me-downs and also buy new. I tend to not go overboard with clothes and just replace grown out or worn out throughout the year to spread the expense. There’s a lot of pressure to have everything brand new [when school starts] and that’s just not necessary. When you can reuse a pencil box, then do it. And when in doubt, do swaps with friends.”

—Christina, Washington

6Shop at the dollar store.

“Most if not all of my son’s school supplies can be purchased at the local dollar store. I prefer name brand crayons, markers, etc., so the money I save on pens, pencils, notebooks, and folders allows me to splurge on those items.”

— Angela, New Jersey

7Reuse what you can.

“Look around the house and see what you already have and can reuse. Better for the wallet and the planet.”

—Elyse, Germany

8Swap backpacks between siblings.

“I buy my two daughters’ backpacks at Dick’s. They have a sale coming up where they are two for $40 or $50, depending on the brand (Adidas, Under Armour, Reebok, Nike). Each girl chooses a color, but approves the other. They each use one bag for a school year, then trade for year two. They are so well-made that they last at least two years and I don’t have to buy new bags every year.”

— Christine, New Jersey

9Search for snack sales.

“Check the local stores (here it’s Publix, Winn-Dixie, and Walmart) for what sales they’re having on lunch/snack supplies. The Sunday newspaper is stuffed with coupons that will stack on top of in-store coupons and savings.

Amazon is the best way to get electronics supplies (my son always needs over-the-ear headphones for school). Walmart and Target typically have an inexpensive version available, but unless you know exactly when it’s coming into the store, they’re typically sold out and then you’re stuck with the more expensive kind. Walmart has the best selection of backpacks and lunchboxes, but Target has been having sales using the Cartwheel app—20% off Cat & Jack uniforms and sales on miscellaneous school supplies. And dollar stores have an amazing amount of school supplies—stuff like index cards, #2 pencils, folders, paper, composition notebooks—that are the same quality as Walmart, Target, etc.

While it’s not shopping, look into local Police Athletic League (PAL) centers for extended day/after-school programs. They’re funded through the city or township and are very inexpensive for a whole school year of after-school care.”

— Georgia, Florida

10Don’t bring the kids.

“Go without your kids. There are too many choices. Also, don’t wait until the last minute since it [is] hard to find most of the stuff on the list.”

— Debby, New Jersey

11Strategize sale days.

“I shop online at Hollister only when they have $25 jeans and free shipping, and I wait to buy anything until I have a JCPenney coupon. It’s hard because the sales don’t usually happen the same days as the tax break [certain states offer sales-tax holidays]. But I wake up really early on the tax weekend and go when the stores open, but before the crowds, and I’m done in like two hours.”

— Mari, Texas

12Take inventory.

“Take inventory of what you have first before heading out, or else you’ll make the mistake of ending up with 148 pencils, 57 highlighters, and zero binders. Do the same for your kids’ clothing—see what still fits from the spring, what doesn’t, and make a list to bring with you before you head to the stores.

Don’t cheap out on backpacks: A good, sturdy backpack with plenty of storage options is essential for growing kids. The licensed character backpacks are cute when kids are in younger grades, but they don’t have enough space for books and large zipper binders.”

— Maria, Canada, author of Oh Baby! A Mom’s Self-Care Survival Guide for the First Year

Plan ahead before you hit the stores (online or in person) and follow these tips for a back-to-school shopping season that’s a little easier on the wallet.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

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