More Ways to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Colorful school supplies
Getty ImagesSometimes you can support the local economy while back-to-school shopping.

By Stefanie O'Connell

Back-to-school shopping season is in full swing with big box retailers offering door buster discounts that rival even Black Friday deals. While cheap notebooks and markers aren't nearly as thrilling as bargain flat screens and tablets, the throngs of parents and students crowding the stores suggest otherwise, as do the numbers. According to data from the National Retail Federation, the average family with children in kindergarten through high school will spend $669.28 on back-to-school shopping this year, up roughly 5 percent from last year.

Confronted with those increased spending expectations, it's no wonder the crowds are flocking to discount retailers like Walmart (WMT) and Target (TGT) in the hopes of reducing their costs. But while big box stores and online giants like (AMZN) might carry all the necessary supplies at the most competitive prices, they don't always offer the smartest value buys in the long term. Here are some factors and alternatives to consider before rushing to the Walmart "action aisle" to stock up.

Consider the local cost. According to a 2011 study, every $100 spent at locally-owned businesses contributes an additional $58 to the local economy. By comparison, $100 spent at a chain store yields just $33 in local economic impact. In other words, shopping at local businesses ensures that more of what you spend will be reinvested back into your community, which means a better local economy, better roads, more support for police, fire and rescue departments and better schools.

In recent years, school districts have been facing financial hardship as cuts are increasing and budgets are getting tighter. Because the schools themselves have less money for communal supplies like tissues, copy paper and printer ink, the financial burden gets passed down to parents and students in the form of longer and more expensive back-to-school supply lists.

Shopping for those supplies locally rather than online or at the discount giants can infuse more money into the local economy, including the schools. In the long run, that should help lessen the financial burden on parents and students facing back-to-school costs.

Go green. With reams of paper and notebooks for every subject made mandatory on just about every back to school supply list, it's easy to forget about being "green." But keeping the environmental impact in mind might actually prove helpful on the savings front.

%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-884%Before hitting the stores, take inventory of what you already have. Any unused or partially used notebooks from last year? Perhaps some binders and folders can be repurposed. Give old pencils a sharpening and bring back dried-out markers with some rubbing alcohol. The more you can reuse and recycle, the better for the environment and your wallet.

This "green" principle can also be applied to back-to-school staples beyond the basics, like clothing, backpacks and electronics. Rather than buying new, connect with friends, neighbors and others in the local community to barter, swap and save. Sites such as Craigslist and Freecycle offer good starting points for scoring reusable supplies at a discount. For more specialized items like graphing calculators, try approaching last years' graduates or see what's available on eBay. Either strategy is a simple way to ensure reuse in addition to significant savings.

Teach the lesson. In the rush to get everything prepped for the first day, there's a tendency to exclude the students themselves from the back-to-school purchasing process. While it might be easier to push through the crowds solo, parents miss a huge opportunity to teach important monetary lessons by leaving the kids at home.

Back-to-school season is an ideal time to provide children with a hands-on financial education. Get them involved in setting and sticking to a budget for their supplies. Obviously a kindergartner will be a lot more passive in the process than a high school student, but instilling the lessons of comparison shopping, couponing, choosing brand name or generic, assessing price versus value and differentiating needs from wants early on and with more responsibility and involvement each year can prove incredibly valuable in preparing a child for his or her financial future.

As you tackle your back-to-school shopping this year, consider what's beyond the bottom line before hitting the stores. With these things in mind, you might find yourself and your kids shopping smarter.

Stefanie O'Connell is a New York City-based actress and freelance writer. She chronicles her struggle to "live the dream" on a starving artists' budget at