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 Amazon.com (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.
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 thebrokeandbeautifullife.com.
Save on Back-to-School Spending: College Edition
More Ways to Save on Back-to-School Shopping
In the not-so-far future, in the unloading area of college dormitories all across America, cars and SUVs will be disgorging skyscrapers of stuff: bed-in-a-bags, floor lamps, microwaves and cube refrigerators, computer laptops in leather carrying cases and more than a few flat screen TV sets. But what do you really need? And how can you make college spending dollars stretch? Our mother and son blogging team have some advice.
Beth Weschler ("mom"), a social worker, and Zac Bissonnette ("son"), who will be a junior at UMass Amherst this fall, have come up with some rules for college shopping -- what's worth it and what's not. Click through our gallery for a "she says/he says" look.
Mom says: Coordinate purchases so that you don't duplicate. You don't need two microwaves, two irons or individual spray bottles of WIndex. It isn't too soon to start thinking about how you can beat housing costs next year. Nursing students can often find free room and board with a senior citizen and other students may be able to find live-in arrangements in exchange for childcare or handyman hours.
Son says: For my money, living on campus is one of the biggest rip-offs that students will encounter during their college years. The biggest savings from living off-campus come from not being subjected to the outrageously overpriced cafeteria food that is stinking up dining halls around the country and making students and their families broke in the process. If your child is living off-campus with friends, invest $10.17 in a copy of 'The Healthy College Cookbook.'
Mom says: If your student has an unlimited meal plan on campus then he will probably still need a refrigerator, although maybe not a microwave. With more limited plans, keeping basic breakfast foods, light meals and snacks in the room can save serious money. It actually isn't unusual for students living away from home for the first time to put on weight. Stocking healthy foods can make a difference. Nutrisystem foods don't require refrigeration and can be purchased on eBay.
Son says: The best way to save money on food in a dorm is to make sure that you have microwaveable, reusable bowls, plates, and cups. You shouldn't have to spend more than about $8 equipping a dorm room with dinnerware. What food belongs in a dorm room? A good rule is not to buy anything that comes in individually wrapped servings. These are a complete rip-off!
Mom says: Virtually every student should have a computer (and I think a printer -- but Zac disagrees) but unless their major -- or special needs- - makes it necessary, the computer doesn't have to be state-of-the-art , a designer color or even a laptop. The most important piece of gear you need: an alarm clock.
Son says: I know a lot of people who've brought printers to college, and I know very few people who use them. In my experience, it's much easier to do all your printing at the library. Reasonable price for a laptop: $300. Unless your student is studying computer animation, I really don't see any reason to spend more money than that. When it comes to a television, a small extra television from home should do just fine. Dorm rooms are too small to sit far away enough from the television for a large screen to be healthy for your eyes.
Mom says: If you play a musical instrument or practice any other art or craft, bring it to college. That should be enough entertainment for your dollar!
Son says: Retailers that advertise video games as part of their back-to-school sales should be ashamed of themselves. Video games in college? Shut up! One of the great things about college is all the free entertainment that is available.
Mom says: Unless your circumstances are unusual, 95% of the time, college students wear jeans, tees, sneakers, sweatshirts and sweat pants. But you do not need 12 pairs of jeans or 22 shirts. New underwear -- sure. Be aware that shaving costs can add up. Can you do with electric? If so, the Norelco All-in-One electric can be picked up for $15. And be prepared for the common cold, cramps, headaches, paper cuts and the like by putting together your own kit.
Son says: Many college towns have a store called Plato's Closet. This store is awesome! You can get Abercrombie t-shirts for $10.
Mom says: Your school logo is great but if you buy all your notebooks at the college store, you'll spend ten times more than you need to. Watch the office supply store flyers. Loss leaders -- $1 each -- often include pens, highlighters and white out. Spiral notebooks, loose leaf binders and paper will be on sale late July to early August.
Son says: Textbooks can easily tack on an addition 10% to 20% of the cost of attendance -- so minimizing this expense is extremely important. Here are a few tips: Don't buy your textbooks before the first day of class; Ask if having an old edition of the book will work; Consider renting books; Never, ever, ever buy your textbooks new.
Mom says: If you have a comforter or blankets (and you probably do!), you can spruce it up with new sheets and throw pillows. For cleaning supplies, start at any dollar store. Bring laundry detergent, but if you live in the dorm, you'll be unhappy with lugging around the 128 ounce bottle. A purchase that will let you pull things into, out of and around the dorm is the Expanding Folding Crate with wheels.
Son says: Picking up a few moderately-priced throw pillows at Target or Pier 1 Imports can really help pull a room together. And for art, please, please, please do not buy posters at the mall or the school store. You will end up with the same posters as everyone else! If I walk into a dorm and see one more Abbey Road poster, I'm going to burn it. Instead, check out the clearance section at AllPosters.com, and watch for all the special sales and free shipping deals. Vintage art deco-style travel posters look really cool in a dorm room.
Mom says: Buy a bicycle and helmet. And if you absolutely need a car, see whether your college has the Zip-car program.
Son says: For freshman who are living on-campus, a car is not necessary or even desirable. For older students living off-campus, it may be worth having -- especially if it allows the student to work at a higher-paying off-campus job on nights and weekends. But if your student is heading off to college for the first time, leave the car at home.
Mom says: There are fewer and fewer land lines and most students today rely on cell phones. It is ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL that your student's cell phone plan has: family talk, or something similar, more minutes than you think they will need, unlimited text messages.
Son says: Make your kid pay his own darn cell phone bill, that's what I say. And see if you can talk him into paying yours too. He owes you big time!
Son says: I would rather see a student work hard during the summer and spring breaks so that he can save money to help pay for college and avoid student loans. For all the talk about how spring break trips and "service learning" can change student's lives, there are plenty of experiences to be had and lives to be changed right in your hometown. Help an underprivileged child learn to read at the local library, volunteer at a soup kitchen, spend time with senior citizens -- and still leave time to work for pay so that you can pay the aforementioned cell phone bill of your parents.