15 ways to cut the cost of back-to-school shopping

10 Easy Ways to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

It used to be fun. Getting the list from school, and then setting out to get the supplies. But somewhere along the line, it just got so expensive for parents. That makes it stressful.

If you have school-age kids (grades K-12), the National Retail Federation is anticipating that you will spend an average of about $673.57 on clothes and accessories, electronics, shoes and school supplies. That's a nearly 10 percent increase from last year, based on the NRF annual survey.

For college students, the average outlay for heading back to school is expected to be closer to $900, factoring in big-ticket items like laptops and mini-fridges, it says.

Sound like a lot? I thought so too. Maybe you don't have $600 to $900 in your checking account. We certainly don't want you to have to pull out the credit card.

The thing is, you don't need to spend that much (though the NRF and its members certainly hope you do) if you stick to this list of back-to-school money-saving tips:

1. Live (and shop) by the list

Sean Locke Photography / Shutterstock.comSean Locke Photography / Shutterstock.com

Your school likely gives you a supply list. Use it.

Read it. Memorize it. Ingrain those items in your brain. And then avoid the temptation to buy anything not on the list.

Of course, you'll need to supplement the school list with one of your own. Your list should include clothes, backpacks, lunch bags and anything else you deem a necessity for back-to-school success.

2. Empty your closets and drawers

 holbox / Shutterstock.comholbox / Shutterstock.com

Now, don't take your list to the store just yet. Take it to your kids' closets.

Pull out their mounds of clothes and weed through them. Find out what they have that is school-ready and what needs to be purchased to give them a complete wardrobe. This is also a great time to declutter. Box up all the unwanted and ill-fitting clothes and ship them out to the thrift store ASAP.

Next, head to your junk drawer, office or desk. Pull everything out and look for pencils, erasers, calculators, rulers and glue sticks. When I moved last year, I found a lifetime supply of glue sticks lurking in the corners — items bought and apparently forgotten. You may find the same in your home.

Once you're done with this step, your list should magically be shorter.

3. Look for cheap secondhand supplies

LifetimeStock / Shutterstock.comLifetimeStock / Shutterstock.com

Summer is garage sale season. That means plenty of people may be looking to unload their excess, such as the lifetime supply of glue sticks they found in their junk drawers. Don't overlook these sales as an opportunity to score cheap back-to-school supplies.

You can also check your local thrift stores and log on to Freecycle to find items being sold for a song or given away. No, we don't want your children heading to school looking like paupers, but plenty of "secondhand" items are actually brand new or have seen very little use.

Take a look at these awesome back to school deals you can't miss:

Best back to school deals
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Best back to school deals
Redesigned Dell Inspiron 3650 i7 Quad-Core Desktop with 16GB RAM $579 (Orig $1102.99) Use code: DELLDT629 to drop the price almost 50% off. If you were waiting to upgrade to the latest and greatest look no further. This uses the current generation of Intel's Skylake processors. What's more it comes with a rare 16GB of RAM and a large 2TB hard drive. A typical desktop would give you half those amounts and likely you would have a processor a tier below. This is one of Dell redesigned desktops and takes up 45% less space and has a modern design that will look good in any office. This is really an incredible deal that we don't see often and if there was need for a desktop then look no further.
Dell Vostro Intel Core i3 Dual-Core Desktop w/ Win 7 Pro for $279 Code: 100VOSTRO (Orig $684.99) Use $100 off Code 100VOSTRO. Finding any computer under $300 is a challenge much less one that is a business class desktop. These make great machines for personal use as it has less bloatware since it is meant to be used in business settings and it is very easy to maintain. For $300 you can do almost anything you need to on this desktop and it includes Windows 7 Pro which is an additional free upgrade you are getting along with a license for Windows 10 Pro to update whenever you like.
Dell XPS 8900 i7 Quad-Core Desktop with 16GB RAM $779 with (Orig $1252.99)  Coupon Code: SBXPS Dell's performance line of XPS desktops are sleek and powerful and give you tons of performance for your buck. They are incredibly versatile. Many use this as their home desktop work machine for its expandability and ability to use multiple displays. This uses Windows 7 Pro which is perfect for workplace compatibility and comes with a license to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro if you need to. If you needed to it has a 480W power supply which can support most middle to lower middle tier video cards and the machine itself has been engineer to be quieter than most desktops.
Sony Vaio Z Canvas Intel Core i7 Quad-Core 12.3" Tablet Laptop Tablet w/ Keyboard $999.99 (Orig $1599.99)  This laptop replacement has a similar 12" size as the iPad Pro but has way more power with a mobile i7 quad-core processor. This laptop tablet is closer to the Microsoft's Surface Pro with its detachable keyboard and included stylus but has enough power to do professional graphics work and fits in your laptop bag. In fact it outperforms almost every tablet or laptop in its weight class easily at only only weighs 2.67 lbs and at this this price it easily beats all comers as well.
Norton Security Deluxe for PC, Mac or Android $19.99 Code SAVE20NOW (Orig $79.99)  Save an extra 50% off with code SAVE20NOW. Norton is a 37-time PCMag Editor's choice award winner to keep your PC or Mac free from viruses, safeguard your online transaction and identity and works faster than the competition. However this doesn't only protect your computer but also any Android or Apple Tablets or iPhones you may own. You can protect up to 5 devices and Norton guarantees it will keep your device virus free or give you a refund.
Dell Inspiron 7559 Gaming Intel i7 Quad-core 1080p 15.6" Laptop w/ GTX 960m $749.99 (Orig $899.99) Use code 50OFF699. This laptop has it all. If you want a powerful laptop that can play games without spending over $1,000 then this is your laptop. It has a powerful 4GB GTX 960m video card which is capable of playing games at 1080p. If you were to buy a gaming laptop maker you would expect to spend over $1,000 easily particularly with a 1920x1080 display. The 7559 is the gaming edition of their popular and Dell's 7000 series laptop and have special gaming design elements. We encourage you to act fast as this is a limited time special price as they are clearing out these laptops for the next generation before schools start.
HP Notebook 15 Intel Core i5 Dual-Core 1080p 15.6" Laptop $459.99 (Orig $559.99) For users looking for a laptop under $500 this the best deal currently available. It features a strong i5 processor and a full HD 1920x1080 display which is not common for a laptop under $500. More importantly the display itself uses a SVA LCD panel which makes for much higher contrast and are excellent if you do word processing and spreadsheets. 

4. Organize a clothing swap

Kiselev Andrey Valerevich / Shutterstock.comKiselev Andrey Valerevich / Shutterstock.com

My children attend a private school where uniforms are the name of the game. Many parents donate their old, good-condition items to the school once their child has moved on to the next size. At least twice a year, the school sets out a table with all the clothes free for the taking. It doesn't get much cheaper than that when it comes to back-to-school clothes shopping.

The same principle can work for public school parents too. However, rather than the school organizing it, you might have to do the legwork yourself. Identify a few friends with kids of complementary sizes and ask everyone to bring their castoffs. Then meet for coffee, cookies and the opportunity to refresh your kids' wardrobes for free. It's a great strategy for sports clothes too: cleats, jerseys, shin guards, helmets, football padding, ice skates ... As you probably noticed, buying this stuff new adds up fast!

5. Stock up on office supply loss-leaders

Billion Photos / Shutterstock.comBillion Photos / Shutterstock.com

Penny pencils and 10-cent folders are popping up all over. Office supply stores, and even your grocer, are offering deeply discounted school supplies right now.

They want you to head in for the bargains and buy everything else on your list, too, but you save money by sticking only to those loss leaders each week.

Keep in mind that driving 30 minutes to buy a dollar's worth of pencils probably doesn't make much sense financially. However, if you live or work near a big-box office supply store, making a weekly run can be a smart way to stock up for cheap.

6. Sign up for rewards programs

Billion Photos / Shutterstock.comBillion Photos / Shutterstock.com

While you're at those office supply stores, don't forget to sign up for their rewards programs.

Staples Rewards is my favorite, with members getting 5 percent back on purchases. However, Office Depot and Office Max have rewards program as well. And don't forget about non-office stores such as CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid, which may have cheap school supplies and rewards to boot.

7. Use coupons and get rebates

 leungchopan / Shutterstock.comleungchopan / Shutterstock.com

Coupons aren't only for items in the grocery aisles. At this time of year, it's not unusual to find coupons in the newspaper and online for pens, paper, Post-It notes, markers and more. Retailers such as Target and Meijer also typically offer their own store coupons and promos for school supplies.

If you're shopping online, whether it's for clothes or school supplies, don't forget to look for coupon codes for specific sites. Two great go-to sites for coupons and special offers are Coupons.com and RetailMeNot.

Another way to save money online is to sign up for a rebates site. There are several but our favorite is Ebates.

8. Buy in bulk

Kagai19927 / Shutterstock.comKagai19927 / Shutterstock.com

Warehouse clubs can be another good source of savings for back-to-school shopping. The jumbo size packages may not make sense for your family alone, but you could probably find friends who would be more than happy to split a purchase.

9. Shop during a tax holiday

 evka119 / Shutterstock.com evka119 / Shutterstock.com

Some states are kind enough to give you a crack at tax-free back-to-school shopping. Depending on your state sales tax, that could save you as much as 7 percent or possibly more off your total bill.

The Federation of Tax Administrators offers a breakdown of states offering a tax holidays and when they take place.

10. Check out discount stores

Kzenon / Shutterstock.comKzenon / Shutterstock.com

One of my struggles has long been finding durable backpacks at a decent price.

For years, I purchased the practically free ones offered at our local grocery and drugstores. However, they usually made it only a month or two before ripping. Then, we moved to the office supply stores, but even during the 50 percent-off sales, the backpacks were expensive and the quality questionable. Last year, I discovered that Marshalls had backpacks, and we were able to buy good-quality bags at a not-outrageous price.

Discounters like Marshalls and T.J. Maxx can also be a good place to buy shoes and clothes if you have a tween or teen with designer tastes, but you don't have a designer budget. College students can find discounted bedding and kitchen supplies there, too.

11. Don't overstock your college kids

Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock.comRawpixel.com / Shutterstock.com

Speaking of college students, sometimes less is more. Retailers, particularly electronics stores, do an excellent job of convincing us that college kids need to be totally decked out with the latest and greatest gadgets.

However, remember that list we talked about at the beginning? Even at the college level, schools will generally provide a rundown of what students should bring to the dorm and to class. If it's not on the list, it's a luxury, not a necessity. Don't buy it.

12. Compare prices for big-ticket items

dotshock / Shutterstock.comdotshock / Shutterstock.com

Of course, there are times when you will need to make a big purchase, such as a laptop, for your college student or even your high schooler.

This is when it's time to fire up the price comparison sites and search for the best deal. PriceGrabber and Nextag are good places to find the best price. Then, if you end up buying online, don't forget to stop by RetailMeNot to look for a coupon code before checking out.

13. Use discounted gift cards

Elena Kharichkina / Shutterstock.comElena Kharichkina / Shutterstock.com

Another way to save on both in-store and online purchases is to use a discounted gift card. These are sold by sites that make a living selling other people's unwanted plastic.

Some sites buy cards at a discount from those looking to turn their gift cards into cash, while others offer a platform for buyers and sellers to connect directly. Either way, you could save often 10 percent or more using these gift cards.

We've got a list of some of the best sites to buy discounted gift cards, as well as more tips in this article on saving every time you shop.

14. Wait for the September clearance sales

ZinaidaSopina / Shutterstock.comZinaidaSopina / Shutterstock.com

If you can hold out until September, you can score some serious savings in the fall clearance season. Clothes, backpacks and lunch bags will all see their prices slashed in the weeks after the start of school.

Try brown-bagging lunches for the first weeks or wait to do the bulk of your clothes shopping after Labor Day. If you really can't wait to buy this year's items, keep an eye on the sales and consider stocking up for next year.

15. Exercise your right to say 'no'

gamble19 / Shutterstock.comgamble19 / Shutterstock.com

Finally, you can save a bundle of cash on back-to-school shopping if you practice firmly saying "no" to items not on the list. Let's try it together.

No, you may not have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle folders when they cost five times more than the plain ones.

No, you do not need a 10th pair of jeans this year.

No, I will not buy you a virtual reality headset to celebrate that you're entering middle school.

Ten percent of parents told the National Retail Federation that 100 percent of their purchases were influenced by their children. If you let the kids run the show, you're going to be spending way more than needed.

Save money by taking them out of the equation and, you guessed it, sticking to your list.

What other advice do you have for savings on back-to-school purchases? Share your tips in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Kari Huus contributed to this post.

RELATED: 8 tips to teach your kids to save money

Lessons that teach your kids to save money
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Lessons that teach your kids to save money

Play money-centered board games or games on apps, like Monopoly or Money Race.
It's an interactive and fun way for your kids to learn about basic financial practices without feeling like they're being lectured.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Give them an allotted amount of cash to spend on lunch each week.
Your child will learn how to budget accordingly throughout the week, figuring out how to balance spending money on food some days vs bringing their own on other days (something that can be directly translated into the adult workplace).

Photo credit: Getty

Have them write down or tell you their absolute dream toy.
Then, show them that it's possible to have that toy if they save x enough money for x amount of weeks.

Photo credit: Getty

Give them an allowance.

Photo credit: Alamy

Stick to a set time and date each month for giving your child their allowance.
Practicing giving your children their allowance every other week or on certain dates of each month will help them prepare for set paydays in the working world--it will teach them to budget out and how to know when to save up in anticipation.

Photo credit: Getty

Match your child's savings each month.
This will imitate a 401K and show your child ways in which saving can (literally) pay off.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Have your kid organize their funds in to different jars to represent different accounts.
Examples could be "Saving", "Spending", "Charity", "Emergency", "College".

Photo credit: Getty

Take your kids grocery shopping and explain certain choices you make with your purchases to them.
Your children will benefit from knowing what's best to purchase name brand vs. generic, why some snacks are better to buy in bulk, etc.

Photo credit: Getty


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