Saving for school

The school year comes around every year, so it shouldn't surprise parents of school-aged kids when August (or September) hits and the brilliant white tennis shoes hit the newly-waxed school floors. Since I've had my eye on the start of school for a few weeks, I am not surprised either. But I was surprised to learn that families of school-aged children spent over $630 in back-to-school expenses.

This number from the National Retail Federation includes clothing, shoes, school supplies, and electronics. While clothing is the largest expense on average, the other categories are significant too.

Saving for school

For instance, registration fees and school supply lists are a little bit different from the days when I french-rolled my jeans and used a lot of hairspray (please tell me I am not alone). As schools face budget cuts, more is expected from the parents. And we have registration fees and technology fees to manage as well. If your kids don't need a scientific calculator or an electronic device, your fees will be lower. But still, let's explore a few ways to save.

Clothes

Let's talk about the biggest expense first: clothing. While I haven't purchased any clothing for our kids yet, I plan on using methods I have talked about before.

  • Barter with other parents
  • Accept any offers of hand-me-downs from my friends/relatives
  • Shop during the 49-cent sale at my favorite thrift store
  • Check our kids' closets and create a list for what is actually needed to fill the gaps in their wardrobes
  • “Shop” at a friend's free clothing extravaganza she holds twice a year
  • If I must purchase new clothing, I will use the coupon codes from online retailers that are already starting to fill my inbox
  • And I'll start the online shopping experience by starting at ebates.com to get a small percentage back.

Strategies to save

In general, budgeting for back-to-school, as I mentioned, shouldn't be a surprise. However, it's not a monthly expense, so it is easy to overlook.

A simple way to have enough cash when August rolls around is to figure out how much money you'll spend, divide by 12, and save that amount of money each month.

I give you nothing but earth-shattering tips, eh?

Again, tip number one: Figure out what you'll spend, divide by 12, and put that much money aside each month. Wow. And it's a lot easier to save $50 per month than to it is to come up with $600 at once.

I have two kids in elementary school, so we had two school supply lists. I took both of them (along with our new baby) shopping for school supplies yesterday. By myself. Between bouncing the baby, juggling a bottle, consulting two school supply lists, and barking out directions to the kids to look in the different supply bins, I was a little frazzled. Okay, maybe I was more than a little frazzled, since I wasn't paying attention to the cost of the supplies. My plan was to just get in and get out without losing my mind.

My second tip is to bring along another adult, if possible, or leave the kids at home. This decreases the frazzle factor.

For the first time, our school district had online registration, so I had paid our registration fees in June. (By paying them early, I got a 10 percent discount. Um, yes, please!) Along with paying our registration fees, I also got our children's school supply lists early. That gave me a chance to watch for sales and coupons. I don't usually do coupons, but there are school supply items like a specific brand of kitchen trash bags that do use coupons. Third tip? Don't forget to check store sales and coupons.

Tip number four: Reuse supplies. On the last day of school, my kids came home with bulging backpacks. I took all their unused supplies (scissors and pencil boxes) and put them away so we could mark a few things off their school supply list.

If you want to be really prepared, use my fifth tip and buy the season's leftover supplies (read: cheap) after the school year begins. And save these commonly used items (Crayons, markers, and the like) for the next year.

Tip six: Give your children useful presents. Each year, before one of her grandchildren starts kindergarten, my mom buys them a really nice backpack for Christmas or their birthdays. Can you give practical gifts that also double as back-to-school needs?

For the seventh tip, if your state offers tax-free shopping days, shop then. Also, see tip two again. But remember that these shopping days are bound to be busier and crazier than usual, so plan accordingly.

For my final tip, you may join me, if this applies. When the bus picks up the kids, I think I will enjoy a few minutes of solitude and a cup of steaming coffee (even if it's still really hot outside). I will be celebrating the return to a more consistent schedule.

I am not the only one celebrating, though. My kids have already packed their backpacks with their new supplies. They're ready to spend more time with their friends and maybe even enjoy the opportunity to learn a few things too.

Anyone ready to rename the back-to-school season as the most wonderful time of the year? Do you think $630+ on back-to-school shopping is accurate? What are some of your strategies to save? Or is your strategy, like mine, just to survive the shopping experience?

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Kate
Kate
6 years ago

As a kid, back-to-school season really was the best time of the year.

It was the one time of year that I got new clothes, shoes, and school supplies.

I admit that as logical and useful as this article is, it kind of makes my elementary school-age heart a bit sad…

Short arms long pockets
Short arms long pockets
6 years ago

My tip? Don’t buy “back to school” clothes until after the start of the school year. (OK, maybe one new outfit if the kids are of an age to care). Chances are that in most parts of the country that the clothes they have been wearing all summer will be fine for the first month or so of school. By that time you have an idea of what is current and can avoid having bought things that won’t be worn. Yes I am a parental survivor of teenage girls 🙂 Also, after “back to school” is over, all of the… Read more »

Laura
Laura
6 years ago

This. Follow this tip to save money on back-to-school clothes. I will say, though, my experience here in Massachusetts is that the best back-to-school clothing deals tend to be in July, when they first hit the market and the stores are trying to get people in to buy. By October, there are a few things left on the sale racks, but thanks to inventory software tracking their sales and merchandise, stores usually don’t have a lot left over. I’ve been lucky to have one child, a boy, who considers himself well-dressed in a Doctor Who t-shirt and jeans. OTOH, his… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
6 years ago
Reply to  Laura

MLP fan! 🙂

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
6 years ago

?? Where I live, I find the opposite. There are SOOO many stores that are competing for parents who are buying back-to-school clothes that the sales at this time of the year are best. I used these sales to buy a new wardrobe in the new size for my kids because kids up to age outgrow their former size generally once a year, if not more. In fact, I have found the sales so good during the “back-to-school” sale that I generally have been able to buy back-to-school clothes for about the same price that I can sell them for… Read more »

Marsha
Marsha
6 years ago

When my sons were in school (and even now that they’re in college) I never did much “back to school” shopping. I gathered inexpensive clothing and supplies year-round at garage sales, thrift stores, and clearance sales. In the weeks before school started, I’d do an inventory of what I had on hand and rarely had to buy much else. With them now in college (sophomore and senior), my shopping is limited to getting their textbook lists as early as possible so I can find the best prices online. I never spent anywhere near the $600+ figure, but it would be… Read more »

Laura
Laura
6 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Same here. I think the $630 figure comes from parents who don’t inventory what they already have and reuse them so they have to go buy new again. Also, clearance sales in late September/early October means substantial discounts, so if you know Junior will need largely the same supplies next year, it’s worth it to pick them up. (In an earlier comment, I mentioned that stores use inventory software to cut down what they have left over. Weirdly, my experience is that this is true for clothing but not for back-to-school supplies. I’m not sure why that is.) I have… Read more »

Tricia
Tricia
6 years ago

I don’t really understand back to school clothes shopping. It is like buying clothes for the sake of buying clothes. We buy clothes throughout the year as needed and try to buy secondhand or on sale. Coincidentally, my DD just had a growth spurt and school is about to start, so she’ll need some pants, but I don’t take them shopping for school clothes.

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
6 years ago
Reply to  Tricia

When you have children who have outgrown the size they wore last year, you shop when there are really good sales, and there are a lot of stores competing for the back-to-school dollars by offering really good sales and coupons that can be stacked. Buying for the sake of buying is when your children haven’t outgrown their clothes and yet you are shopping. I have found this is an amazing time to shop for new clothes because all of the stores are clearancing out their summer stuff and back-to-school is when I look to see whether my kids need the… Read more »

AMW
AMW
6 years ago

For clothing, this is a great time for clearance racks. The layered look never really goes out and those short sleeved blouses, tees, etc. work well in the fall and the spring with just a sweater or a hoodie to go with it. Many times you can get things cheaper this way than at the thrift store. For supplies, take advantage of recycling discounts on things like binders and ink. Stock up on all those crazy loss leader items. I bought enough pens, pencils, and filler paper 10 years ago when they were selling them for .01 each. For less… Read more »

Jon @ Money Smart Guides
Jon @ Money Smart Guides
6 years ago

I remember when I was little and my Mom would take me back to school shopping. We would go to Sears or JCPenny to get my clothes and for the most part, I was only getting quality clothes that were on sale/reasonably priced. I never was able to just go out and pick the things I wanted.

Mick
Mick
6 years ago

I always felt like September was an expensive month because of back to school. We tried to save and be frugal where we could, of course.

We also had to figure in fees for fall sports.
And the inevitable fundraisers that start on what seems to be the first day. I believe in supporting the kids with (most of) their fundraisers so I always budgeted for that as well.

Millionaires Giving Money
Millionaires Giving Money
6 years ago

Hand me downs are a great idea and I have been practising the art of hand me down my entire life. I have probably saved a fortune and I don’t think I’ve missed out. Great post, excellent ideas! thanks for sharing

Emma @ Life. By Emma
Emma @ Life. By Emma
6 years ago

I come from a frugal family and was always the only one of my friends to wear second hand school uniforms (in New Zealand hardly any school allows students to wear regular clothes). I was mortified at the time but now I see how much school uniforms cost I can truly appreciate how much my parents must have struggled to even afford a second uniform. I am considering home-schooing or un-schooling my son – one of the benefits of which is no school uniforms! For preschool he only wears hand-me-downs – and with 5 older male cousins there are a… Read more »

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
6 years ago

We’re on uniforms, so that limits back to school clothing shopping. One tip there is to check to see if your school runs a used uniforms shop– $3 for a used school logo Land’s End shirt (with no s/h) is a lot nicer than $15-$24 for a new one, and all $3 go directly to the school.

Laura
Laura
6 years ago

Wish DS’s school did this. However, >50% of the school population qualify for free/reduced lunches and many of the families can only afford 1 or 2 sets of uniforms that are handed down within the family. Whenever DS outgrows a set, we donate it to the school nurse as they need extra sets for children who ruin their clothes at school. The kids are supposed to return the borrowed sets, but that often doesn’t happen. I think too that the school quietly donates extra sets to the very poorest families.

Amanda
Amanda
6 years ago

I imagine this comment may not be popular, but what about supporting uniforms in school, public or private. It would decrease the spending on school clothes, and kids would concentrate more on school work. I don’t think this isn’t popular with kids, but has anyone done it and what kind of success has your school had?

Laura
Laura
6 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

I can’t speak for getting a school to adopt uniforms, but my son’s school uses them and it cuts down on a lot of BS. Most of the kids hate it and do everything they can to individualize in some way, such as their footwear (“athletic shoes” covers a broad spectrum). Fortunately for me, DS loves having a uniform; he has Asperger’s and when he was young, he had a lot of trouble figuring out what clothes went together/were acceptable (e.g., t-shirts go underneath the long-sleeved polo shirt, not over it). We had a lot less hassles when he went… Read more »

Courtney
Courtney
6 years ago

My biggest expenses for back-to-school are the supply lists. In North Carolina, the budget has cut school funding so much that most of the things that I am required to buy are actually classroom supplies. For example, my daughter needs to buy 2 reams white paper, 2 boxes tissues, 12 glue sticks (yes, 12!), 2 boxes of 48 crayons, 1 pack gallon bags, 1 pack sandwich bags, 2 packs dry erase markers, 1 classroom snack per month, 1 bottle hand sanitizer, and the list goes on and on. I can coupon a lot of the items but in the end,… Read more »

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
6 years ago
Reply to  Courtney

Form a committee of business people and accountants and go through the school budget with a fine-tooth comb. We shouldn’t be having to buy things like plastic trash bags! Where is all that tax money going?

Betsy
Betsy
6 years ago

I can tell you that Uniforms are great for kids and parents. Especially for girls. Less arguments about ‘no one wears this’ and less cost. Our public school went to White/Black/Dark and Light Blue Collared Shirts. Khaki/Black/Dark Blue pants. Before the girls were teens it didn’t matter if the clothes were in the Boys or Girls dept. Frankly the Boys clothes were cheaper and better made for active kids. Even now that the girls are a Senior and Junior we still can get some stuff in the Boys Dept. We’ve always bought Boys Athletic shoes.

Kristin
Kristin
6 years ago

We have a 14 y.o. boy, who is not particularly fashion conscious, but who is growing rapidly. I think this fall he may need some long sleeve shirts, but his pants should still fit. From experience I know that most of the long sleeved shirts don’t appear in stores until mid-September. So we won’t be doing a lot of back to school shopping; he’ll be able to wear shorts or pants with short sleeves for the first few weeks anyway. It probably won’t snow here until October at the earliest… Re: supplies. Last year transitioning into middle school was a… Read more »

SAHMama
SAHMama
6 years ago

With sports fee registration, PTO fee, school picture fee, supply fee, supplies we also have to purchase for the classroom (public school), plus the growth spurt my 7 year old had, I can see how the costs add up. I shop the penny deals at the office supply stores, hit up the clearance racks, thrift stores and rummage sales.

Cat@BudgetBlonde
6 years ago

Can’t believe school is starting back already! I will probably def search the clearance racks when its time for my kids to go to school.

nancy
nancy
6 years ago

Another vote for uniforms! I loved having a uniform as a kid. So much easier, and cheaper too. Unfortunately, my kids’ public school disagrees. So they will be wearing summer clothes until the weather cools in October, which happens to be when their birthdays are, so guess who is getting new clothes for their birthday? 🙂

Cherie
Cherie
6 years ago

I’ve been doing this for 11 years now, and I think I finally have it down to what works best for US. We have school uniforms, must be bought at the uniform supplier – very specific and not optional – we buy only what we need. Supplies themselves? 1. I only buy a new backpack if someone’s is no longer usable [and yes, I do then send it back to get fixed 🙂 Those go in our pile as the time it takes is hard to judge] If you want a new one look at the pile [no one minds… Read more »

mike
mike
6 years ago

Having gone to public school (my wife went to private) school supplies weren’t expensive for the most part, I reused the same stuff for years that I could but from a private school perspective, it can get pricey even if you are frugal. Also some public schools in our areas don’t even let kids take books home which is critical especially in high school due to the volume of work. Private school all-girls high school-1 girl Books-$400 a year or so (using rental, used, some new from various websites) Uniforms-Shoes $100 last for 4 years supposedly-going into year 3 feet… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
6 years ago

I can totally see the prices actually. We, also in North Carolina, have huge supply lists (one had to bring 15 – 20 glue sticks!). And school uniforms can really add up – I buy them cheap online, but they add up. We get hand-me-downs, but not very many for uniforms and each elementary school here has different colors. So, we buy very few regular clothes, but we do have to buy a lot of uniforms. I love Children’s Place for uniforms when they have great sales and free shipping and I don’t have to go to the store!

Laura
Laura
6 years ago

Be careful with tip #6, giving birthday/holiday gifts that apply to school. My mom ruined my 18th birthday with three “gifts” — an iron, address book (90s), and a cheap suitcase — that doubled as off-to-college gifts. To this day I refuse to own an iron because of the feelings it brings forth. But don’t worry, I’ve had therapy and own a steamer. 🙂

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

You’d be shocked how much brand name stuff you can find at consignment shops if you carve out an hour or two to really dig through the racks. So much cheaper than buying it new, and you can hardly tell the difference.

Also, it’s shameful that government is downloading more and more supply burden on parents, especially when income and employment has been stagnant or declining in real terms over the past generation … give us a break!

Emma
Emma
6 years ago
Reply to  Chris

As opposed to raising taxes and placing the burden on everyone?

Not trying to be snarky. Just think that if the government raises taxes to raise school budgets for supplies, everyone would be complaining about that too.

A no-win situation?

Babs
Babs
6 years ago

One of the smartest things I did when my kids were in school was to stock up on poster board. It only took one late evening trip to the store to see the light. It’s pretty cheap & you can stash it behind the sofa. I even had some neighbor kids get some from me.

Leslie
Leslie
6 years ago

Here we have year round schools and traditional calendar schools (north carolina)so the back to school sales start at the beginning of July and last until late August. I stock up on office/school supplies over those 8 weeks on the super cheap loss leader sales (over 8 weeks virtually everything you need for a year goes on sale at some point). That way, we get all our school supplies, I have plenty of office and art supplies for home and scout troops, and I usually have items the teachers ask for during the year stashed in my office supply cabinet… Read more »

James @ Bankingontheweb.com
James @ Bankingontheweb.com
6 years ago

Well explained. Education indeed is among the heaviest financial burdens for most parents. Having educational savings plan can make everything at ease.

lauren
lauren
6 years ago

I work in retail for a large department store… Early July is the best time to get summer clothes like shorts and tshirts because retailers are switching from spring to fall season (retailers have 2 seasons) and need to clearance everything to make room for the (more expensive) back to school clothes. Note that this a clearance cycle so you may need to look around. In August/late July ,less things will be on clearance but they will be promotionally priced, so you can still get good deals. Good time to get jeans, sweatshirts, etc. My biggest tip though, especially for… Read more »

Cheryl
Cheryl
6 years ago

I am shocked that some of you have to pay registration fees for public schools. How much do these typically run? What if a family truly can’t afford it? And what happened to free public education?

In my town, we now have fees for extracurricular activities, but at least no one is REQUIRED to pay them.

Joshua Kincaid
Joshua Kincaid
6 years ago

Buy bulk (like Costco) and split into usable units.

Anything you can’t buy there buy online.

Don’t buy retail. Its usually never a good idea.

Juli
Juli
6 years ago

I don’t buy clothes for my kids, as we get more hand-me-downs than they can wear. My oldest starts kindergarten on Monday — for his birthday, we asked Grandma for a backpack and lunchbox. For his class, we don’t buy supplies, we pay a $25 supply fee and that covers everything but the backpack. I admit, I was a little sad when I heard that, as I used to LOVE school supply shopping as a kid. So our school costs, so far, have been pretty minimal. Until we start seeing all the fund raiser forms coming home. Ugh.

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