For parents, the return to school means a return to spending: NerdWallet recently found that, in spite of the pandemic, about half of parents who plan to back-to-school shop this year expect to spend about the same as they normally would, with more of that spending going toward clothing than in 2020.
The pandemic has added new items to shopping lists. More schools are asking students to bring their own water bottles and in some cases larger quantities of items like pencils and crayons as teachers try to restock classrooms, says Charles Field , CEO of TeacherLists, which publishes close to 2 million supply lists provided by schools. It’s also harder to find discounts on back-to-school items this year, he says, because of supply-chain challenges. “As retailers run out of stock, they’re less likely to do super-low pricing, especially for things produced overseas,” he says.
Despite those challenges, there are ways to keep costs under control. We asked parents and educators for their best strategies.
BEFORE SHOPPING, TAKE INVENTORY
Given that so many students have been in virtual or hybrid school during the pandemic, Nedra McDaniel , mom of two and founder of the blog Adventure Mom, suggests combing through what you currently have, both for school supplies and clothing. Kids might have outgrown some school clothes but not others, and you want those details before hitting the stores. “Or else you end up buying things you really don’t need,” McDaniel says. “I’ve come back and seen we have brand new scissors from last year.”
She also suggests waiting to buy fall and winter clothes. They’re likely to be on sale later in the season — and children might have grown by then anyway. “You don’t have to rush out and get everything all at once,” she says. Jeans, for example, tend to go on sale in October. Keep a running list of what you need and sizes on your phone so you can take advantage of deals when you find them, McDaniel advises.
STOCK UP WHEN YOU SEE DISCOUNTS
Because of the pandemic’s strain on the supply chain, Field says that retailers are running out of standard items kids may need, like binders, backpacks and notebooks. “Shop early this year,” he advises, and if you see discounts, don’t wait to take advantage of them, because the products might be gone soon or restocked at higher prices. He also noticed back-to-school sales started earlier this year, perhaps as a result of Amazon Prime Day in June.
Alissa Davis , a parent and first grade teacher in Indianapolis, says that she finds deals by making bulk purchases of items like glue sticks, paper and pencils and then slowly using them up throughout the school year. “You never know when you’ll have projects you need to work on at home, so it’s handy to have. You can buy in bulk and then spread it out over the next year or two,” she says.
Davis, who also shares tips on her website, teachermomlifeblog.com, says you don’t need to wait until you get the supply lists. She buys when she sees discounts: “You can predict some things he will need or want, so watch the sales,” she suggests. Some stores also offer bundled items at a discount, but sometimes they contain extra items you don’t need. Similarly, schools sometimes offer a supply bundle for parents to purchase, but you may be able to pay less by shopping sales.
CHECK YOUR LOCAL GROCERY STORE
Davis says she’s found some big sales recently at local grocery stores. “They get their back-to-school supplies and then want to make room for fall decor,” she says, adding that grocery stores often have loyalty programs that give additional discounts. Some cash-back credit cards also offer grocery stores as a bonus category, which can layer on even more savings.
CONSIDER IN-STORE SHOPPING FOR SINGLE ITEMS
With online shopping, it’s easy to compare prices and quickly add items from a school supply list. But that way, Field points out, you might not be able to purchase just one or two glue sticks, for example; you may have to buy a package with several. That approach might work if you’re buying for multiple children, but if you want only one glue stick, then you’ll likely find better deals when shopping in person.
ASK FOR HELP IF YOU NEED IT
Some items on the school supply list may not be essential or may not be needed until later in the school year. Davis suggests asking your child’s teacher to help prioritize what they really need for the first day and what you can wait to buy. “There are some things I have stashed in a closet or leftovers I could distribute to students. Teachers can help you triage if you’re in a jam,” she says.
She adds that teachers may be able to point you toward community organizations that host supply drives if you need additional help.