Our Family’s Strategies for Saving a Mint on the Back-to-School Season
It’s an annual tradition of sorts for parents all across the country. The summer starts to wind down. They get a letter from the school telling them about their student’s enrollment for the next year and who their teacher is. They start seeing hints of “back to school” at the store and in their mailbox. Their children are dressed in clothes that are almost too small and are worn from a summer of play.
It’s time to start thinking about going back to school.
When I think about the fact that we have three school-aged children (our youngest starts first grade this year), I can’t help but wonder where the time has gone. Here we are, though, with our children chattering at the dinner table, comparing thoughts about teachers and letting their younger siblings know what to expect in the coming school year.
This, of course, means that our three children are going through the “back to school” process all at once. That means buying school supplies, replacing grubby shoes, purchasing clothes that are appropriate for the fall and early winter here in Iowa (the temperature starts dropping in September and we can have some really cold days by mid-October), and so on.
No matter how you slice it, it’s an expensive period. School supply shopping and clothes shopping for three children at once? Ouch.
Over the years, though, we’ve developed a number of strategies that really help with cutting down on the back to school expenses, and this year, more than ever before, we’re putting them to the test.
We Utilize Tax-Free Holidays
Many states offer tax-free holidays throughout the year on certain types of goods. These tax-free holidays offer a chance to shop for particular types of goods without paying any sales tax on your purchases, which saves money buying locally. On top of that, many stores offer sales on the tax-free items on those days.
In Iowa, for example, the state offers a tax-free holiday on clothing and footwear on the first weekend in August. Because of that, many people buy school clothes on that weekend and retailers often offer big sales to attract all of those buyers. It’s a perfect time to buy things like shoes and some clothes.
Other states offer tax-free holidays on other items, from clothes and computers to school supplies and shoes.
Because of this tax-free holiday and its timing, it sets the schedule for our back-to-school shopping, at least in the clothes and shoes department. We use a few additional strategies in the days before the tax-free weekend to minimize our spending during that weekend.
We Actively Swap and Hand Down Clothes
At some point just before the tax-free holiday, we spend some time evaluating our clothes. What still fits? What’s worn out? What can be handed down from our older children to our younger ones? What can our youngest one hand down to younger relatives? What hand-me-downs from older relatives are finally the right size for our children to wear?
This kind of evaluation helps us figure out what we actually need. It also allows us to get plenty of use out of the clothing that they wear, plus we are able to “pay it forward” with regards to the clothes that were handed down to us.
Surprisingly, this process doesn’t take all that long. We just take out all of the clothes and make several piles – one “keeper” pile for each child and a “hand-me-down or giveaway” pile. We then figure out the “keeper” pile for each child and see what’s needed.
We Shop for Clothes Secondhand First
Before we jump into buying new clothes during the tax free holiday, we do some shopping at secondhand clothing stores first. We try to fill the holes in wardrobes there first, as the prices are far lower than what we’ll find during the tax-free holiday.
We can afford to be really selective when doing this, but at the better local used clothing stores, there is usually a lot of good used clothing almost every time we visit. Yes, some of it is worn and, yes, some of it doesn’t suit our children’s tastes or sizes, but all we have to do is find one or two items and the trip is well worth it.
On a typical used clothing trip, we find three or four outfits for each child, which drastically reduces our tax-free holiday clothes buying needs.
We Shop for Supplies at Home First
What about school supplies?
Our first tactic is to simply “shop at home.” We go through all of our art supply boxes and closets, looking for school supplies from previous years, and determine how many of them are still usable.
Things like pencil cases, backpacks, erasers, pencils, pens, rulers, and so on from previous years can almost always be reused. We also often have new supplies from previous supply shopping trips (see below), so there’s even more savings.
We usually just collect everything that might be reusable, dump it all out on the kitchen table, and mark the reused things off of their school supply lists.
We Take Advantage of Summer Yard and Garage Sales
Our area tends to have constant yard sales all throughout the summer. Different cities and towns host city-wide yard sales all throughout the spring and summer and many individuals have yard sales outside of those dates, so if you’re willing to visit sales, you can often find them.
What do we buy there? Everything that works for back to school. We’ve picked up clothing, binders, rulers, art supply boxes, and protractors at yard sales in the past year or two, all of them for literally pennies and all of which wound up being used by our children at school.
As always, going to yard sales is like rolling the dice as you don’t know what you’re going to find or at what quality, but I seem to always find a handful of gems during a day of hitting yard sales.
We Use Flyers
A lot of stores – both clothing stores and more general department stores – issue flyers in the week or so before Iowa’s tax-free weekend and they’re virtually always loaded down with clothing sales. So, a few days before that tax free holiday, we sit down with those flyers and plot out where we’re going to shop for clothes.
A few weeks after that, the department stores start in with strong back to school sales on their school supplies, so, again, we’ll sit down with the flyers and see what’s on sale that matches up well with their school supply lists. We often end up hitting multiple stores because of the quantity of items we’re buying; it actually warrants two or three stops if the biggest bargains at each store are different.
Honestly, it’s not always the same stores. Sometimes we have a gift card for a particular store, which swings the balance. At other times, we’ll have a coupon that gives us a certain percentage off at a certain store, which also can really swing the balance. Sometimes, we buy many of our supplies at a dollar store. It really just depends on what’s going on this year, and we figure that out by looking at lots of flyers.
We Use Coupons, Too
Often, there are coupons in other places besides flyers for back to school items. For example, we’ll browse Target’s Cartwheel coupon app looking for additional coupons. Although Target might not be the best choice overall, coupons can certainly help if you’re choosing Target for other reasons (such as a gift card or a percentage discount) or because they have one or two specific highly discounted items in their flyer.
For us, coupons are the icing on the cake rather than the main course for saving money on back to school shopping. Coupons represent a small additional discount – I liken it to printing off dollar bills if we’re buying lots of items – but the bigger discounts come from planning around tax-free holidays and finding the best bargain prices from the flyers. Coupons just add additional discounts to the pile.
We Get Plain Notebooks and Folders and Allow Children to Decorate Them with Stickers
Stores love to sell notebooks and folders with popular cartoon characters and pop culture figures depicted on them. Of course, stores also love to mark up those items to an absurd degree compared to the plain-covered items right next to them. It’s pretty hard to justify paying $2 for a notebook with Pokemon on the cover when there are functionally identical plain notebooks stocked right next to them for $0.10.
Unsurprisingly, though, our kids gravitate straight toward the notebooks with characters on them. They want to have the “cool” notebooks at school, and I understand that.
One way we “compromise” on this issue is by buying just plain notebooks and folders, and then letting the children pick out a pack of stickers with which to decorate the folders and notebooks, however they’d like. If they’re into Star Wars, for example, they could buy a pack of Star Wars stickers and put the stickers all over. They can also use art supplies at home to add whatever decorations they’d like to their notebooks.
Doing this gives our children a great deal of creative freedom, creates a great art project for them to work on in the days before school starts, and also saves us quite a lot of money as the much cheaper notebooks more than subsidize the cost of a few packs of stickers.
We Limit the Items where Children Can Choose
With many of the items that we’re buying during the back to school season, there are loads of potential items for our children to choose from. There are infinite variations on shoes, shirts, pants, notebooks, and on and on and on.
Naturally, our children want at least some input into this conversation. They don’t want to wear shirts in colors they dislike or carry a notebook with a popular culture figure on the front that they dislike, either. My oldest two children have somewhat more specific tastes as well – my oldest one has very, very specific tastes in pants, for example.
Our way of handling this is very simple. We tell them that we’re going to do the selecting of the items, but if they find similar items at the same price, we’re happy to substitute them as long as the other items aren’t offensive in some fashion (for example, we won’t let our children wear shirts with offensive slogans or clothes with tasteless cuts or something like that).
This gives our children significant freedom of choice. At the same time, it also teaches them to look at the prices when they’re picking out clothes and other items. They can’t just grab the one that they want – they have to think about the prices, too. It doesn’t cost us a dime and it makes everyone involved happier.
We Allow Them a Small ‘Budget’ for Items Beyond the Minimum
Of course, sometimes they spot an item that they “must have.” Maybe it’s a new backpack that’s nicer than the model that we chose for them. Perhaps it’s a sturdier and higher quality notebook (something I personally can identify with). Perhaps it’s a pack of really nice gel pens. Maybe it’s the coolest t-shirt they’ve ever seen.
We handle this by giving each kid a small “back to school allowance” that they can use to “upgrade” any of the items that we might purchase for them. For example, if we’re going to spend $8 on a shirt that they don’t like and they spot one for $15 that they love, they can “upgrade” that shirt for $7 out of their “back to school allowance.”
This allows us, as parents, to come up with reasonable shopping lists for each child that are reasonably balanced from child to child. We don’t spend more on one child than another (outside of the variances in their back to school lists), so any situations where one child has something “nicer” than another child is solely due to their own choices.
It also helps us to teach our children how to budget and how to not be jealous of the things that others have while also keeping our overall back to school spending in line.
As our children grow older, the items they need for back to school purposes become more consistent. They need pencils. They need pens. They need notebooks. They need erasers. Those things pop up year after year after year on their lists.
Our children are also progressing through the same grades at the same schools as their older siblings, so the “back to school” list one of them had one year is usually identical to the list that their younger sibling will have in a year or two.
Because of that, we keep our eyes peeled for huge loss leader discounts, like boxes of pencils for a quarter or notebooks for a nickel or composition books for a nickel or rulers for a quarter. When we find those sales, we’ll buy two or three or five or ten of the item right now, knowing that we’ll be able to use them for the next few years during back to school time.
We keep these extra items in a box with our other art supplies so that when the back to school period happens, we can just pull out that box of unused school supplies and use them to take care of a healthy portion of our list before we ever leave the house.
Basically, this allows us to stretch those top-notch sales across multiple years of back to school shopping.
There’s a secondary benefit to this approach, too. Often during the year, our children will come home and announce that they’re out of pencils or that they lost their ruler. In those situations, we can just turn to that box of very cheap supplies we bought in bulk and pull out the exact items that they need (most of the time).
We Watch for Potential Art Boxes
One item that often pops up on our school lists is the art supply box. They need something to keep their markers, colored pencils, scissors, glue and other such materials in when they’re not actively working on an art project. The teacher usually gives some free reign regarding the specifics of the box.
Of course, if you actually buy an art supply box at the store during the back to school rush, they tend to be fairly high priced unless you buy a very simple and basic one.
Our solution is simple: we’re always looking for potential art supply boxes. We don’t just use the ones that are placed out with the other back to school items. Instead, we watch for all kinds of variations on the idea, from lunch boxes to interesting plastic containers, and sometimes those items fall into our laps for free.
For example, we were given some great little plastic containers with hinges on them when a friend brought some cookies and told us to just keep the container. That container became an art supply box for our daughter the next year and she decorated it herself with some of her “back to school” stickers (see earlier in the article).
For some, it might seem a little early to start thinking about “back to school” needs, but the reality is that school starts for many children within the next few weeks and many of the best back to school strategies require a little bit of time and patience. It takes time to shop for clothes at several different stores, for example, and it takes time to look at the flyers from several different stores to figure out which ones offer the best deals on the items you need.
What’s the reward for all of that effort? The reward is that you’re going to save a bundle of money on the back to school shopping that every parent seems to have to deal with. You’ll have plenty of supplies for now, supplies tucked away for the future, and plenty of well-fitting clothes in good shape, all purchased at very low prices.
It just takes a little bit of time and planning to save a lot of cash.
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