Think enduring the chaos that is the toy department on Black Friday to find great deals is tough? Try the back-to-school section in August. Parents must navigate crowded aisles, dig through overflowing bins and employ every negotiating skill to avoid meltdowns when that sought-after Spider Man lunchbox is nowhere to be found.
According to the National Retail Federation, families with children in kindergarten through 12th grade plan to spend an average $697 this year. Clothing and accessories take the biggest cut, closely followed by electronics. Basic supplies such as notebooks, pencils, backpacks and lunchboxes will run - ouch! - about $117.
Carolyn Erickson tracks and reports the best back-to-school sales at local stores on her website, Wichita on the Cheap, weekly. “It’s my favorite time of the year, because you can find good-quality, name-brand supplies for cheap,” says Erickson, who spent 13 years buying school supplies for her daughter, a recent high school graduate. “But I also see how widely prices can vary.”
When it comes to shopping for school supplies, there are two schools of thought. One is to choose a store you think has the lowest prices and buy everything there in a single swoop. This approach saves time, gas and, for some, sanity. (Savvy shoppers might even increase their savings by using their smartphone to comparison-shop other stores, then ask the checkout clerk to match the prices.)
The other approach is to watch ads for grocery, drug, big-box and office-supply stores in the weeks leading up to the start of school and pick up the best deals at each. This technique works best when you live within a five- to 10-mile radius of those stores.
I favor the latter route, especially if you want to maximize your savings. Here are more tips to help you earn an A-plus on back-to-school shopping.
- Read your supply list carefully.
This will help you strategize and set a budget for the essentials. Lists can differ depending on what grade your child is in. "Usually elementary school supply lists are planned by a team of teachers," says Cecily White-Cooper, a Montgomery County middle school teacher and mother to 7-year-old twins. "Middle and high school students are given a list of basics, then, when school starts, [they] receive supplemental lists along with their syllabus, specific to the classes in which they enroll."
- Shop your house first.
Inventory what your kids have left over from last year. "You may find folders, binders, boxes of crayons that you bought last year, but didn't get used," says Michael Foguth, a financial planner in Brighton, Mich. With five daughters under the age of 10, four of whom are in elementary school, Foguth and his wife, Brooke, often "recycle" school uniforms from one daughter to her younger sister.
- Know what the price should be.
To find the average cost of supplies, do an online search for "school supply price list + [your city]." This way, when you spot an apparent sale, you'll know whether it's a real deal.
- Cast a wide net.
Back-to-school season is one time when even higher-price chains offer deep discounts. A store you perceive as pricey may have an item you need on sale. Glue may be more expensive at the office-supply store, but spiral notebooks may be cheaper there than at other outlets. Saving 25 cents on every notebook can add up for a large family.
- Jump on loss leaders.
Read weekly store circulars. Although most sales start Sunday morning, many stores post online previews by late Friday. Review sale fliers and note the items at a deep discount. Head out as early as possible on Sunday. "Buy the loss leader only, then leave the store so you aren't tempted to buy more expensive items," Erickson advises.
- Take note of season-long pricing.
Many stores are setting their lowest price for the entire back-to-school period - through early September. Keep those places in the back of your mind. That way, right before school starts, you can shop for any items you still need at the stores with the cheapest prices.
- Use manufacturer’s coupons.
There aren't a ton of coupons for office supplies, but the ones that are issued can save you big when combined with sales. Also, many school supply lists request items such as hand sanitizer, paper towels, plastic bags and disinfectant wipes. Companies often issue high-value coupons for these products during back-to-school season.
- Stock up.
When you see a great deal, buy extra. You won't pay full retail later in the year if you need more, and at worst, you'll be ahead of the game next year (if you remember to shop your house first).
- Be smart about backpacks.
Backpacks can be a budget buster. Durable backpacks can cost $50 to $80, whereas the super cheapies may not make it through the first quarter of school. Look for name-brand backpacks at off-price retailers such as Marshalls, T.J, Maxx or Ross. Erickson found one for about $25, 50 percent less than other stores, and her daughter used it for several years.
- Check consignment stores.
Both Erickson and White-Cooper look to kids' consignment stores for clothes, shoes and backpacks. It's hit or miss, but sometimes you'll find new items with the tags still on and pay a fraction of the retail price.
- Make it an adults-only occasion.
Unless your child is an avowed penny pincher who has never begged, "Will you buy me this? Please? Puh-leeze?" leave the kids at home. Erickson says. "Think about it. Notebooks are always open to a blank page. But try explaining to a determined youngster that the solid-cover spiral notebook for 15 cents is just as good as the $2 one with puppies on the cover."
- Or, turn bargain hunting into a learning experience.
When her daughter was entering third grade, Erickson gave her $20 and her school supply list. "I told Joanna to get everything on the list and she could keep the leftover cash. At the store, she saw a cute kitten-cover notebook for $1 and a plain one for 15 cents," Erickson recalls. "Suddenly she 'got it,' realizing the less she spent, the more money she kept. It was a real lesson in money and math. Joanna reviewed sale fliers with me, shopped the house for pencils and suggested we reuse her backpack. That year, we spent $8 on school supplies."
- Off-brand is OK - usually.
School supply lists often mention name-brand items such as Clorox wipes or Crayola crayons. White-Cooper says it's often because of name-brand familiarity instead of a "must-buy" rule. "Other than Expo dry-erase markers, which teachers have found to be superior to most anything else on the market, generics, especially those sold at the major retailers, can save you money," she says. For instance, house-brand disinfectant wipes from Costco or BJ's Wholesale Club work just as well as name brands to clean desks.
Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net.