Back-to-school shopping

Back-to-school shopping should start with a plan. Don’t buy until you know what you need. Look for loss-leaders. And don’t be afraid to wait for sales.

Back-to-school is the second-biggest shopping event of the year for retailers, but paying full retail prices in the typical “mall haul” is for suckers, say expert shoppers and cheapskates.

Americans will spend $68 billion during this year’s back-to-school season, including back-to-college, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s an average of $630 per family for school-age kids and $899 for families with college-bound students.

“They say back-to-school costs are about $600; I think that’s bogus,” said Steve Economides, who with wife Annette heads “America’s cheapest family,” operates and has written books including “The MoneySmart Family System.”

“If you’re a smart shopper, you can do it for $60 to $75,” he said.

We searched high and low for the best tactics for back-to-school shoppers’ two main categories: school supplies and clothing. We’ve also included some hassle-free strategies for those who find that time is more valuable than saving a few bucks.


Don’t buy school supplies online if the goal is to save money. Pens, notebooks, folders and related supplies fall in one of the few product categories that is cheaper to buy in person.

Customer service firm StellaService reported that the average cost of a typical list of school supplies in a store was 41 percent less than buying them online, according to Consumer Reports.

And they’re not cheap. Consumers will spend an average of $97.74 on school supplies, according to the retail federation.

Tactic 1: Inventory analysis. You don’t know what to shop for until you know what you need. With supplies, that starts with the teacher’s list of required paraphernalia, often posted online and sometimes listed in major retail stores.

“I know it sounds boring, but inventory what you’ve already got,” Annette Economides said. “It’s time to clean out the kids’ backpacks and desks at home.”

Students don’t necessarily need new backpacks, binders and lunchboxes every year. What can be repurposed from previous years or older siblings? Parents who work in offices might reuse folders and binders that would otherwise be tossed.

Avoid listing fad items, like “Minions” backpacks that might not be cool for long.

Tactic 2: Ruthlessly target loss leaders. Loss leaders are items retailers sell below cost to entice customers into the store, hoping they’ll buy higher profit items, too.

Super-shoppers know how to play that game.

Scour weekly circulars of office supply and chain drugstores for the best deals. You’re likely to find folders, highlighters and crayons for a quarter, and penny deals on rulers and index cards. If the ad limits how many you buy, that’s a tipoff that it’s a great sale.

Josh Elledge, chief executive “angel” of coupon and savings site, said to hit those chain stores hard each week in August. “If you cherry-pick the best deals weekly and apply some high-value coupons, you’ll be well stocked up for school and your home office for the next year.”

Jill Cataldo, a shopping expert who runs and teaches couponing classes said, “I keep my children’s lists with me when I go shopping, and I just purchase these low-priced items each week and try to cross off as much of their shopping lists as I can,” she said.

Keep an eye on ads from nontraditional stores for school supplies. Home center Menards, for example, recently advertised 10-packs of ballpoint pens and one-subject spiral notebooks free after rebate, with a limit of 10, Cataldo said.

Tactic 3: Be social. Facebook pages of major retailers often promote sales. Some retailers reward customers who like, follow, post, tag, pin, tweet and retweet, offering social media followers exclusive coupon codes and special savings, said Andrea Woroch of Kinoli, which manages money-saving websites. “Ultimately, it pays to be social,” she said.

Tactic 4: Compare on the fly. Standing in a store wondering if the listed price is a good one? Check your smartphone. Apps like ShopSavvy and Amazon Price Check use the phone’s camera to check the bar code to compile competing prices. If you’re shopping online, use the InvisibleHand browser extension to get price alerts in case what you’re shopping for is sold elsewhere for less, Woroch said.

Low-hassle strategy 1: Boxed supplies. Some schools offer supply bundles that require no shopping and might cost about $50. Just realize, Cataldo said, you may be able to use loss-leader shopping to get the same things for about $10. “It’s time versus money,” Annette Economides said. “If you have less time and more money, go for it.”

Low-hassle strategy 2: Exploit the price match. Avoid store hopping by taking advantage of the price-matching policies at stores like Staples, Walmart and Target, which will match advertised prices on brand-name products. “You have a likelihood of being able to shop at only one store and still get the 19-cent folders,” Steve Economides said.

Low-hassle strategy 3: Shop online. While online shopping isn’t the cheapest way to buy school supplies, it might be quicker than visiting stores. At least be sure to do a quick Internet search for free shipping offers. You might find discount codes as well. Use your favorite search engine with keywords including the retailer’s name plus “coupon code.” Or search such aggregators as, and Some deal aggregators, like, highlight back-to-school bargains.


Families will spend more on clothes than school supplies. About 93 percent of families will buy new apparel, spending an average of $218 on clothes and an additional $118 on new shoes, the retail federation said.

Tactic 1: Fake fashion show. As with school supplies, know what’s missing before you shop. Have your student put on a fashion show to figure out what fits, what doesn’t and what they need.

If younger children balk at hand-me-downs, rename the process. “First-grade clothes” sounds less like clothes that were handed down and more like the child was promoted.

Tactic 2: Pillage pre-owned piles. “When it comes to clothing kids, I always recommend buying gently used wherever possible,” Elledge said.

Buying secondhand is especially good for kids at the ends of the spectrum, from youngsters who quickly outgrow clothes to older kids who crave pricey brand names and can get more for their money used.

Shop at local thrift or consignment shops. Garage sales and rummage sales are great for infant and toddler clothes, but more hassle than they’re worth to try to outfit school-age kids, Steve Economides said.

“We did thrift stores for everything except for socks, underwear and shoes,” Steve Economides said of outfitting his own kids.

Elledge said his favorite website for kids’ clothes is “Not only are the prices and selection great, they donate 40 percent of your purchase to schools,” he said.

Tactic 3: Slow your roll. You don’t need a child’s full school-year wardrobe on the first day of classes. By the time your child needs fall clothes, they’ll be on clearance.

Waiting also spreads out clothing spending, creating less of a sudden impact on your wallet.

And waiting until several weeks into the school year allows teens to discover which fashions are — and are not — cool anymore.

Tactic 4: Buy shoes in the evening, or Wednesday. Go shoe shopping in the evening because children’s feet can swell half a size from morning, perhaps nudging them into a larger size that will last them longer. And Mark Di Vincenzo, author of “Buy Shoes on Wednesday and Tweet at 4” says if you’ll buy shoes online — only a good idea if you’re certain of shoe size — sales data show Wednesdays feature the best prices.

Low-hassle strategy 1: For teens, set a budget and let them do the hard work of shopping for clothes. They might learn a few money lessons along the way.

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