Back-to-school shopping is serious business: The National Retail Federation reports that this year, parents with children in kindergarten through 12th grade plan to spend $630.36 on average. Over the last decade, that number has climbed from $443.80.
"We're seeing a consistently more confident consumer … fewer people are saying they're shopping for sales," says Stacie Severs Nelson, client services and marketing director of Prosper Insights & Analytics, which conducted the survey for NRF.
Parents said they would spend an average of $217.82 on new clothes, $117.56 on new shoes and just under $100 on school supplies. Electronics, including computers and tablets, are another big expense, with 58.3 percent of parents saying they would purchase electronics for an average cost of $197.24.
Despite their long shopping lists, many of the 6,500 survey respondents report they aren't in a big hurry to get their shopping done early. "Consumers are planning to make back-to-school purchases a little later, with 30 percent planning to wait one to two weeks before school starts," Nelson says. "They're hoping for sales later in the season."
If back-to-school shopping is on your to-do list, here are some of the best hacks to keep in mind:
1. Get a little at a time. Carrie Rocha, founder of PocketYourDollars.com, says many retailers rotate through deals every week: One week might feature discounts on pens and the next week notebooks – so smart shoppers can maximize their savings by purchasing the highlighted item that week. By the end of the summer, you'll have purchased almost everything on your list at a reduced price.
2. Mail in those rebates. Rebates, which typically give money back to shoppers who mail in paperwork after making purchases, often offer the best deal, but you have to put the effort into completing that paperwork, Rocha says. "You have to be honest with yourself about whether you'll mail it in," she warns.
3. Wait to buy clothes. Some of the best deals on clothing will come after the first day of school. Consumer finance expert Andrea Woroch points out that denim, boots and light jackets have bigger discounts later on in the fall, which means waiting to buy can pay off.
4. Take advantage of gift card sites. Sites like GiftCards.com make it easy to purchase gift cards at a reduced price, often allowing shoppers to save 5 to 10 percent. "Layer that with your sales, and you'll get another 5 to 10 percent off everything," Rocha suggests.
5. Review what you have before shopping. "We go into each of my kids' rooms and go through their closets. We pull out clothes that don't fit and take inventory of what we need to buy," says Tracie Fobes, owner of PennyPinchinMom.com. That way, she avoids doubling up on items that her three elementary-school aged children don't really need.
6. Take advantage of tax-free holidays. Many states offer tax-free shopping days in August; if your area participates, then it can be a great time to make your school supply purchases.
7. Get the teacher-approved list. Many teachers send lists that specify the items they want their students to have. Fobes says paying attention to details can prevent you from making purchases that your child won't end up using. Some schools, for example, specify that they don't want television or movie characters on notebooks.
Another benefit to sticking with non-themed supplies is that your child might not outgrow them as quickly, says Laura Harders, contributor to the U.S. News Frugal Shopper blog and founder of BeltwayBargainMom.com. Your 5-year-old might love "Frozen" this year but might move on to a different favorite movie by next year, she warns.
8. Share your budget with your child. You can incorporate budgeting lessons into your shopping trips by letting your children know how much you're willing to spend. If they want more expensive shoes than your limit, they can opt to pay the difference, Fobes suggests. "It helps them to see the cost and know that mom is not a money tree," she says.
9. Buy extra for others. When Fobes sees big sales, she stocks up on extra supplies so she can donate them to the classroom. A group in your area might help organize this effort; the Kids in Need Foundation is a national nonprofit that facilitates donations. Last year, it distributed $117 million worth of supplies to over 4 million children.
10. Take advantage of price matching. Some retailers offer to match lower prices you find elsewhere; Staples is offering a 110 percent guarantee, which means customers get an additional 10 percent off the price, during the back-to-school shopping season. Price-matching programs can help take some of the pressure off parents to run around to different stories. You can focus your efforts on one store and still be sure you're getting the lowest price, Fobes says.
On the same note, comparing prices online before you leave home can also save you cash, Woroch points out. Using PriceGrabber.com or the ShopSavvy app can help you nab the lowest price. If you're already at the store, she suggests using the CouponSherpa or RedLaser apps on your phone to compare prices.
11. Coordinate with other parents. Woroch suggests getting together with neighbors who have school-age children to trade gently used clothes, shoes, school supplies and sports gear. Buying secondhand clothes at thrift stores or online consignment stores like ThredUp.com is also a less expensive option than purchasing new clothes, she adds. "I find parents overlook the opportunity to purchase gently used kids clothing, but considering children grow so quickly, it seems like a waste of money to buy new clothes," she says.
12. Look for refurbished electronics. The secondhand approach applies to electronics, too. If you buy previously owned laptops, smartphones and desktops, you can save up to 40 percent, and most come with a warranty, Woroch says.
13. Don't forget dinner. As the new school year begins and your family settles into a routine, Harders recommends planning on making homemade meals. "Another big way to save is to eat out less … challenge yourself to make more homemade lunches for your kids and yourself," she says.
14. Consider the rest of your shopping needs, too. Since back-to-school deals often include household items such as bedspreads and comforters for college students, Rocha recommends buying those items now if you have a spare bedroom that needs to be furnished. Even those who aren't prepping for going back to school can benefit from the discounts.
By Kimberly Palmer
The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which course of action may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.
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