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Parents expect to pay more for school supplies this year—here are 5 ways to lower costs

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While some students have already started the fall semester, many others are set to return to classrooms or remote learning this month or early September. That means parents are focused on equipping their kids with back-to-school supplies. 

On average, parents expect to spend about $529 per student this year, up slightly from last year, according to Deloitte's 2020 back-to-school survey that polled 1,200 parents with school-aged children. While most intend to spend less on clothes and regular school supplies than usual, other categories will be higher. Parents estimate they will spend nearly $400 on computers and hardware on average and just over $300 on average for electronics and digital subscriptions.

In fact, 61% of parents believe remote learning will negatively impact their finances, according to a new Bankrate survey of about 600 parents with children enrolled in pre-kindergarten through high school courses this fall. The online survey, which was fielded July 31 through August 3, found that about 30% of parents believe that with remote learning, they'll be spending more on miscellaneous expenses, such as technology, tutoring and even meals.

But it is possible for parents to keep costs from spiraling out of control. Here are five ways to lower back-to-school expenses. 

1. Take inventory 

Before jumping online or heading to the store with a school supply list, check around the house for leftover notebooks, pens, pencils, art supplies and even folders, says money-saving expert Andrea Woroch

This year, it's a good idea to include electronics in your sweep, double checking that your kids have working headphones or earbuds, laptops, tablets and virtual learning tools and software. Roughly 40% of parents actually plan to enroll their children in a supplementary e-learning platform, according to Deloitte's findings. 

You may even be able to set up a swap with other families, particularly if you're part of a neighborhood "quaranteam." You can also look for swap groups through Facebook or join Swoondle Society, an online member marketplace for trading kids clothes, shoes and accessories, Woroch says. 

2. Create low-cost, designated work spaces 

If your kids are participating in a blended fall schedule with partial remote learning or are enrolled in full-time online homeschooling, it can be helpful to create a designated learning space, if possible. "Just like adults need to create a specific work area to help with working from home and boost productivity, parents need to consider creating a learning area for their children," Woroch says. This can include a desk and chair, or even a large table for studying, as well as a dry erase board and calendar with a daily schedule.

Of course, setting this up can get expensive. Woroch recommends looking for bargain finds on discount furniture sites like Overstock and Wayfair. "You may have to build the desk you buy, but it's usually cheaper," she says. While the furniture may not be the highest quality or exactly what you want, that's OK, Woroch says. Hopefully, it's a short-term solution. 

Parents should also consider shopping secondhand through places like Facebook Marketplace or OfferUp. But make sure you thoroughly inspect and sanitize any purchases. You can also always ask friends and family if they have any unused furniture you may be able to borrow. 

3. Take advantage of free resources

With the onset of the pandemic, many companies began offering free learning programs and courses for children, which parents should take advantage of to keep kids on track or provide extra support, Woroch says. Khan Academy is a nonprofit that offers free practice exercises, instructional videos and learning plans in several languages. Varsity Tutors is offering free online, live classes and education company Pearson has resources for K-12 students, including high school math self-study content. 

Local libraries are another great resource. While they often provide access to tons of free books, movies and magazines, many also offer programs and resources that go beyond typical reading material. About 95% of libraries say they offer some type of homework help. The New York Public Library, for example, has partnered with tutoring program Brainfuse, so anyone with a library card can access virtual help. 

Plus, libraries across the country are extending immediate temporary access, so if you don't already have a library card, you can register for one online and get started right away. Apple and Amazon both offer a wide range of free digital books as well. 

4. Shop smart

If you do need to replace or supply kids with laptops or tablets this year, Woroch recommends looking for refurbished gadgets. "You can save anywhere from 30% to 60% off regular retail prices by looking for refurbished laptops, tablets, smartphones and other personal electronics," she says, adding that Best Buy has an entire section dedicated to items that are in opened boxes or on clearance. However, if you do end up buying a refurbished item, make sure it's certified and has a warranty or that the retailer offers a good return policy. 

One of the biggest back-to-school shopping areas that parents are concerned with is health and safety supplies. Parents expect to spend $61 on these types of supplies, which includes hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes, according to Deloitte. Yet while 80% of parents expect to buy face masks and hand sanitizer, 37% say they cannot afford it, according to a recent survey of 5,000 parents by ClassTag.

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For parents worried about the cost, Woroch says to avoid buying name-brand items. "From hand sanitizer to over-the-counter meds, the best way to save is to stick with generic or store brands," she says. By doing that, you're likely to save around 30% on average. 

If you're able to split the costs between multiple children or with another family, it might be cheaper to buy items in bulk, Woroch says. Generally, when you buy in bulk you get a better deal on the price per unit, she says. 

If you have time to wait, hold off on buying school supplies until after the height of the buying season — generally August through mid-September, Woroch recommends. If you can make do with the supplies you have for now, you may be able to get items on deep clearance later on. "Confirm with teachers what's considered a necessity and what's just nice to have," Woroch says. 

5. Plan ahead for meals

If you're going to homeschool or participate in partial at-home learning this fall, it may increase your grocery bills. To keep track of your spending, it helps to plan meals (and even snacks) in advance, Woroch says. "Meal planning helps you stay organized with your grocery shopping needs to avoid impulse purchases, reduces food waste and maximizes your time in store so you don't have to run out for random ingredients here and there, which always results in unnecessary food purchases," she says. 

Consider all the meals you'll need to prepare for the week and try to find recipes with overlapping ingredients so you can reduce waste and even potentially buy in bulk to save money. Woroch also recommends preparing lunches the night before so you aren't tempted to order takeout.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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