For kids, back to school often means all new stuff. For parents, though, novelty comes at a cost. With prices on the rise ahead of the upcoming school year, many worry that shopping for the likes of Lisa Frank folders and fresh white sneakers could put a strain on their finances.
Some 26% of back-to-school shoppers expect to spend more than $500 on apparel and supplies this year, up from just 7% in 2021, according to a recent survey from Morning Consult. Only 36% say they can afford back-to-school shopping without a problem, with the remainder indicating it's a significant budgeting concern or that they outright can't afford it.
"Parents are much more worried and stressed out about affording back-to-school shopping than in previous years," says Claire Tassin, a retail and ecommerce analyst at Morning Consult. "Many have only just begun shopping, but there is a lot of concern over how inflation is impacting budgets."
If you're nervously eyeing your back-to-school shopping list, follow these three tips from retail experts to help keep your spending under control.
When it comes to saving in the run-up to the school year, "the biggest thing is to take advantage of every discount you can," says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst at DealNews.
If you live in one of 17 states, you still have time to take advantage of weekends in which shoppers pay no sales tax on select items, including, in some states, books, clothing and office supplies.
"Be prepared to battle crowds, but definitely take advantage of those state tax holidays," says Ramhold. "You may be able to get tax exemptions on clothing up to $100 and computers up to $1,500. If you're making big purchases, shopping tax-free can make a big difference."
Even saving a little cash here and there can add up as you go down your shopping list, Ramhold adds. "Use cash-back apps such as Rakuten or Ibotta whether you're shopping online or in store. Generally rates are going to be about 2% or 3% back, but very often those rates increase around big shopping times."
When considering what your kid needs for the upcoming school year, it's easy to think about all the things they'll need from Labor Day through June. But not everything needs to be purchased right this second.
"Things on the supply list like notebooks and writing utensils are the kinds of things to go ahead and buy," says Ramhold. "Prices on those at Target, Walmart and Staples tend to be pretty decent and you know students are going to be using those immediately."
You may be able to find attractive prices on less urgently needed items if you wait for the back-to-school rush to blow over a bit. "If a backpack has a few weeks left, by all means, wait until Labor Day or right after," says Ramhold. "That's when retailers will try to clear out the back-to-school stuff, and at that point you may get a better discount."
Other items worth waiting on: new cold-weather clothes and electronics, such as laptops, both of which tend to see their biggest discounts a few months down the road. "If you can hold off for now, you'll see far more sales and better deals on Black Friday," Ramhold says.
Much of the stuff your kid will need come September — think pens, pencils and notebooks — is non-negotiable. But some of the priciest items on your list are more of a judgement call, both in terms of what you pay and whether they're worth buying at all, says Tassin.
"We definitely see the highest level of spending on apparel, but kids do tend to grow — new clothes aren't necessarily a discretionary expense," she says.
Families looking to stretch their dollar are prioritizing clothes that are comfortable and that fit, but not necessarily the hottest fashions, Tassin says. "A lot of families facing increased prices are trading down — not buying the name-brand jeans, for instance," she says.
For many supplies, it may turn out that the top-of-the-line item is inappropriate anyway. "If your kid is doing most of their virtual learning in a browser, they're probably OK with a Chromebook," rather than a more expensive laptop, says Ramhold.
If you take the kiddos shopping with you, be prepared to set boundaries about what you're willing to buy. "Maybe they want a set of colorful gel pens, but remember that their teachers may not accept assignments with out-of-the-box colors," Ramhold says.
To keep the cost of miscellaneous items from piling up, "think about how your kid will use them. If you can't see it, and it's not on the list, walk on by." Yes, even if it's Lisa Frank.