With many school districts slowly returning to at least some in-person education, parents are experiencing a delayed back-to-school shopping rush. School supply lists also contain new items, such as disinfectant wipes, headphones and masks. However, traditional back-to-school sales are long gone.
Thankfully, school supply shopping experts say you can still get great deals outside of the traditional back-to-school shopping season. Here are their best strategies:
Set a budget
Before making a shopping list, says Christie Whitney, certified financial planner and vice president of investment advice at Rebalance, an investment firm, “You need to have a family budget to begin with … You should be tracking what your family is spending every month and where that money goes.” From there, you can determine how much of the month’s spending can go toward school supplies.
Because of the year’s unusual circumstances, many parents said what they expect to spend on school supplies has changed: When asked in a NerdWallet survey last July, nearly half of parents (47%) said they expected to spend less on back-to-school shopping for the 2020-21 school year than normal due to the pandemic, and 20% said they expected to spend more this year.
Chat with your child
“Once you have your budget in place, have a family conversation about priorities,” suggests Charles Field, CEO of TeacherLists, which publishes supply lists from schools all over the country. Look through store websites with your child so you can discuss wants versus needs and where you can cut back to save money. It’s easier to have that talk at home, in advance, before you're in the checkout aisle of a store.
Get your kitchen ready
Going back to school often means packing a lunch every day, too. Investing in easy-to-use lunch containers and snack foods sold in bulk can make it simpler to efficiently and affordably pack up that daily meal, Field says.
That said, many schools are prohibiting or limiting snacking during the day. Find out the school's new rules to know what to expect and be prepared.
Check out home office sales
While traditional back-to-school sales take place in the late summer, more retailers are offering ongoing deals on home office supplies because so many adults continue to work from home during the pandemic, Field says. As a result, you might be able to find good deals on school supplies by shopping in the “home office” aisles, he advises.
Get free shipping
“If you are shopping online, try to do the bulk of your shopping in one place so you can meet the free shipping threshold,” suggests Trae Bodge, a shopping expert who blogs at Truetrae.com. Buying from one store also makes it easier to return items if necessary, she adds.
Tools like Google Shopping make it simple to compare prices for products across multiple online retailers, Bodge says. The browser extension Honey lets you nab discounts and alerts you to lower prices elsewhere on the web. The apps ShopSavvy and Shopbrain also help you find the lowest prices when you’re shopping in a store.
Team up with other parents
You might not have seen other parents in person for a while, but reaching out to buy in large quantities and split costs can be a productive way of reconnecting. Bodge recommends buying in bulk to get the best prices at stores like Boxed.com or Amazon, or at wholesalers like Costco or Sam’s Club if you have a membership.
Purchasing pencils, notebooks, disinfectant wipes and other essentials in bulk and then splitting them — and the cost — among parents can really cut down on your total expense. Coordinating is especially important now, because with only a few months left in the school year, students likely need fewer items than normal.
Talk with the teacher
“Ask your child’s teacher about the best discounted school supplies because teachers know this area best,” says Yanely Espinal, director of educational outreach at Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit that provides free personal finance courses to teachers. She says popular sites among teachers include OrientalTrading.com, discountschoolsupply.com and dollardays.com, which also lets parents or teachers create wish lists for their students.