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Just as school-aged kids ease into summer break, the state of the economy forces many parents to put back-to-school shopping on the radar early.
In fact, 87% of shoppers for kids K-12 say current economic conditions will impact the way they shop this year, up from 80% in 2021, according to recent data collected by the National Retail Federation.
The price of nearly everything is up, with inflation hitting 8.6% year over year in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index.
“Inflation is a very personal experience,” says Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights for the NRF. Difficult economic times force consumers to make certain tradeoffs that work for their families, she says.
What are considered "back-to-school necessities" will vary from household to household. But regardless of your financial situation, the broad advice from experts is to spread out shopping this season and look for creative ways to save.
Don’t toss the sales circulars
For those looking to cut costs this year, Cullen suggests not only shopping early but also paying closer attention to sales and promotions. “If you do see something that you’re comfortable purchasing at a certain price point, it’s probably good to go ahead and pick that up,” she says.
Keep an eye out for weekly ad mailers from your favorite stores throughout the summer. Make it a habit to scan them for deals on school supplies, clothes and electronics before you throw them out. Look online too.
“Check retailers’ websites and sign up for newsletters to get alerted on the best deals,” Kristen Gall, retail and shopping expert at cash-back app Rakuten, said in an email.
Using cash-back apps like Rakuten, Ibotta, CoinOut and others is a popular way for diligent shoppers to save.
Spread out shopping trips
Brick-and-mortar businesses will do what they can to get back-to-school shoppers to walk through their doors this summer.
“When money is on peoples’ minds like the way it is now, it’s pretty likely that you’re going to see some very aggressive discounts to just get people back in the stores,” says Simon Blanchard, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
But you can beat the stores at their own game with a little discipline. That is, go in, grab the items on deep discount and get out before you put more stuff in your cart.
While it may feel good to tackle the entire back-to-school list in one trip, resisting the urge to buy it all now will help you make the most of sales, says Blanchard.
This approach is in line with the 43% of K-12 shoppers who say their strategy is to shop for sales more frequently this back-to-school season, up from 36% last year, according to NRF data.
Shop summer sales
The highest-profile seasonal sales might be the best way to cut inflationary increases on bigger ticket items like laptops (or at least bring the price back down to Earth).
And the big summer event, Amazon Prime Day, is now confirmed for July 12 and 13. Search Amazon, and other retailer websites, for back-to-school necessities during the sale. Prime Day is sure to set off competing sales at stores like Target, Walmart and Best Buy.
But the advice for how to shop the summer sales depends on the money you have available, Blanchard says. Scoring a great deal on a new laptop in July might not be worth it if you plan to charge it and are already carrying credit card debt. The 18% or 20% interest rate on the card will probably cancel out the money saved, he says.
Waiting until later in the year when you may have more cash on hand might be the better bet, rising prices or not.
Reuse what you can
You don't always have to buy brand new. Some parents may also weigh the idea of reusing the tech products they already have like laptops and calculators, says Cullen. Passing items down to younger siblings is another tactic that parents can use to save, she says.
Spend less on clothes
Clothes and shoes are popular back-to-school purchases, and the amount consumers spend on them has risen in recent years, according to NRF data.
It can be hard to pull back here, but you can set limits.
A pair of shoes and an outfit or two for each child may be enough to start the year. You can reevaluate your kids’ needs in the fall, and take advantage of Veterans Day and Black Friday deals.
Thrift stores make good options too. You can usually find nearly new garments, and it’s a bonus if your kid is down with vintage. Resale sites like swap.com offer affordable clothes too, even school uniforms.
Whatever you do, don’t let the pressure of inflation push you to spend outside your comfort zone. Spread out back-to-school purchases and get creative to save the most money.