2024 Back-to-School Shopping Report

Back-to-school shoppers are taking steps to save on supplies and clothes for their kids for the upcoming year, according to a new NerdWallet survey.
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Written by Erin El Issa
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Edited by Elizabeth Renter
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Summer break is in full swing, and with it, back-to-school shopping season. According to a new NerdWallet survey, those who are parents of K-12 or college students and who plan to do back-to-school shopping this year will spend $541, on average, on school supplies and clothing for their kids’ upcoming school year.

The survey of over 2,000 U.S. adults — among whom 478 are parents of children in K-12 or college for the 2024-25 school year and who will do back-to-school shopping — was commissioned by NerdWallet and conducted online by the Harris Poll in May 2024. We asked these parents, referred to throughout this report as “back-to-school shoppers,” how they plan to pay for school supplies and clothes and how they’re saving money on these expenses.

Key findings

  • Debit and credit cards are the most popular payment methods for back-to-school shopping: The survey found that 3 in 5 back-to-school shoppers will use a debit card (60%) to pay, and 58% will use a credit card. Shoppers could choose more than one payment method option.

  • Few say they’ll take on debt for back-to-school shopping, but their payment methods suggest otherwise: Despite just 10% of back-to-school shoppers saying they’ll likely go into debt to pay for school supplies this year, 20% report that they’ll use “buy now, pay later” services to shop. That combined with the number of shoppers using a credit card suggests consumers may not view short-term borrowing as debt.

  • Some shoppers are setting budgets and discussing them with their kids: More than a third of back-to-school shoppers (35%) say they’ll set a firm budget for back-to-school shopping this year. Likewise, 31% have talked or will talk to their children about the budget for back-to-school shopping.

  • Still, some parents say they’d go into debt for their kids’ social lives: The survey found that 42% of parents of K-12 or college kids — a slightly broader survey group than back-to-school shoppers — say they’d go into debt to pay for back-to-school items that would help their children fit in at school. More than half of parents of school- or college-aged kids (53%) say they’d go into debt to pay for the extracurriculars their children want to participate in.

“Back to school is a hectic time for everyone. Kids are adjusting to new teachers and classmates, while parents are scrambling to get the necessary clothing and supplies,” says Sara Rathner, a NerdWallet personal finance expert. “The cost of setting up kids for the school year only adds to the stress.”

Most back-to-school shoppers using debit, credit cards

Back-to-school shoppers will primarily use a debit card (60%) or credit card (58%) to pay for their kids’ supplies, clothes and school-related items for the upcoming school year. And 1 in 5 back-to-school shoppers (20%) say they’ll use buy now, pay later services as a payment method.

Just 10% of back-to-school shoppers say they’ll likely go into debt to pay for school supplies this year. But 20% of shoppers plan to use buy now, pay later services, which are often short-term, interest-free borrowing, much like using a credit card and paying it off by the due date. Whether you use BNPL or a credit card, keep in mind that even if it's not costing you in interest, it is money you owe. It's a good idea to keep your borrowing in check so you don't overextend yourself financially.

Savvy shopping tip: Avoid overextending yourself with short-term borrowing

Using a credit card or BNPL service to pay for back-to-school purchases may be the best option for you, but it could encourage overspending. According to the survey, 35% of back-to-school shoppers will set a firm budget for purchases this year, which can be a good idea to keep spending in check, no matter your payment method.

“Setting a budget and mapping out your spending for clothing, supplies, and even more expensive items like computers, can help you limit debt or avoid it entirely,” Rathner says. “You may be able to cut costs by planning ahead and shopping when items are discounted.”

Shopping sales, limiting purchases are popular ways to save

Back-to-school spending can add up, but many shoppers are taking steps to lower their costs. More than half of back-to-school shoppers (52%) plan to shop during sales this year, and 32% plan to only purchase things required or requested by their child’s school in order to save money. Others plan to use coupons (32%), purchase some back-to-school clothes secondhand (23%) or seek out free options for this year’s school supplies (22%).

Some back-to-school shoppers are getting ready early. More than 2 in 5 shoppers (42%) say they’ll save ahead of time this year, and 21% have already started back-to-school shopping (as of the time of survey fielding in May 2024). Close to a third (31%) have talked or will talk to their children about the budget for back-to-school purchases this year, and 9% expect their children to contribute to some of the costs.

Savvy shopping tip: Take steps to save money on back-to-school buys

Getting your kids ready for the upcoming school year can be expensive, especially if you have multiple children or are struggling to afford everyday essentials. Shopping back-to-school sales or your state’s tax-free days are great ways to save money on supplies and clothing purchases. But if you’re looking to save more, there are other ways to keep spending in check.

Secondhand shopping for clothes and certain supplies, or even looking into free options can take the pressure off your back-to-school budget. Ask around to see if your local community — maybe your school district, religious organization or neighbors — facilitate backpack drives, supply swaps or something similar to help families who need assistance getting access to school supplies. Community support, financial and otherwise, can be a great asset for parents year-round.

“This year’s school supply list might not come out in time to take advantage of tax-free days where you live, but one tip I got from a fellow parent is to shop based on last year’s list,” Rathner says. “There may be some changes from year to year, but many supplies are timeless, like backpacks, pencils and scissors.”

Some parents would take on debt for kids’ social standing

Supply lists may dictate back-to-school shopping needs, but some parents say they’d go into debt in service of their kids’ social lives this upcoming school year. According to the survey, 42% of parents of children in K-12 or college say they’d go into debt to pay for back-to-school items that would help their child fit in at school. Likewise, more than half of parents of school- and college-aged children (53%) say they’d go into debt to pay for the extracurriculars their kids want to participate in.

Savvy shopping tip: Reconsider taking on debt for kids’ nonessentials

Parents generally want to provide a good life for their kids. But going into debt for nonessentials can put your family in a financially precarious position, which can be stressful for everyone, kids included.

A frank, age-appropriate conversation with your kids about what your family is willing to prioritize financially can be a good lesson in budgeting and making hard choices. Perhaps you can either do sports fees or the expensive sneakers they’ve had their eyes on, but not both. Let them decide what’s most important to them, a useful skill to hone as they enter adulthood.

“It’s natural to want to give your kids everything, but just like you make choices to buy or not buy things, your kids can use back-to-school shopping as a time to learn how to prioritize needs versus wants,” Rathner says. “Those budgeting lessons might be met with some eye rolls now, but they’ll pay off when your kids are out on their own making spending decisions.”

Methodology

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from May 7-9, 2024, among 2,098 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 507 are parents of kids in K-12/College, among which 478 will back-to-school shop this year. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within +/- 2.5 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. This credible interval will be wider among subsets of the surveyed population of interest. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact [email protected].

Disclaimer

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