What to Splurge (and Skimp) on for Back to School

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What to Splurge on (and Skimp on) for Back-to-School

The first day of school isn’t here yet, but it’s not too early to start budgeting for the upcoming semester — especially considering the amount you’ll probably spend before the first class even starts.

Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $687.72 each on back-to-school shopping, while college students and their families plan to spend an average of $969.88, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2017 survey.

With so much to buy for your children or yourself, is there anything you can afford to skimp on? And which products are worth a splurge? We have the answers.

Splurge: Laptops or tablets

Most of your back-to-school spending will likely go toward technology. Tablets, laptops and desktop computers are vital components of researching, writing and studying at almost every grade level.

Cheap or refurbished models may not carry you through for long, so pick a reliable model that can last a good portion of your child’s, or your own, academic career — particularly if you’ll be enrolling in online courses. A good investment will pay off later.

Laptop sales usually are rampant in August. Additionally, some tech giants like Apple and Dell offer specials for students.

Skimp: Fall clothing

For many, school is as much about making a fashion statement as it is about making the grade. But hold off on buying new clothes unless you’re taking advantage of end-of-summer clearance sales.

Fall clothing like jeans and sweatshirts will be full price in August, but they’ll be more affordable come October when the leaves change colors and the weather starts to turn. Wait until then to give your child’s or your own wardrobe a pick-me-up.

Splurge: Backpacks

Backpacks, book bags and laptop bags are an important purchase. Don’t skimp on what you’ll use to tote around your laptop and books.

You don’t need to go for a brand name, but look for a backpack with plenty of cushioning to protect your back and shoulders. Additionally, you’ll want enough pockets and compartments to store everything you need.

Expect backpacks to be included in back-to-school sales during July and August. Backpacks sometimes also are included in luggage sales at department stores.

Skimp: Textbooks

There’s no reason to pay full price for a textbook. In fact, you can avoid buying new books altogether. Instead, go for used books or rentals, and don’t forget about e-books.

Check out textbook rental websites like Chegg, Amazon and eCampus.com before hitting the university bookstore, where prices generally are higher. Buy new only when you have no other alternative.

This tip is especially helpful for college students, but it can apply to high school and younger kids as well. If you encounter a class that has required reading, try buying a used book online or checking out a copy from the library. Definitely skip buying if you know you won’t use the book after the final exam.

» MORE: What to buy every month of the year

Splurge: Dorm room supplies

Dorm room furniture and related supplies are a must-have for college students, and retailers know it. If you can’t get hand-me-down desks and office chairs from friends or family, look for dorm room sales to pop up at the end of summer.

Take advantage of student discounts. Pottery Barn Teen, for instance, offers a 15% discount to college students with a valid .edu email address or college ID.

Skimp: Basic supplies

Basic supplies like pens, pencils, binders and folders definitely don’t necessitate a splurge. Cheaper brands will do the trick just the same, so skip the pricey pens and pencils and go for the less expensive ones. Consider buying writing utensils in bulk, as it’ll lower your cost per unit. Plus, you’ll have enough supplies to carry you through the semester without regular trips to the office supply store.

Splurge: Calculators

In school, you need the right tools for the job, and scientific calculators are one of those tools for many students. Basic calculators just won’t cut it, especially for classes like statistics and calculus that require complex formulas and graphing.

But calculators can get expensive, so be sure you select the right model. If you plan to take advanced mathematics courses, it may be worthwhile to buy a deluxe version now instead of buying several models over your academic career.

Skimp: Planners

Here’s one way to cut costs: Skip the planner or traditional paper calendar. Tech-savvy students check their smartphones more than their planners anyway, and there are plenty of apps that take homework tracking into the digital realm.

We like the myHomework Student Planner app, available for iOS and Android. The free version unlocks access to a calendar display of classes and lets users track due dates for homework, tests and assignments. That’ll save you the roughly $15 a normal academic calendar would cost you.

So go ahead, ace your back-to-school shopping.

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: courtney@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @courtneynerd.

Updated July 18, 2017.