The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our lives in numerous ways. The uncertainty and change in routine are also impacting back-to-school shopping – one of the biggest retail seasons of the year.
As some parents plan for a fairly typical start to the school year, many students are starting school fully online or with hybrid in-school and distance learning plans.
While store aisles are filled with glue sticks, folders, backpacks, and the latest fashions for kids, back-to-school shopping is going to look very different for many families and may put a significant strain on several budgets too.
With millions unemployed and the new realities of schooling in many places, it's important to reconsider back-to-school shopping and how it impacts your finances.
Students may need some supplies and clothes to begin the year, but there are ways to save and cut back on back-to-school spending if money is tight.
Also, many communities are coming together to support growing numbers of families in need during these unprecedented times.
Back-To-School Shopping is Big Business
According to the National Retail Federation, back-to-school spending could reach a new record approaching $34 billion this year.
Parents with kids in kindergarten through high school, plan to spend an average of $789.49 per family.
The results from the June 2020 Back-To-School (B2S) Survey by Deloitte are not so optimistic. They report a relatively flat average planned spending of $529 per family.
Here are some interesting takeaways from their survey:
- As 76% of respondents are concerned about health and 38% about finances, consumers seek affordable, safe ways to shop
- 40% of parents expect to buy fewer traditional school supplies as technology is more prevalent in class (vs. 30% in 2019)
- Technology spending is up 28%, offsetting a reduction in apparel (down 17%) and traditional back-to-school items (down 18%)
- A new COVID-19 spending category for hygiene products and furniture for schooling at home was added to this survey and included in the results
If you average those two surveys, it suggests a typical family will spend about $660 in the next month to get ready for school.
With pandemic unemployment, families living paycheck-to-paycheck, and others holding tight to their budgets in these uncertain times, it’s essential to look at ways to save money, getting the kids ready to head back to learning.
Sales Tax Holiday Incentives
Special Sales Tax Holidays focusing on back-to-school purchases have been announced for 2020.
States participating include:
To learn more, check out this chart on Wallethub. It shows how much tax you’ll save, items covered by the sales (and exceptions), and the dates of your state’s sales tax holiday.
Invest Time Before You Spend Money on Back-to-School Shopping
Before you grab the lists of supplies to do school shopping, take some time reviewing what you have at home.
This can be an excellent way to save money.
Clothes, Shoes, and Accessories
Going through your kids’ dressers and closets can really pay off. Getting new school clothes has turned into a huge business when many kids already have plenty to wear.
It’s not that you shouldn’t buy your kids a new outfit or pair of sneakers for school. But unless they’ve grown out of everything – a new wardrobe is usually not necessary.
If kids are learning from home or only in school part-time, their clothing needs will likely be different from typical school years too.
Use What They Have
Whatever your kids wore at the end of last school year may still fit for the first month or two of the new school year.
The shorts and t-shirts they wore at home when schools closed were fine in April and May, so wearing the same ones to start the year makes sense.
If they need new pants or sweaters, wait until colder fall weather arrives before buying your growing child’s new clothes.
The same goes for their backpack, lunch bag, and other accessories if they attend school in-person this fall.
A new school year doesn’t mean everything needs to be new.
When They Need New
When your child does need new clothes, shoes, or a backpack for school, make a specific list of their needs. Then save money on back-to-school shopping by sticking to that list when you shop.
Before going online or to a store, check with your family or friends with children who may have outgrown clothes. Swap too small clothing for your kids with others who are looking.
If the clothes are in good condition, this can be a great way to save money and time. Another bonus? You’ll get a lot of shopping done all in one place.
Consignment shops, thrift stores, and garage sales are another good place to shop. Kids grow so fast that you may find some clothes with tags still on them or others very gently used.
If you have an active Freecycle group near you, there may be people giving away clothing they no longer need there as well.
When you head to a department store or mall for your back-to-school shopping, there are ways to save money. Just remember to stick to your list!
Some stores mail coupons home or have them online, and you can often stack them on sale prices in stores to save even more.
If you use a cashback or rewards credit card and pay it off at the end of the month, you’ll save extra.
You can also try picking up a discounted gift card for your favorite store at Raise or Gift Card Granny. Saving an extra 5-10% at some popular stores makes it worth a look!
Here's our review on BeFrugal
One last thing to consider is a few companies like Jansport offer a lifetime warranty on purchases like backpacks. They may cost more upfront, but if they get used for years, it’ll pay off in the end.
Most schools ask parents to provide some supplies for their kids to use at school. If you don’t have the list yet, check your school’s website or wait until the first day of school.
The lists may look very different depending on what grade students are in and may include things you haven’t predicted. And this year, many schools are delaying sending or posting supply lists because the return to school plans are still not finalized.
Use What They Have
This is another case where looking around your home before you shop can save money. Go through desk and junk drawers, craft supplies, and your pantry to see what you can cross off your list.
Buying packages of pens and pencils when you have dozens at home doesn’t make sense. It may only be a few dollars an item, but it all adds up.
When They Need New
Many big-box merchants, office supply stores, and drug stores offer significant discounts for necessary school supplies. If you think it’s worth your time for smaller items, use store sale flyers or apps like ShopSavvy to look for the lowest prices.
You can also head to a Dollar Store near you to see what inexpensive things you can find. Just remember that the quality of those items varies. Some are great bargains, and others may not be worth the savings.
Wait until the first week of school is over to do your back-to-school shopping, and choices might be limited. But the prices of any remaining items will be slashed as school supplies become clearance items, and Halloween decorations take their place.
This is an excellent time to pick up items your kids use each year for a fraction of the usual (even discounted) price.
The same discounted gift cards and cashback sites you use for clothes can also work for many school supplies. Just remember that a few extra clicks can save you even more money.
Computers, Hardware, & Electronic Gadgets
When bigger-ticket items like laptops or graphing calculators are on your back-to-school shopping list, use apps and services to help find the lowest prices.
But make sure you check with the school to see if there’s a specific item/brand needed in a course your child is enrolled in before you spend money on these items.
Many schools use 1:1 electronic devices with their students and provide the equipment. In this case, buying a laptop or tablet might not make sense.
If you decide to purchase electronics, the cashback sites, discounted gift cards, and rewards credit cards – along with back-to-school prices can help you save big on these expensive items.
Spend Less as You Gear Up for Back-to-School
If spending more than $600 on back-to-school shopping is the average – some are spending a lot more, and others much less.
Using some tips discussed here can lower costs to help you save money and start the school year off right.
With many students starting the year off learning virtually due to COVID-19, it’s important to consider what they truly need for school.
It might make sense to stick to the basics and purchase other supplies and clothes as schools begin to return to in-person learning.
Helping Others too
If you’re able, consider donating to those in need. There are plenty of parents struggling with money who can’t afford supplies or new clothing for their children.
Your school district or local community organizations may have a “stuff the bus” week to collect school supplies or a “clothing closet” taking donations of new and used clothes.
Cash donations are often accepted to purchase additional supplies for families in need as well.
Check with your school to see how you can help those who are less fortunate than you.
Vicki and Amy are authors of Estate Planning 101 – a Crash Course in Planning for the Unexpected -coming soon from Adams Media.
Article updated July 2020