It’s the most exciting time of the year for bargain shoppers who have kids in school (or for anyone who likes cheap office supplies). For some people, school supply shopping is a big, fun, traditional spending spree. It was for my mom and me. But I’ve made this time of year into a big, fun, traditional savings spree. We watch the sales fliers each week, gather our quarters and our school supply list, and see how little we can spend to get the things we need. On our best year, we spent only $9 on school supplies.
If you’re wondering which deals are the best deals, check our School Supply Price List, which is a compilation of some of the lowest prices on school supplies we saw last year.
To help you make the most of the back-to-school sales, we’ve compiled our best tips below.
Don’t buy everything
If you have supplies left over from last year, reuse them. But just in case you’re thinking that your child will never agree to reusing last year’s pencil box, I’ll let you in on my biggest secret for gaining compliance: Give each child a certain amount of money to be used for school supplies, and tell her she can keep whatever is left over.
You’d be surprised at how attractive last year’s backpack starts to look. Of course, everything on the list has to be present and accounted for (whether purchased, repurposed, reused or pulled out of the dumpster — ha, I’m kidding) before the extra money is spent. This tactic also motivates your child to help you find bargains.
Follow your list
School supply lists are available now for most areas of the country. Print the list and bring it with you every time you go shopping. And follow it. It’s easy to be lured in to buying a Lalaloopsie four-wheel backpack with detachable water bottle and matching hat, but it’s a waste of money if your child’s school doesn’t allow wheeled backpacks.
Watch the sales
You probably already know that stores often mark prices on certain items waaaay down to get you in the store. The stores lose money on these loss leaders but they hope that, once you’re in the store, you’ll just finish off your shopping list.
Sometimes you hit the jackpot – the loss leaders at one store make up the majority of items on your list. Other times you go into a store for a 25-cent pack of pencils and that’s all you leave with.
Look for coupon match-ups
Loss leaders or sale items matched with a coupon are the best. They can also be a test of patience, because the brand, size, type, quantity and every last detail of the sale item and the coupon needs to match. For example, washable markers might be on sale, but your coupon is for regular markers, or vice-versa. But that’s where kids can help — they have energy to burn. Show them how to do it and let them find the match-ups. (It’s educational.) Keep an eye on the weekly coupon inserts that come in your newspaper, and remember to check the Living on the Cheap coupons page for printable school supply coupons each week. If you are lucky enough to live in a city where grocery stores double or triple coupons, you can save even more.
Shop strategically and often
The stores usually have different loss leaders each week, so if you wait until an item goes on sale, you can often get a much better deal. Some of this comes with practice and experience. How low will an item go? Folders can be as cheap as 5 cents each, while loose-leaf notebook paper might be 10 or 15 cents a pack. (Note: If the teacher is requesting very specific attributes, like a vinyl two-pocket folder in yellow and green, the 5-cent folders might not work for you.)
But once a sale is advertised, don’t wait too long. The best deals sometimes sell out. Some merchants put a limit on the number of items you can buy at sale price, which is helpful because then there’s enough for everyone. Be sure to subscribe to the (free) Living on the Cheap email newsletter to stay up to date on the weekly school supply deals.
Don’t fret if you paid too much
I speak from personal experience: It can be so frustrating to buy something for 50 cents only to see it on sale the next week for 5 cents. But the bottom line is that if you’re watching the sales, using coupons, being patient and moving quickly, you are going to save money, and your kids are going to have the school supplies they need. Enjoy the time spent with them, and don’t cry over a missed deal.
Please don’t take more than you need
This last one isn’t so much a tip as a request. I think it’s admirable that people will donate their extras to those in need, but these days many of us need to find all the bargains we can. If it’s possible, leave some great deals on the shelves for others. (Another cool thing to do is to put your extra coupons next to the item for someone else to find and use. That earns serious kindness points.)