Spend Wisely

5 ways to save money on your kid's school supplies

Read: 4 minutes

When Kumiko Love received her son's first-grade supply list last year, she was determined to not let the annual ritual of back-to-school shopping get the best of her budget. She set out to spend no more than $150 on everything, including supplies and clothing.

This was a lofty goal – considering the typical parent spends about $500 per student on back-to-school shopping – but Love managed to come in below her budget. She spent $80 by buying used supplies, waiting for items to go on sale, and being mindful of what she already had. “I was able to knock things off the list before we left the house," says Love, an accredited financial counselor who runs a money tip site called The Budget Mom.

“Purchase just what your student needs to get started that month, then purchase the rest little by little throughout the year." 

Cari Andreani

Saving money on school supplies doesn't mean you need to deprive your kids of key items or clip coupons for the rest of the year. Here are five simple steps to keep spending on school supplies in check:

1. Know your student's needs

One of the biggest mistakes parents make is loading up their carts with back-to-school supplies with no clear idea of what their children actually need. "You don't want to spend $30 on binders, only to find your student's teacher doesn't allow them in the classroom," says Felipe Arevalo, community outreach coordinator for the San Diego Financial Literacy Center.

Most elementary school teachers send detailed lists of necessary supplies. For middle school and high school students, you may need to wrangle multiple lists to get to the bottom of what you need to avoid doubling up. Once you have all the information, make a single list — and buy only what's on it.

2. Delay what you can

Many teachers – particularly in grade school – pool supplies from their incoming students. Don't worry if your children don't have their own box of crayons or highlighters the first few days; it will not derail their academic careers. Likewise, teachers are not going to go through dozens of containers of anti-bacterial wipes and boxes of tissue in the first week of school.

“A giant list of school supplies can be daunting to many parents — especially if you have multiple children going back to school," says Cari Andreani, principal of Citizens High School, an accredited online school. “Purchase just what your student needs to get started that month, then purchase the rest little by little throughout the year."

Don't be shy about asking teachers what items are necessary from day one and what can wait. “I knew many of these items would go to the bargain bin the week after school starts," says Love, who scooped up the lunch box her son really wanted for $1.50 just a few days after school started.

3. Reuse last year's supplies

Before you open up your wallet, open up your drawers and closets. Whether you bought in bulk for your own needs or have leftovers from the year before, chances are you already have many of the supplies your child needs.

A great way to save money on next year's school supplies is to be organized when school gets out for the summer. “At the end of the previous year, save the scissors, rulers, and unused notebooks for the next year," says Andreani.

Instead of throwing away everything, as many students and parents do, save anything that is still in good condition and put it in a box or on a shelf for next year.

4. Price shop or buy used big-ticket items

While older children tend to need fewer supplies, their curriculum typically requires graphing calculators and laptops, which can be expensive. It pays to get your kids involved by talking about how much you can afford and incentivizing them to find ways to save.

Have your kids put their digital savvy to work for you by comparison-shopping online to price out new, used, and refurbished options. “It's so much easier to spend 10 minutes online determining how to get the best deal," he Arevalo says. “You don't need to spend the day and half a tank of gas driving around trying to find it."

5. Stock up in the off season

It pays to keep an eye out for good deals all year long, particularly for items that need to be replenished regularly, such as pencils and paper.

Just don't get too carried away. “You make bad financial decisions just because there is a sign showing something is on sale," says Love. She recommends sticking with supplies you know your family will use even if they aren't needed until the next school year. “My son loves to color," she says. “If I see 64-count crayons on sale, I'm on it." 

Sarah Max is a Chase News & Stories contributor. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, AARP, and more.