When August rolls around each year, parents start to go into a frenzy shopping for school supplies and clothes for their kids. Back to school shopping can be quite crazy at the stores. Hundreds of parents are pushing past each other looking for the same items that are often already sold out. I’ve been through it every year for the past 16 years!
The first few years my oldest child attended elementary school, I went along with the madness. I later figured out that it was costing me a lot of money and causing me too much stress. It just wasn’t worth it for me and it felt like there was a better way. I’m happy to report that I have found a much less stressful way to take care of things like school supplies, and I want to pass that knowledge along to you now.
School Supplies & Clothes
When it’s time for your children to head back to the classrooms each year, it usually signals the time to buy them new outfits, shoes, a backpack and a variety of other supplies. I’ve actually found that by rushing out and buying a bunch of stuff, I end up getting things that aren’t needed or are incorrect. There’s nothing more frustrating than wading through the crowds to buy 1/2″ three-ring binders only to find out their teacher wants 1″ binders.
In general, I think it’s safe to buy clothes for kids before school actually begins, as long as you know their dress code. If uniforms of any kind are needed, make sure you know exactly what kind of shirts and pants to buy. In South Carolina, my kids never needed uniforms of any kind. When I moved to Naples, Florida, we did the same shopping trip to get our kids new clothes only to find out that a semi-uniform dress code was in effect in the entire county. We then we to go back out to the stores after the very first day of school and scramble to find the right things, which were next to impossible to find by that time.
The same thing can happen with school supplies too. Even when Wal-Mart publishes a list of supplies for each school, you really won’t know what your kid needs until they meet their teachers and get specific lists from them. I’ve had to completely redo supply shopping before for this exact reason. All of these mistakes just cost more time and money, not to mention the added stress. There’s nothing wrong with sending your kid to the first day of school without any supplies except for a backpack, a notebook with paper and something to write with until they find out exactly what they need to buy.
End of School Year
Most parents will be ready to stop thinking about school responsibilities for a while as soon as summer begins and often even before that. Once your kids are finished with their last day, you should really put in a bit more effort to make the start of next year easier.
Kids will almost always have some type of useful school supplies left over at the end of the year. Maybe their bookbag broke the month before classes ended, so you had to buy another one. Some of these items could potentially be saved and reused next year. However, if you don’t track them down and store them away somewhere safe as soon as summer begins, you may not be able to find them again a couple months later. Your kids may even end up destroying this stuff over the summer, especially if it just gets thrown into a corner of their room.
Whenever school ends and parents stop thinking about it for the summer, they stop buying items for education. This can actually work to your advantage because you may be able to take advantage of sales at this time of year to get things for a much cheaper price compared to waiting. You also get a much better selection, since things won’t be sold out. For example, backpack sales plummet when summer begins, so you can typically find them on sale. Items like these you know that your kids will need next year, so it’s a safe bet to go ahead and buy them early if you can get a good deal.
Sales Tax Holidays
Often in late July or early August, local governments will offer a sales tax holiday for back to school shopping. While these can be tempting, I personally don’t find them worth the effort. Crowds are crazy, and many products are sold out. It’s all just to save a few bucks in sales tax also.
I also found that by taking advantage of the sales tax holiday, you often run into problems that I’ve already talked about. Buying items that you find out later are not needed, so you have to buy more, is much more common when you participate in these tax holidays since they’re usually before school begins.
All it really takes is buying one incorrect item to completely destroy any savings you may have experienced from the sales tax discount. You spend $100 on supplies and save $5-$8 in sales tax. That can easily be the cost of just one thing that you buy, so if you buy the wrong thing then you may have to buy it again and lose those savings. Since crowds are crazy during those holidays too, I just avoid them entirely to shop at more convenient times.
Credit Card Rewards
There are also some more creative ways that you can save money with back to school shopping for your kids. A lot of credit cards will offer cash back rewards for purchases. Rebates of 1% – 3% are common. While this likely won’t add up to a lot of money, I would prefer to take these savings instead of the sales tax holiday. By using credit card rewards and then immediately paying my balance, I can save about half of what I would’ve saved from the tax holiday. However, I can shop whenever I want to avoid the crowds and avoid sold out items.
If you’re willing to brave the crowds, you could even combine this rebate with tax savings to reduce your costs as much as possible. In any situation where you utilize credit card rewards to save money, it is very important that you pay off your balance before it posts to your account each month to avoid interest charges that will nullify your savings.
Take a look at my other article about credit card rewards to learn more.
Education vs Money
One final thing that I want to mention is being too frugal with education expenses. It’s completely fine to be strategic with your back to school spending to save as much money as possible, but you shouldn’t cut too many corners and sacrifice your kids’ education. I also don’t think you should skimp out on new outfits and shoes either. Kids can be extremely judgmental about wearing old, worn out clothes, so you don’t want to start yours off on the wrong foot the first day.
In general, just be mindful of your spending and attempts to save money with school. Ask yourself if the savings you’re going to get are going to cause any reduction in the education value your kid will receive. As long as it won’t impact their education and how they’re viewed by other students, it should be okay to be frugal.