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Real Life On A Budget

6 Quick Back-to-School Shopping Tips

The time of year when you’re saying goodbye to the sun and the sand and saying hello to the classroom is right around the corner.

It’s back-to-school time!

According to the National Retail Federation, parents spent an average of $635 per family on clothing, shoes, supplies and electronics in 2013. In other words, going back to the classroom isn’t cheap!

So I hope you’ve prepared for this time of year financially. But if not, here are a few tips to help you ease into the back-to-school season.


This is the first basic thing you have to do before shopping. List out everything you need and make sure you’ve budgeted the money to cover all of it. The worst thing you can do is go out and blindly shop. You’ll end up spending way too much money, and you’ll probably buy back-to-school stuff your kid doesn’t really need.

Let the kids help.

If your kids want the “cool brand” as opposed to the brand you’re willing to pay for, then let them cover the difference. There might be a designer backpack or a trendy locker accessory they want—and that’s fine. But make them pitch in to help pay for the extra cost.

Put needs over wants.

You have a required list of stuff the teacher asks from you. That’s your priority. After that, decide what else is absolutely necessary on your list and what can wait until later in the year—or really isn’t needed at all. For example, if you just bought a new backpack last fall, your kid shouldn’t need another one this year.

Don’t forget about the shots!

Does your child need immunizations for the upcoming year, or will they be playing sports and need to complete a physical? Make sure you’ve budgeted money (and time) for any upcoming back-to-school medical costs that aren’t covered by your insurance.

Remember, your kids grow!

I know it’s crazy, isn’t it? But don’t get caught off guard when your sixth grader—who’s been wearing flip flops all summer—suddenly can’t wear the tennis shoes he was wearing back in May. Junior high school is hard enough. Don’t make it any more difficult for your kids by sending them to school in high-water jeans.

Don’t go into debt.

This goes back to my point about budgeting. When you budget and make sure you have the money to pay for everything, you make sure that debt isn’t in the picture. If you’re like a lot of Americans who use credit cards, you’ll put it all on credit with interest. Then you’ll still be paying for this year’s back-to-school expenses when you go shopping next year. Bad idea!

You don’t have to be like the average family and spend $635 a year on school shopping. That’s nuts!

Sit down, make a list, budget for your expenses, and focus on your kids’ needs over their wants. You’ll be off to a great start in making sure back-to-school shopping doesn’t bust your budget!


  • Carrie Adams

    Rachel,nThank you so much for the great advice.nOur family has a clothing envelope that is funded through out the year for these large purchases.nWe are going to sit down with the kids, 15 and 13, have them make a list of needs and wants for back to school. The wants will be negotiable.

  • Natalie

    I’m trying something new with my 13 year-old. I’m giving him in the money I’ve budgeted for back-to-school clothes and shoes. I’ve told him he’s required to purchase a specific number of pants and shirts. Once he’s bought those items, he can choose how to spend the rest of the money – whether its on shoes, more clothes, or something else. OR he can save the money. (He’s a natural saver.)

  • Beckie Block Peterson

    Katie and I went thru her wardrobe from last year to see what was still good for this year, She needs no jeans or shorts, and half of her shirts are still good. So we have to get underclothing, socks and shoes, and maybe a new shirt or two. We still have lots of school supplies in the drawer from stocking up last year. So my back to school shopping is minimal and not overly expensive!

  • Ct

    I clearance shop in the spring & summer to get all of our kids clothes super discounted for the start of school.

  • ajd2006

    If you or your student needs a computer for school, don’t buy a Mac. They are way overpriced.

  • Laura

    Be sure to check out the store weekly ads to see what you can get a deal on and see if Walmart or other stores will match the advertised price so you can save on gas too.

  • Cali mom

    I go to yard sale all throughout the year and buy a bigger size than my kid’s size. I wash and store them away until the school opens and then she gets to pick what she likes. I only get the good quality so she will not look “poor” 🙂

  • Sandy

    We hit the consignment shops, like “Kid to Kid” and “Once Upon a Child” and get the name brand stuff in good condition for a fraction of the cost of new.

  • sara

    I only buy pants in the fall/winter and then cut them into shorts for the summer (my kids wear uniform). I also clearance shop during the year and just buy the clothes a bit bigger for the following year.

  • erika

    Look up swap sites on fb there are many of them u can swap or sell or buy back to school stuff =)

  • Tina Burns-Jordan

    I shop for shorts and shirts during the summer sales because we are in Texas and it doesn’t get cool til November not cold. But shorts we pretty much wesr year round so I like paying 50-60% off the regular price.

  • Angela

    I created a school supplies envelope in January and put a set amount in to cover supplies. Clothes funding will come from clothing envelope.

  • Katie G

    When I was a kid, I got $200 for back to school clothes. That was it. Nothing more. I quickly learned to shop the clearance and sales areas to make that go as far as possible. I’m now a super bargain shopper who gets many items for free and I never pay full price for anything.

  • Julie

    I buy only what is on the list. I buy clearance chothing throught the year so only have to buy new shoes. Back packs are handed down as long as in good shape. I have three girls. Otherwise everything else has to be earned.

  • Tracy M.

    We have two teens, a 16 year old, daughter and a 13, almost 14 year old son. My son is growing like a weed. Since we live in Southern California, I will not buy my kid any new jeans until it starts to get cold because by then they could grow two more sizes. Also, since (as of today) our son wears a men’s size 13.5 shoe, I now buy his shoes online or at Ross, otherwise, we are dishing out over $200.00 per design pair of men’s tennis shoes. 🙁 same with his baseball cleats. I take turns shopping for my kids as we are a “cash only” family! I use Target cartwheel and their online coupons. One month I will buy my daughter the underclothes she needs, the next month my son, the next few months, we’ll buy tops then we will buy jeans and or shorts. I think this help my kids to “wait” until we / they can afford a purchase and to know who to figure out sales, use coupons and prioritize our needs. My son likes skater short, so I went to the store (without him!) and signed up for their online coupons and picked up some paper coupons, as well. We also shop at Kohl’s and use their rewards program which as been a real blessing for us. Happy shopping! 🙂

  • Sam B.

    Don’t forget to use coupons where you can to make things even more affordable.

  • Jennifer

    It won’t be cold here until November or December so we get just shorts now and pants later. However, the article says you shouldn’t need a new backpack if you bought one last fall… My kids must be extra hard on backpacks because they had new ones in the fall and AGAIN in early spring and the second ones barely made it to the end of the school year.

    • Laura

      Try LLBean. They have a lifetime guarantee on backpacks and free shipping & monogram until July 28th!

      • Rebecca M. Lee

        LL Bean bags are a great investment. I have 3 kids and I have found that they last 2-3 years, they machine wash very well and then we replace as needed. I just remind them when they pick out a new replacement bag that it shouldn’t be too trendy because they will have it for a long time.

    • qwho99

      My son isn’t quite that bad, but his backpack is pretty ragged by May. By the end of summer day camp, it’s pretty much toast! nI splurge on letting him pick out what backpack he wants at Toys”R”Us & the free lunch box to go with it. It’s less than $20 total & we can afford it. Most everything else is second hand, so a new backpack is no big deal. nI shop thrift stores year round to get his pants, etc for school, etc. (He wears uniforms.) I’m always looking for the next size. I get his shoes when they are on clearance & usually off season. He grows fairly slowly, but still, I’d hate to be caught off guard by a growth spurt!

    • Julie

      Yes, LL Bean backpacks are the best! My daughter has used hers for 3 years. It cleans up easily, was affordable & still has at least another year left!

      • Rene Perry

        Jansport back pack have a lifetime warranty as well.

    • Pwife

      Jansport also has lifetime warrantee. I lucked out a few years ago and found new lands end pack for $10 w shipping and embroidery!

    • Crystal

      If you buy a back pack from LL Bean they replace it for life. A one time purchase will get you from junior high through college. I send ours back during the summer if it gets messed up so they have a new one for school to start back.

    • Treacie

      I was hard on backpacks as a kid… I got a new one EVERY fall

    • kate

      I found a nearly new JanSport backpack at my church garage sale last year for $3. AWESOME deal! Less than a fast food lunch out and will last me a lifetime because of the lifetime warranty. I’m an adult and use them when traveling or taking gym clothes to work for my mid-day work out.

  • Beth

    I’ve started taking my sewing seriously over the summer and have made dresses, skirts, bags, underthings and other accessories using fabric I already have…I also washed my kiddos older bags and they came out looking brand new! We have been blessed with hand me down almost brand new footwear for the girls and we still have plenty of school supplies from last year so this new school year will be the biggest savings for the family yet!!nnI have trolled Craig’s List and Freecycle for free clothing & school supply offers and have been blessed through the programs as well…reciprocating in return by blessing others with our family’s outgrown things.

  • Laura327

    What’s crazy is when people say homeschooling is expensive, because you have to pay so much for it! we bought all used curriculum for $300 and still have $300 for school supplies throughout the year. That’s still under the average for back to school expenses! And no reason for name brands or lots of clothes because there’s no peer pressure! 🙂

  • Tammy

    When shoes are clearanced from $60+ down to $15 or less. They get two. The second pair is the next size up. It has worked during major growing seasons during school age years.

  • Sarah

    I hold off on pants until September. So I buy their supplies, backpack shirts and gym shoes & dress shoes. They can wear their shorts they just got in spring for a while. With all of the school fees this helps

  • Sharyn Doutt

    I dumped our recyclables in the recycling bins behind the elementary school. I found about 100 used spiral notebooks, many of them brand-new or having only a few pages that had been written on. That paper can be used for homework. When the military recruiters come to the high school, I ask for a few pencils. Often they don’t want to take them back to their office, so they will hand me a pile of them! Right now the stores are having good sales on school supplies, so I stock up. I have enough filler paper to last my son ’til college! We hit yard sales and thrift stores for jeans, shorts and shirts. Summertime is the time to buy winter coats. People will haggle when it’s 95 degrees out and you’re looking at their goose-down ski jacket!

  • Darla Jenkins

    buy extra paper, pencils stuff that they will need later. It is way more expensive in Jan. with no back to school sales.

  • marleycat789

    I can remember as a kid, my parents took me clothes shopping every year before school. One year (late 70’s) I was at the register when they paid and it was somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 (a lot of money at that time!!), and I commented on how much was being spent (essentially, I was apologizing for my parents having to spend so much $$$ on me!! LOL!). My Mom’s comment was “yes, but you need it, so it’s ok”. I think it was one of my first money-cost of life realizations!

  • Sherry Lynch

    GoodWill people. Good Will, that is the best place. where else can you get almost brand new clothes for 2.50 a piece.

    • Kathy

      And Salvation Army. In my area, they have half price sales on holidays!

    • Kari Gunther Richardson

      The GoodWill here is horrible. I have tried to buy kid clothes from there but they sell stained, ripped, torn, missing button items.

  • Sorta

    Thats all well and good, unless you don’t have anything to budget! Here’s an idea, instead of buying that designer backpack, just get a JanSport like everyone else and use the extra money you would have spent on the Coach to fill a few more less expensive backpacks full of school supplies and drop them in a YMCA bin for the kids that can’t afford anything! Why does anyone need to spend $600+ on a bag?

    • Kate

      JanSport is brand name when it comes to backpacks. They’re around $20 to start, online. I don’t see any comments about Coach or $600. Yes, if you have extra, giving to those in need is always a good thing. Also, maybe if anyone wants to buy their child a $600 coach backpack, they make a million dollars a year, which is the same as someone making $40k a year spending $20 on JanSport.

  • Darcy

    When I taught 4th grade in public school, my school supply list was made by the district. And I dreaded having 44 boxes of tissue (2 per student) brought to my room on the first day of school–storing it was a real issue! I wish I could have communicated with the parents and asked them to bring supplies like tissue, paper towels, and hand sanitizer later in the year–we were usually running low by Christmas, because not everyone could afford it all at the beginning and sent less. If you can, ask your child’s teacher if it’s possible to send some supplies later in the year; they will probably be grateful!

  • Jenny Johnson

    How do u keep it low when u have 6 kids school with uniforms?

    • charlie the mom

      Some schools have a uniform exchange program, you might want to look into it.

  • charlie the mom

    It might also be a good idea to sit down with grandparents who Love to take the kids school shopping, with the list of supplies and clothes that they need for school and budget together.

  • Melissa

    Wow! I can’t even imagine spending that much! I have three kiddos in school and without shopping garage sales or Goodwill, we still only spent $250 for clothes, shoes, and school supplies – and our school makes the kids provide EVERYTHING but their textbooks! P.S. The kiddos even got to pick out fancy notebooks and folders, etc.

  • Sue

    One thing I do is buy a nice name brand backpack and my child is able to use it for 2 or 3 years. So far this has worked for me and I have a 6th grader.

  • Andrea

    I sign up to email lists for all the stores & brands my daughter loves. I tend to know how low they will go for the items we tend to buy. When they advertise their big sales with additional discounts & free shipping that’s when I buy. I usually get the “cool” brand names for half off while sticking to my budget. I’m already half way done with school shopping.

  • Jocelyn Baker

    conversely, don’t shop if you don’t have to, especially when the kids are young and not prone to pressure, and the weather permits. How many times did I buy jeans or new clothes in Aug only to find they didn’t fit in Oct. It took me two kids and years to finally not fall in to the have to go mad back to school shopping trap.

  • Melanie Edmonson

    if your student is in middle school or high school and needs a new backpack, here’s what I did. I bought a backpack from LL Bean. They have many styles and needs to choose from. I waited till middle/high school because that’s when studies should get serious and you shouldn’t have to go up in backpack size. They guarantee their backpacks so if anything breaks you send it back and they send you a replacement free of charge and NO Shipping cost. We had a strap break on one and received a new one. We have never had one get damaged like the cheaper ones. Zippers don’t break and holes don’t appear. My 2 boys have had the same back pack from 8th grade into college. I buy an LL Bean and If they ever want a different/ trendy back pack then they can buy it.

  • Kathryn Pilgrim

    In Australia, Surf Shops are big, and so are the price tags. I found a surf brand backpack for my son and saved $20 plus. He loves it, and it didn’t break the bank. We also have school uniforms, which surprisingly are much cheaper (public school) than even buying at the discount stores.

  • Traci Petersen

    I have a dear friend who has adopted my kids for back-to-school shopping. She’s been doing it for maybe 10 or 11 years! She gives each kid an envelope with $15 in it and the contest is to see who spends the closest without going over! We used to clearance shop, but then my kids decided thrift shopping was better–they got more for their dollar! We are sadly on the last child remaining–she has three years left!