15 Last-Minute Tips for Back-to-School Shopping

August 24, 2018

Tips to Help You Crush the Last-Minute Back-to-School Rush

The National Retail Federation says that families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $685 this back-to-school season. Those with a kid heading off to college plan to drop $942.

When I first heard those statistics, I thought they were pretty high for averages, but in reality, they probably aren’t too far off. Most of us don’t add up what we spend in total; we just know we dropped $50 at Target, $30 at Staples, $75 on Amazon, and so on.

But if we were to add up everything we spend on supplies, clothing, electronics, and other school items, that estimate is probably spot-on.

So, how do you think you measure up? Is your typical back-to-school budget above or below that estimate?

Here are some tips to help you maximize your spending and stretch your budget no matter how big or small it is. These tips include not only things to do while shopping, but also some pre-shopping and planning tips that will help you save.

1. Be selective about what you purchase

I think the most important thing to keep in mind, and the number one way to save money is to be extremely discriminating about what you need to purchase.

And to that you may say, “Duh,” but we tend to treat the back-to-school season like a mini Christmas season — we think that we need to get it all and we need to get it all right now!

Well step back, take a deep breath, and figure out what your kids really need. I mean really, really need, not really want.

And does it all need to be bought right now? If you spend time thinking about it, the answer to that question is often no. Not everything is necessary for the first day or even during the first few weeks of the year. You will have plenty of opportunities to purchase additional items throughout the school year.

So, be super selective about what you plan to purchase.

2. Get the scoop on what’s really needed

Each year your kid gets a supply list from school, and each year you dutifully buy everything on it. While teachers and schools do their best to provide an accurate list of supplies, inevitably some items will be purchased but never used.

An excellent way to find out the “real list” is to talk to a friend or family that has a child in the grade ahead and ask what was really used. This works whether your kid is in kindergarten or a freshman in college.

Getting the scoop from someone who just completed the grade will help you weed out the unnecessary.

3. Reuse what you can from last year

The appeal of getting everything new is undeniable — I mean there’s just something about a fresh pack of markers. But the “new factor” also drives up your spending unnecessarily.

So before you shop, see what supplies, clothing, and gear you already have that can be used or reused.

If that pack of dry erase markers was hardly used or last year’s backpack and lunchbox can be thrown in the wash and given a new life, then by all means leverage whatever you can from last year.

We often forget what we already have on hand, so be sure to look to see if you have items left over from last year’s shopping that were never used.

4. Shop with a list

After looking at what you already have, come up with a specific list of what you need to buy. This is especially necessary for clothing.

If you shop for clothes without a list, you will buy way too much. If you haven’t already, help your children go through their closet, determine what they have that still works, and then come up with a list.

5. Set a budget

Once you know you have a list, you can craft a budget for your back-to-school shopping, just like you would a monthly budget, try to come up with a dollar amount per category. Once you have an idea, you can come up with a total number.

This is what my 7th grader’s budget looks like this year.

Supplies:                        $30
Backpack:                      $70 (Yes, I let him buy a $70 backpack; I’ll get to that in a minute.)
Clothing + Sneakers:  $200
Total:                             $300

Also, it’s a good idea to budget for a miscellaneous category in case you forgot to plan for something or you overspend a little in an area.

Related Reading: How to Budget When It Feels Like You Have No Money

6. Price match

Do you know the price-matching policies of the stores you shop? If not, get familiar with them. More and more retailers are recognizing the need to stay competitive with their pricing especially with online stores, so many allow customers to price match Amazon and other competitors.

All you have to do is present a competitor’s advertised price or pull up the item on your phone. Of course, most price-matching policies will have limitations, such as the item you are matching must be the same exact style, color, and size as the one you are buying. Seems reasonable enough, right?

And don’t think this only applies when shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. You can even take advantage of price matching when buying online. Typically you may need to call the store’s toll-free number or start a conversation in the chat window.

Price matching requires a little effort on your part, but it is definitely worth it!

7. Use coupons

Don’t forget about using coupons. Right around the back-to-school season and the weeks leading up to it, you’ll find an abundance of manufacturer’s coupons for school supplies, lunch boxes, and other related items. You can find paper coupons in the Sunday newspaper, printable coupons online at Coupons.com, SmartSource, and RedPlum, and digital coupons on SavingStar, ibotta, and Checkout 51.

And remember, that coupons are not just for the grocery store. Other retailers accept them too, and often you can combine a manufacturer’s coupon with a store’s coupon or deal.

Related Reading: Beginner’s Guide to Couponing

8. Use browser extensions when shopping online

Browser extensions are great to aid in your quest for deals when buying online. It can reduce some of the back and forth when comparison shopping and looking up discount codes.


Honey scours the web while you’re shopping online and finds the best online coupons and codes available.

It’s free, and you don’t have to do anything to find deals. After a quick and easy download of the extension, it goes to work for you automatically. If an online code is available, Honey will plug it in at checkout.

Additionally, you can earn cash-back with some of the retailers. And if you’re shopping on Amazon, Honey will show you the price history of the products you’re browsing, so you have an idea if it’s the right time to buy.

Amazon Assistant

This free browser extension helps you compare products and prices while shopping online.

The Amazon Assistant will automatically display Amazon’s price of the item you are browsing, or you can do a quick search. If you always wonder, “Is this cheaper on Amazon?” you’ll love this tool, and it will be a great help if you plan to price match.

9. Use apps and websites to find deals and earn cash back

Whether you’re shopping online or in the stores, there are tons of apps and websites to help you save money. Here are some of my go-to’s for back-to-school shopping.


I love RetailMeNot and have been using it for years. And now that there’s a super convenient app, I love it even more.

You just go online or (use the app if you’re on the go) and search for the retailer of your choice. RetailMeNot will pull up any online codes and in-store discounts and printable coupons including discounts for joining mailing lists. It’s free and straightforward to use. Similar sites include CouponCabin and CouponSherpa.


Get cash back on your back-to-school shopping when buying online. Instead of going directly to your favorite websites, shop through Ebates where you can earn a percentage of your purchases back in cash.

Ebates links to major retailers and restaurants and often offers bonuses or double cash back. You can shop from your desktop or through the app. Additionally, you can download the browser extension to make sure you don’t miss a deal.

Earn a $10 bonus with this link when you make your first purchase.


With Swagbucks, you can earn cash back and gift cards by shopping at your favorite stores and performing tasks like taking surveys and watching videos.

Swagbucks rewards you with points aka “swagbucks” which you can redeem for free gift cards to retailers or restaurants including Amazon, Walmart, and Starbucks or get cash back through PayPal. It also has a browser extension.

10. Shop your grocery store

Speaking of the grocery store, you might want to consider getting some of your back-to-school items there. Typically, the supermarket would be the worst place to get school supplies, but during the back-to-school season, you can find some decent prices, especially if you combine coupons with the sales.

Check out your store’s flier to see what deals they have. Also, check out your store’s digital coupons on their website or through their app for additional savings.

Related Reading: 5 Tools to Help You Stretch Your Grocery Budget

11. Stack deals

One of the best ways to save money is to stack coupons and discounts, along with leveraging store policies. For example, you may have a 20% off coupon or a $10 off a purchase of $50 or more with a particular retailer, but the items you wish to buy are cheaper elsewhere. Well, why not price match the item or items and then use the coupon or deal on top of it? It’s genius if I do say so myself!

12. Prioritize quality

After years of purchasing items based solely on price, I have changed my ways. I believe it makes more sense to spend a little more and buy a higher quality item that you know is going to last than to purchase less expensive things that will need to be replaced often.

For example, I used to purchase a lunch box for my son just about every year. One year we decided to buy a more expensive but durable one. We are now a few years into that purchase, and it is still going strong.

Of course purchase within reason. Don’t spend more money than you are able to just in the name of quality.
But for things like backpacks, lunch boxes, and some clothing, you’ll come out ahead if you prioritize quality and the item lasts you through the season or for multiple seasons.

13. Choose a splurge

Okay, so advising that you splurge may seem out of place in a list of saving tips, but I think even when budgeting and trying to save money, there is a place for a planned splurge.

First of all, it will be fun for your kids to spend a little more than is typical on an item, and secondly, this may help you save in other areas of your budget. How so? If your kid gets to splurge on a pair of shoes or something else they really want, then it goes without saying that they’ll have to be conservative with their other items, especially if they know what the total budget is (which they should!).

My son’s splurge item this year was the backpack that I mentioned earlier, and as a result, he laid off his typical requests for other things.

14. Wait for clearance sales

Pretty much the minute after the back-to-school season ends, retailers will be discounting all the product to make room for Halloween and right after that Christmas. So, this is your opportunity to clean up.

If some purchases can wait, especially clothing, then certainly delay them until you can scoop up a deal during the clearance sales.

Also, during clearance, consider thinking ahead and purchase some items that you know you’ll need next year.

15. Take advantage of price adjustments

Similar to price matching, your store likely has a price adjustment policy which states if the item goes down in price within a certain amount of time, typically 14 days, that the retailer will refund you the difference

This is a great policy to take advantage of, especially if you are hesitant to delay the purchase of an item in fear of missing out. So definitely save your receipts and watch the prices. If you are shopping towards the end of the season, then you know clearance sales are right around the corner, and doing price adjustments will be almost like shopping clearance.

Related Reading:
•   The Best Back-to-School Shopping Tips
•   10 Tips For Cash-Flowing College

Crush your back-to-school shopping

So, there you have it — 15 tips to help you crush your back-to-school shopping. If you’ve left all your back-to-school shopping until the last minute, make the most of the time you do have and use as many of these tips as you can.

Have a great school year!

What other strategies do you use for back-to-school shopping?

15 Last-Minute Tips for Back-to-School Shopping


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