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9 Tips to Ease the Sting of Back-to-School Budgeting

by Veronica Matthews, Nicole Dow

Back-to-school season comes around every year, but like the holidays, it has a tendency to sneak up on parents — and their bank accounts. With inflation and up-and-down gas prices, back-to-school is shaping up to be an even bigger budget challenge this year.

The National Retail Federation estimated last year that parents would spend a record average of $864 for back-to-school shopping for children in elementary, middle or high school and about $1,199 shopping for college-aged kids. That’s a lot of money for pencils and glue (and MacBooks).

If you don’t want to get caught off guard with hundreds of dollars in expenses, you’ll need to plan ahead and be a smart shopper. Here are nine strategies for reining in your back-to-school budget.

9 Tips to Keep Your Back-to-School Budget on Track

  • Assess what is needed
  • Establish a spending limit
  • Pad back-to-school shopping budget
  • Create a sinking fund for school supplies
  • Implement challenges to save money
  • Be a smart shopper
  • Figure out which expenses you can delay
  • Plan ahead for next year
  • Check for free or reduced-price back-to-school supplies

1. Assess What Is Needed

Start with the list of requested school supplies provided by your child’s teacher(s) or school district. Take inventory of what supplies you already have at home. Go through your kid’s dressers and closets to see what clothes and shoes still fit before going out to buy a new wardrobe.

When creating your list, don’t forget the costs that aren’t obvious. For example, will you need to buy uniforms or equipment for sports or other after-school activities? Will your child need a physical before heading back to school?

2. Establish a Spending Limit

It’s important to create a spending limit you’re comfortable with and that covers the basics. Shopping for school supplies without a budget will only set you up for overspending.

Once you have your shopping list together, you can start pricing items, even if you don’t plan on actually buying anything until closer to the start of the school year. Create your budget based on regular retail prices rather than current sales. Overestimating your expenses will give you a little wiggle room when it’s actually time to shop.

After you’ve totaled up how much you expect to spend, do you have enough money? If not, you’ll have to adjust.

3. Pad Your Back-to-School Shopping Budget

Earning extra money always provides a little financial stress relief. That holds true for back-to-school season.

Ask your employer about picking up extra shifts or working overtime. Find a temporary side gig, like dog walking, delivering groceries or doing odd jobs.

If you have older children, you could have them chip in on a portion of their school expenses — especially if they’re asking for pricey, name-brand clothing and school supplies.

Talk to your teens about school shopping expectations. Have them share some of the cost of items that don’t fall within your budget.

4. Create a Sinking Fund for School Supplies

A sinking fund is a pool of money that you add to over time to break a large expense into more affordable chunks.

Let’s say you’ve estimated you’ll spend $800 for the back-to-school season, and you get paid four times before school starts. Each payday, you should set aside $200 in your sinking fund to cover the upcoming expenses.

If you take money from your existing savings to start the sinking fund now, you can take out less each paycheck.

Setting up a direct deposit or automatic transfer will help you save money in your sinking fund without even thinking about it.

5. Implement Challenges to Save Money

Saving money can be difficult, especially when you don’t have much time. Saving challenges can help you put aside more money than you’d think.

If you shop using cash, challenge yourself to save a certain denomination whenever it hits your wallet. Perhaps you save all the $5 bills you get as change.

If you typically pay for things with a debit card, your money-saving challenge could involve rounding up each purchase to the nearest $5 increment and putting that difference toward your school expense savings.

Or try a no-spend challenge. Implement a 30-day freeze on discretionary spending so you have more money to pay for school supplies and related gear.

6. Be a Smart Shopper

Between now and the start of school, you’ll encounter enough sales promotions that it would be foolish to pay full retail price for anything.

In addition to taking advantage of great deals, here are some other smart back-to-school shopping strategies to keep in mind:

  • Buy generic
  • Compare prices online
  • Don’t snub discount shopping at thrift stores or the dollar store
  • Get items in bulk at warehouse stores, especially if you are buying for more than one child
  • Take advantage of coupons, rebate sites or cash-back apps
  • Shop during your state’s sales tax holiday
  • Sign up for emails to save a percentage at retail stores

The older your children get, the more opinionated they’ll probably be about what they want for the new school year. Talk to your kids about the cost of their school supplies and ask what is most important to them.

After identifying a couple select splurge items, find ways to get everything else for less. It’s a great way to teach your kids about how to budget.

7. Figure Out Which Expenses You Can Delay

You don’t always have to buy everything in time for the first day.

Your kids may not need new clothes right away, especially if the weather is still warm and they don’t have to wear fall clothes yet.

If you can, hold off a few weeks or more on buying the “fun” supplies, like new backpacks and lunchboxes. Retailers often will have great discounts after the back-to-school rush has died down and they are trying to get rid of that merchandise.

8. Plan Ahead for Next Year

Some schools don’t release supply lists until it’s too late to spend much time shopping around. Think ahead to what your student is likely to need next year, especially higher-priced items. For example, shop Fourth of July sales for clothes or for other items you know they’ll need in the future.

Use price trackers like CamelCamelCamel for Amazon or the Walmart price tracker app to watch for the lowest prices. Snatch them up throughout the year instead of waiting until the last minute.

9. Check for Free or Reduced-Price Back-to-School Supplies

Some national retail stores like Verizon and JCPenney offer free back-to-school giveaways. Verizon provides a free backpack filled with school supplies, one per child, while supplies last.

Various nonprofit organizations operating at the local level like The Salvation Army provide back-to-school assistance programs. Check locally for programs through your public library, police department or city recreation center.

Another option is to ask other parents in your social circle if they have hand-me-downs or unused supplies your kid could use. Also, Buy Nothing groups can be a great resource for procuring the bulk of the school supply list without spending a penny.