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How to budget for back-to-school

Expert money-saving tips for busy parents

School Bus: Little Girl Looking Forward To School

It feels like summer’s just begun. But for many busy families, it’s already time to start thinking about back-to-school. Your school district may have already sent out the annual school supply lists, and you may already be asking yourself how you’re going to afford new backpacks and new pencils — not to mention new haircuts and clothes! — when school starts.

We reached out to Andrea Woroch, a personal finance expert who offers budgeting tips for busy moms, to ask how parents can save money on school supplies, whether your kids are in elementary school, middle school or high school. Here is her advice on what to buy, what to avoid and how to cover the costs of going back to school.

In this article:

Start with what you already own

Before you buy a single school supply, take some time to see what you already have in stock. If your kids have notebooks, pencils or lunch boxes  that are good enough to make it through another year, for example, you may not need to buy as many new items as you think.

“Shop at home first,” Woroch advises. “Once you have your school shopping list, look around your home and look over your kid’s left over supplies from last year. Rip pages out of half-used notebooks, put a pack of crayons or markers together from a scattered set and wash the older backpack. These items can be reused and save you some money before you shop!”

If your kids’ school has requested that you contribute to a communal school supply pool, you may not be able to send your kids off with half-used notebooks and already-chewed pencils. If your kids get to keep their own supplies, keep in mind that they may want one or two new items to accompany the leftovers from last year’s stash.

The first day of school is an opportunity to display outfits, identities and interests, so make sure your kids have a few supplies that reflect who they are right now.

Stick with store brands

Your kids might want the notebooks and binders offered by major name brands, but savvy parents can reduce school expenses by sticking with store brands. “Target, Walmart and office supply stores like Staples may offer the best deals on their own brands of supplies,” Woroch advises.

To keep students from focusing on which of their classmates has which brand of crayons, some schools request that parents stick to generic or store-brand supplies. Other schools tell parents which brand of item to purchase, such as Ticonderoga pencils or Fiskars scissors, to ensure that every child starts the school year with quality tools.

If your school allows expensive name brands like Trapper Keeper, consider buying your child one name-brand item to accompany the rest of their store-brand supplies. That way, they’ll have at least one of the in-style supplies that their peer group values.

Track rotating deals

If you can spread your school supply shopping out over multiple summer weekends, you might be able to save money by taking advantage of rotating deals. “Office supply stores will often rotate discounts on basic supplies, offering savings like 10-cent folders or 50-cent packs of crayons,” Woroch explains. “Not everything will be on sale at the same time, but you can pick those penny deals each week when they’re released.”

You can check your favorite office supply store to see which deals they’re currently offering, or use an app to check multiple retailers at once. Woroch suggests using Flipp, which allows you to quickly browse local offers. “Compare prices by reviewing local circulars through the Flipp app to see who has the best deals on the items on your list,” Woroch advises.

Maximize your cash back

If you want to save even more money on school supplies, try earning rewards on every purchase. Woroch recommends Coupon Cabin and Fetch, both of which can help busy parents save money on back-to-school.

“Shopping online is great for the bigger ticket items like a backpack, sneakers or a new laptop. Look for coupons through Coupon Cabin or use a rewards app like Fetch before checking out. You can use your rewards to help pay for that last-minute expensive school item you need to buy.”

Woroch also recommends using a cash-back credit card—especially if it offers bonus rewards on clothes, office supplies or other back-to-school items. “Use a cash-back credit card and check the bonus deals,” says Woroch. “Some cards will give you more cash back at certain stores each month, but you may have to opt in to qualify for the deals—so sign into your credit card account to see which merchants will earn you more back and shop strategically.”

You might even be able to sign up for a rewards credit card that offers not only cash back on back-to-school, but also a welcome bonus that could save you even more money. “Consider getting a new credit card,” Woroch advises. “Many rewards cards give you a sign-up bonus when you spend a certain amount, like $200 when you spend $500 in the first three months. That extra cash can go a long way in affording some back-to-school supplies!”

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate,, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

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Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

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