Save money in 2017: How to slash back-to-school costs

Are your kids headed back to school — or are you going back to college or grad school? Get ready to spend big bucks. Back-to-school spending for college is expected to reach $54.1 billion in 2017, with costs for kids in elementary through high school reaching $29.5 billion, per the National Retail Federation’s latest survey. Those figures are up significantly from 2016, when expected spending was $48.5 billion and $27.3 billion, respectively.

For individual families, average spending for college students is estimated at nearly $1,000, while parents of kids in elementary through high school will spend about $690 on average this year.

Electronics and clothing are two of the biggest expenses for anyone going back to school. College students also expect to spend a lot on dorm supplies and food, while parents of younger kids will be putting more cash toward school supplies and shoes than they did in 2016.

The good news is there are deals to be had if you know where to look and are smart about your shopping so you don’t have to blow your budget if you’d rather be a more frugal shopper. Just follow these seven secrets to saving money and you’ll be left with extra cash in your pocket to go towards tuition or other money goals.

1. Figure out what you actually need — and what you don’t

School supply lists have grown longer, angering parents. But, here’s a secret: you don’t actually have to buy every single item on your child’s list and you don’t have to buy brand new items every year, either for yourself or for your kids. You can easily reuse binders, backpacks and winter coats, for example.

Recycle old binders to save on back-to-school costs.Michael C. Gray/

Instead of heading to the store to buy supplies, shop in your home first. Money Crashers recommends rounding up the supplies you own already, putting them in a central location and making a list. Cross any items you already have off your supply shopping list so you won’t buy redundant items.

2. Sign up for alerts on back-to-school deals

Back-to-school season is a great time to find deals on the items you need, so there’s no reason to shop at full price. This is especially true this year, when retailers are likely to roll out their bargains earlier than ever to compete for the vast amounts of spending parents and returning students are expected to do.

You can find out about the best deals by having them delivered to your inbox. “Shoppers should consider signing up for newsletters for Walmart, Target, Office Depot and Staples to receive alerts about special back-to-school promotions, as well as any clothing stores that they prefer for their child,” Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing with DealNews said. “Alternatively, you can regularly check the sites and circulars for these stores for weekly promotions.”

You can get deals on big items too. “Laptops are an excellent buy during back-to-school season. In fact, it’s the second best time of year to buy a laptop, after BlackFriday. Look for Chromebooks under $200 and basic laptops for under $300,” Sakraida added.

3. Buy doorbuster items to save big

Another great tip: Shop at stores for their specific doorbuster items. “Office Depot offers regular penny deals that are in-store only, while Walmart, Staples, and Target also offer select ‘doorbuster’ supply prices, sometimes knocking items to just a buck,” Sakraida said.

If you don’t feel like running to multiple stores to get the door buster deals at each location, pick a store with a good price matching policy and see if they’ll offer to match the doorbuster deals if you bring in the store flyer.

4. Know when to shop for back-to-school deals

You can save big-time if you know when to buy the items you’re looking for. Sakraida said stores typically release coupons and drop prices on Mondays and Thursdays, depending upon how long the discounts last. “A good habit would be to check first thing on Monday mornings for weekday promotions, and Thursday or Friday mornings for weekend offers.”

Kids clothing retailers also typically drop their prices as Labor Day weekend draws closer, sometimes offering deals up to 50% off, according to Sakraida.

5. Pick the right retailers

Where you shop can also make as much of a difference as when you shop. Sakraida recommended Walmart for backpacks, where prices can go as low as $3. Walmart and Target were also recommended stores for dorm furniture. “Both consistently offer inexpensive options that will get your student through their stint at college. For example, Walmart is great for bean bag chairs and desks around $50.”

If you’re more brand-conscious and quality is a big concern, she suggested Lands’ End, which is currently offering a 40% off coupon for any regularly priced item and has a great warranty. For school uniforms, stores offering Buy-One-Get-One promotions bring big savings. “Last year Target offered a ‘buy one, get one 60% off’ promotion,” Sakraida said.

Shopping for tech? Microsoft and Amazon typically have deals that “cut several hundred dollars off the cost of a good model for college.” While Apple’s coupons may be less generous, she recommends “resellers like MacMall, MacConnection, and Amazon for discounts of Mac laptops; the savings won’t be huge, but you should be able to save at least 10% to 15%.”

While Amazon may offer good bargains on laptops, doing all your shopping there isn’t ideal. Wikibuy found Amazon’s prices were 15% higher on average for common school supplies, and Wikibuy’s analysis revealed if every family with a fifth grader shopped exclusively at Amazon for supplies, families of just those fifth graders would overpay for supplies by $119 million.

6. Keep an eye out for coupons

Manufacturers and stores typically offer coupons on back-to-school items beginning in July or August, according to Krazy Coupon Lady. The magazine Parenting is a recommended source of coupons, along with Sunday newspapers and websites like Retail Me Not with printable and online coupons.

Don’t assume coupons are only for small items either. “Higher end laptop models will frequently come with coupons that slash several hundred dollars off, or come bundled with freebies like a gift card,” Sakraida said.

7. Save money on textbooks

The costs of college textbooks have increased by 73% since 2006, according to NBC News. Students are advised to budget around $1,200 annually for textbooks, which is obviously a whole lot of cash.

There is a little bit of good news though. “Textbooks can be tricky to save on, but there are some tricks that can reduce your costs,” according to Sakraida. She recommends not purchasing books until after classes start, as some professors will let you know how often you’ll really need the book and whether you can buy an outdated edition. Buying a used version of an outdated edition on sites like can cost substantially less money, and the updates may be minor in some cases.

DealNews has also found that ebook versions are typically cheaper than paper textbooks, although the savings is sometimes slight. Renting textbooks is another option. While you’ll lose the chance to sell the book back at the end of the year if you rent, textbooks are often worth only a fraction of what you paid for them when it comes time to sell them back. So in the end, you could very well end up saving money.

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