Back to School (Part 3): Save Your Dollars

This week I’m writing a five-part series on common back-to-school stressors and what we can do to make this transition easier.

The back-to-school season can be EX-PEN-SIVE, what with school supplies, new clothes, class fees, PTA memberships, class T-shirts, school fundraisers, and class pictures. The first month or two of school can feel like a full-out assault on your bank account. And when the grown-ups are broke, no one in the family is happy.

Since many of these expenses are hard to avoid, we must use our best shopping know-how to save money when and where we can.


Tip #1: Don’t go shopping.

I remember when I was a teenager I got a whole new set of clothes every fall. But I was a teenager. If your kids are younger and don’t expect a new wardrobe, don’t worry about it. You know that day will come when they just have to have this particular pair of jeans or whatever. Until then, enjoy the silence and send them to school in the same cute clothes they wore all summer (or last spring, if September actually means “chilly” where you live).

But what if the little munchkins have grown and actually need new clothes?

Tip #2: Take advantage of clothing swaps.

In Austin, every fall I attend Zilker Elementary’s clothing swap (adult and child), which is open to the public. The rule with clothing swaps tends to be that you can take away the same amount you donate. So if you show up with two big bags of clothes, you can leave with two big bags of “new” clothes. Genius. Pure genius.

Tip #3: Track down the thrift stores with the good kids clothes.

I’ve found this usually means the suburbs. For me, in South Austin, I head to the Goodwill near Circle C (Brodie and Slaughter). You’d think the even swankier parts of town would be better, but I guess by the time you can afford to live in those zip codes your kids are older. That or you give all your old clothes to the housekeeper. For whatever reason, the Goodwill at Lake Austin Boulevard has almost no kids clothes.

(A friend just told me about a “GW Boutique” on Far West that has kids clothes. I will definitely be checking that out!)

Tip #4: Go shopping early—or late—but not right before school starts.

Right now, thrift stores have the least selection and regular retail stores have the highest prices. Whichever way you shop, you’d be better off shopping some other time of year. You can easily lose an hour of your life doing online research about the best time of year to shop (I just did), but personally, I’ve consistently found the best sales in retail stores in January and July.

School Supplies

I got the lowdown on school supply shopping from my friend, master shopper Aida Regalado. She has four kids, all in elementary school this year, so we should listen to her—this lady buys a lot of glue sticks.

Tip #5: Start your shopping EARLY, as in the year before.

Aida will start her shopping for next year in just a few weeks. After the college kids have packed up and left, Aida says, Target will put most of their school supply leftovers on clearance. And she’ll be waiting, this year’s class supply lists in hand, ready to take advantage of savings of up to 50-75% on items she’ll need for next year. Stash those extras in a labeled box in the back of your closet, and you’ll already have a jump on next year.

Tip #6: Buy hard-to-find items right after the Fourth of July.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but every year I am driving around like a mad woman trying to find those damn plastic folders with brads in every shade of the rainbow. Aida recommends shopping for these items in July, when the stores first put out their school supplies and they still have nice, neat stacks of the folders you need, not just a jumbled mess of Justin Bieber and cute kitten folders.

Tip #7: Check Sunday flyers for weekly mark-downs.

If you have the time and get a kick out of this sort of thing, Aida suggests checking online or in the Sunday paper for the big box ads. Every week someone slashes prices on one or two items in the hopes that you’ll do all your shopping there. But if someone’s offering spirals for a penny, be sure to go on Sunday or Monday, Aida cautions. By Tuesday, they’ll be sold out for sure.

OK, now I’m all shopped out, and I haven’t even gone anywhere. I think my favorite back-to-school shopping strategy is to just get it done in July. But I have yet to ever do that. This year, by the time I finally made it to Target they were out of all red, green, blue, and purple plastic folders with brads, and I was once again cursing my lack of foresight. Will next year be the year I finally get it together and take my own advice?

I’d love to hear any additional tips you have on saving money during this time of year!

© Amy Daniewicz

Back to School Survival Guide
Back to School (Part 1): Start With the Basics
Back to School (Part 2): Plan It Out
Back to School (Part 4): Get a Grip
Back to School (Part 5): The First Day

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