How to avoid the pitfalls of back-to-school shopping

Submitted by Betsy Muse on Wed, 07/24/2013 – 12:53

With August fast approaching and school supply lists hitting mailboxes, it is important to have a buying plan so you can avoid the pitfalls of back-to-school shopping. Follow your plan and don’t drop hundreds of dollars buying things your children either don’t need or won’t need for several months after school starts. As a kid I loved getting my new box of crayons, colorful construction paper and big fat pencils when mother would take us to buy school supplies. This past week I’ve been out with my youngest making purchases for her dorm room. It’s a good thing we only have to go through this freshman year because these “necessities” add up and can break the budget.

Here are some tips for helping your child enjoy the back-to-school shopping process without draining your bank account.

Preschool and Elementary School Shopping Tips

  • crayons, construction paper & craft supplies – Before buying any craft or school supplies check with your child’s teacher to determine which, if any, school supplies are shared. There’s no sense spending extra on more expensive notebooks and pencils decorated with your child’s favorite cartoon character if there’s no guarantee he or she will be the one using those items. Most of these items will be on sale during the weeks leading up to the beginning of school, but these won’t be the only sale prices of the year and it doesn’t make sense to stock up as if you will never see these low prices again. Buy only what your child needs for school and home use.
  • pencil cases – The hard plastic pencil cases will typically last longer than one year. Instead of spending extra on decorative cases your child might not like from one year to the next, get a basic case and let them decorate with stickers that can be easily removed with water and updated the following year.
  • lunch boxes – Like pencil cases, lunch boxes often last more than one year if you buy the right kind. Instead of spending the money a higher priced character lunchbox that your child might not like next year, pick up a basic lunchbox that can be easily cleaned and let your child decorate it with beaded dangles or favorite character keychains.
  • backpacks – Elementary students rarely need a large backpack and they aren’t as rough on them as students in older grades, so an inexpensive backpack can typically last all year. Character backpacks aren’t always that much more expensive, so save money buying plain notebooks, lunch boxes and pencils and splurge a little on the backpack if it is important to your student.
  • clothing – In most parts of the country there is no need for winter coats or clothing in August. Don’t feel like you have to purchase a new wardrobe for your child to start school unless they don’t own anything that meets dress code. It isn’t easy to buy clothes in advance for kids who could grow inches in a matter of weeks, so unless you must purchase uniform items, it isn’t a good idea to buy clothes for a child who might grow out of them before they get a chance to wear them.

Middle & High School

  • clothing – Before heading out to buy clothes for middle and high school students make sure you have a copy of the latest dress code for their school or school system. Don’t take your student’s word for it and don’t count on the dress code being the same from year to year. Like with the younger students, it isn’t necessary to buy clothes for winter months when temperatures are blazing hot. Clothes will go back on sale before the weather changes.
  • backpacks – Students begin to carry much heavier loads in their backpacks once they reach middle school. We learned our lesson the hard way when we had to replace an inexpensive backpack in the middle of the year for one of our daughters. You don’t have to spend a small fortune on a backpack, but check construction. Look for strong seams with smaller stitches and make sure it is made of heavy duty fabric. Price isn’t always an indicator of quality. My oldest had a $9.99 backpack from Target last 3 years and the youngest had a $30 backpack rip at the seam in the first few months. 
  • graphing calculators – For many high school students a graphing calculator is a necessity. Check with your student’s high school math department head to see if one model is required over another. These are not cheap whether purchased used or new, so paying $70+ for the TI-83 used doesn’t work if the school requires the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition, especially if you can’t return the used calculator. Graphing calculator apps will not be allowed during the SAT and ACT exams, so these might help when the calculator’s batteries die, but aren’t a viable long-term solution.
  • laptops & tablets – Most high school students will need to have frequent access to a computer or laptop to perform well and complete assignments on time. Buying Apple certified refurbished products will save you hundreds over buying new and Windows-based laptops are relatively inexpensive and affordable for a high school student.

College Freshmen

  • linens – Most colleges have twin extra long mattresses which require like-sized sheets, mattress covers and comforters. Most stores rarely carry these sizes outside those few months leading up to and around the August date students return to campus. Watch store circulars closely for sales on twin XL sheet sets and sign up for email alerts from Bed Bath & Beyond and other specialty housewares shops to receive coupons by email and in your mailbox. Bed Bath & Beyond sends out frequent 20% off coupons.
  • television – College dorm rooms don’t have a lot of space for large television sets. Common rooms in dorms usually have a tv so unless your student feels this is a necessity for them to survive college, you can probably hold off. Freshman year is very busy and tv shows and movies can be viewed on a laptop. If you do plan to buy one, go small and go flat.
  • Mini fridge and microwave – Even with a great meal plan most students will use a mini refrigerator and a microwave. Some dorm rooms come equipped with them and most colleges will rent them separately or as a pair. If your student plans to live in the dorms all four years or if there are younger siblings to pass these along to you may come out better financially to purchase these appliances. Otherwise, check out rentals offered by your child’s university. These are two of the heavier items you will have to haul into and out of that dorm room. Having them waiting for you on the day your child moves in isn’t a bad thing!
  • spare laptop battery – Many college students take notes or record lectures using their laptops or tablets and often don’t have time to recharge between classes. If your student’s schedule has a lot of back-to-back classes, check Amazon or eBay for replacement laptop batteries at reasonable prices.
  • furniture – Keep furniture pieces to a minimum. Many colleges supply desk chairs, dressers and desks and do not allow furniture to be removed from the room. Carrying extra desk chairs or futons should wait until you see just how much space is available. If beds are lofted it is easy to fit a comfortable chair, 
  • closet organizers – Again, space is limited in a dorm room and one of the easiest ways to fit more into the room is to fill the closet with organizers and clothes hangers that allow multiple items to be hung vertically. These can be found at many discount stores or specialty houseware shops like HomeGoods or Bed Bath & Beyond.
  • laptop – If you purchased your student a laptop in high school it is highly likely he or she will need a new laptop for college. Watch sites like DealNews to see special deals on laptops being offered by a large variety of sites, stores and manufacturers.