For kids (and parents), the beginning of the school year can feel like a time for reinvention—going back to school is the time to start fresh, to challenge ourselves and our kids to improve, to meet new parents and kids and make new friends. But although we want the best for our kids, we don't always have the money required to keep up with the ever-lengthening school supplies lists and this year's latest trends.
That's why we've prepared a list of ten budgeting ideas to help you save money, from the beginning of the school year through to the end.
1. Check your supplies from last year
Sometimes, you can find the answers to all of your questions buried at the bottom of last year's backpack. If you haven't already, go through your kid's supplies from last year. Sharpen those No. 2s and use some scrap paper for an ink test—you might just be able to salvage something here.
2. Shop secondhand
Kids always tend to need new clothes and shoes when they go back to school. These days, there are a lot of ways to shop secondhand. You can stop by your local Goodwill or check online sites like eBay and Depop for backpacks, jackets, and more. The site Swoondle also lets you trade in your kid's old clothes for new-to-you stuff. You might even be able to connect with other parents to try swapping. Got an excess of blue pens? Maybe another parent has an excess of red. You never know unless you ask!
3. Try shopping at dollar stores
For school supplies such as pencils and highlighters, dollar stores are a great way to get quality basics for low prices. They might not offer much in terms of individuality, but bulk basics can be stored and divided up as needed. They're also a great way to shop for packaged goods to supplement your kid's snacks and school lunches.
4. Repurpose freebies from previous purchases
Have you ordered from makeup subscription boxes and gotten a zippered bag or received yet another branded pen from a work event? Freebies like this might be collecting dust in your junk drawer, but they can find new life in the hands of our little ones. Think of re-using the makeup pouch as a pencil bag, and the stickers as decor for binders.
5. Follow companies' social media accounts to look for discounts
If you don't mind the marketing posts caught between pictures from your friends' summer vacations, following social media accounts of places like Target, TJ Maxx, and Walmart might give you a head's up to sales and coupons for back to school season that get lost in your email's spam filter.
6. Download retail apps and shop online
If you want to compare prices and shop discounts, taking your back-to-school shopping online might be the best way—even if you end up picking up your order in store. You can get access to deals and coupons that might not be available in stores, even if it takes some scrolling.
7. Avoid trendy school supplies
It's great that your kid loves "Frozen" and it's also great that you want to support their interests—but you don't have to buy everything "Frozen" for school. Instead of buying cheap, plastic backpacks covered in graphics, try going for plain colors or simple patterns that can be accented with patches and pins. That way, your kids' supplies might make it through more than one season before they're bored of them and move onto the next thing.
8. Shop (way, way) ahead for back to school season
Your shopping doesn't have to get done in the school seasons. Starting earlier (or later) can help you find deals throughout the seasons. Although there are school supplies sales that start right before the school season, they're not always the best ones. Keep an eye out year-long to see what you need to buy now and what can wait.
9. Avoid prepackaged meals
For busy parents, buying five Lunchables at the start of each week saves the energy of having to do meal prep—but what if you make meal prep really, really easy? Something as simple as cutting up cheese and lunchmeat and vegetables at the start of the week can help you avoid paying more for the convenience fee.
10. Make a list—and stick to it
It might help you to make a budget, but prices can vary from store to store. One of the best ways to save money is to make a list and keep to it as best as you can. Whether you're shopping online or in person, this will prevent adding things into your cart that might not really be that helpful—even if those Hello Kitty Post-It Notes are really, really cute.
A version of this story was published July 30, 2021. It has been updated.