Back-to-school shopping takes ‘a major financial toll’ amid high inflation. Here’s how to save on supplies for the fall

Personal finance

Customers shop for back-to-school supplies at a Target store in Colma, California.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As parents know all too well, it’s hard to cut back when it comes to the kids.

Despite more households living paycheck to paycheck, this year’s total back-to-school spending is expected to match last year’s record high of $37 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $864 on school supplies, $168 more than in 2019, the NRF found.

“Families consider back-to-school and college items as an essential category,” said Matthew Shay, NRF president and CEO.

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A separate report from Deloitte found that 37% of parents may spend even more this year — up to $661 per child

And yet, 75% of parents are stressed about paying the tab, a 12% jump from last year, according to LendingTree.

“These expenses are taking a major financial toll on American families already struggling with the highest inflation readings in more than 40 years,” said Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst at Bankrate.

Families are stretched thin

Almost one-third of families said back-to-school shopping will strain their budgets, with middle-income households feeling especially hard hit, according to a new Bankrate.com survey of more than 2,400 adults.

More than one-third, or 37%, of parents with school-age children said they are unable to afford back-to-school shopping due to inflation, and nearly half said they will take on debt shopping for their kids, another study by Credit Karma found.

Bankrate also found that 41% of consumers will change the way they shop for the upcoming school year, with most looking for money-saving strategies.

How to save money on back-to-school shopping

As a rule, stick to only buying what you need right now, advised Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst at DealNews.com.

Students may have to start the school year with notebooks, binders, paper, pens and pencils, but other purchases, such as a new backpack or lunchbox, can be put off until they go on sale.

If you don’t need a new laptop or headphones right away, Ramhold recommends waiting until Labor Day or even Black Friday, when the discounts on electronics will be greater.

These expenses are taking a major financial toll on American families.
Ted Rossman
senior industry analyst at Bankrate

A price-tracking browser extension like CamelCamelCamel or Keepa can help you keep an eye on price changes and alert you when the price drops.

In addition to shopping for the best price, taking advantage of sales tax holidays, credit card rewards or cash-back bonuses, said Beverly Harzog, a consumer finance analyst at U.S. News & World Report.

If you qualify, Harzog also recommends applying for a new card with a sign-up bonus or offering a 0% intro APR for 12 to 21 months and then paying it off over the course of the year without interest charges.

“That’s a better win if you do a little bit of strategizing,” she said.

Then use a cash-back site like CouponCabin.com to earn money back on online purchases, including back-to-school supplies from Target, Walmart and Macy’s.

Rossman recommends stacking discounts, for example, combining credit card rewards with store coupons and online shopping portals. “That represents three ways to save on the same purchase.”

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