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Kids heading back to school or college? Here's how to save money on tech, clothes, textbooks and more

American families are expected to spend record amount for school and college supplies this year. Here are 7 ways to cut costs.
Young man moving into dormitory on college campus
Families with college students expect to spend an average of $977, according to the National Retail Federation.XiXinXing / Getty Images

Back-to-school shopping can make a real dent in the family budget. That’s why it’s so important to find ways to get more for less.

From notebooks and backpacks to computers and refrigerators, American families plan to spend more than ever on school supplies this year, according to the National Retail Federation. It’s annual back-to-school survey conducted in July found that:

  • Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $697 this year. Clothing and accessories top K-12 spending, followed by electronics (computers, calculators and phones) and then supplies (such as notebooks, pencils, backpacks and lunch boxes).
  • Families with college students expect to spend an average of $977. For this age group, electronics top the list, followed by clothing and accessories, dorm and apartment furnishings and then food.

Back-to-school promotions started in July, but there will be plenty of sales through Labor Day weekend. Take the time to look for coupons and find the sales, and you can save a bundle.

“The idea is to cherry pick,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder of Consumer World. “Pick the doorbuster deals on basic supplies — the 25-cent, 50-cent and dollar items on the cover of chain stores’ weekly flyers — and stay away from the ones that are just so-so. And double check the prices on more expensive items — a quick web search — to make sure you’re not overpaying.”

Dworsky also recommends visiting a local Dollar Tree store. The chain carries a huge assortment of school supplies for $1.

7 money-saving back-to-school shopping strategies

Here are a few ways to pay less for the things your kids need for school.

1. Don’t buy what you already have

Unless this is the first year that you’re buying school supplies, chances are you have some stuff left over from last year. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget. Look around the house and see what’s there before you rush out to buy everything on your shopping list.

2. Have a plan

Set a budget. Figure out what you need and how much you can afford to spend on various categories, such as supplies, clothing and electronics. It’s easier to overspend when you don’t have a plan and don’t keep track of what you’re buying.

3. Stock up when possible

If you can afford it, buy items you know the kids will need later in the year when you see them on sale now.

“If you see notebooks that are super cheap, like 25 cents or less each, go ahead and get enough for the whole year, and then you don't have to worry about it when the spring semester kicks off,” said Julie Ramhold, senior staff writer for DealNews, which has a long list of back-to-school offers on its website

4. It’s OK to wait on some things

Chances are you don’t need to buy everything on the supply list before the first day of school. Check with the teacher to find out what can be purchased later. You may find better deals on supplies after school starts. And fall clothing will go on sale after Labor Day.

“Instead of buying all your kids’ school clothes in one go, get a couple of outfits to start and pick up the rest at a discount later,” advises personal finance writer Lyle Daly in a recent blogpost for The Motley Fool.

5. Check for student discounts

College students can get discounts on a variety of purchases, including clothing, technology, streaming media and travel.

DealNews recently published a list of All the Best College Student Discounts and Freebies in 2019. These include:

  • 20 percent off at American Eagle Outfitters, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Dockers
  • 15 percent off at Adidas, Banana Republic, J. Crew and Levi’s
  • 10 percent off at Hanes, Jockey, PUMA, Rosetta Stone and Urban Outfitters

“You just have to ask about them — everywhere — whether it’s online or in person,” Ramhold said. “Some local places in college towns will also offer discounts with your student I.D., so it's always worth it to ask.”

If you're shopping online, you may need to verify your student status through the free Unidays app or by providing a valid .edu email address.

A recent Consumer Reports blogpost on student discounts listed several other apps and memberships that offer ways for college students to save money: Student Beans, Student Advantage, and the Groupon Student Program which offers an extra 25 percent off local deals for six months, then 15 percent for as long as you’re still in school.

If you need a new computer, see if your school offers discounts. Many do. If not, check the manufacturer’s website for student discounts and look at their online outlet offerings.

6. Don’t pay full price for expensive tech items

Refurbished electronics are sold at a significant discount — hundreds of dollars, in some cases — on just-like-new desktop computers, laptops, tablets, monitors, televisions and audio gear.

As Consumer Reports cautions: “The trick is making sure the product is genuinely refurbished, not simply cleaned up, repackaged, and repriced. And that requires asking some questions before you settle on a deal. Not everyone defines refurbished the same way.”

Kevin Brasler, executive editor at, advises sticking to products that are refurbished by their manufacturers.

“You can still run into trouble, but at least those deals come with warranties and tech support,” he said.

  • Apple offers a one-year warranty on its refurbished phones.
  • Samsung certified pre-owned phones have a one-year warranty.
  • Buy a refurbished item from the Dell Outlet and you get a 100-day limited warranty and a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Brasler likes the fact that major manufacturers — such as Apple, Samsung and Dell — also specify what they do to refurbish their products.

If you’re thinking about buying from Amazon, Best Buy or other stores offering used tech stuff, “read the fine print on your return rights, guarantees, and warranties,” Checkbook cautions.

7. Save on college textbooks

Students attending a 4-year college can expect to spend about $1,240 a year on books and supplies, according to the College Board.

Kaitlyn Vitez at the consumer group U.S. PIRG advises students to “do your homework and shop around” before buying. This includes joining Facebook groups at your school to look for students selling textbooks from last semester.

You can save hundreds by renting books (physical copies or digital versions) or buying used copies. Chegg, Knetbooks, CampusBooks,,, ValoreBooks and Amazon are just a few of the sites that specialize in textbook rentals. Some also sell used textbooks.

We found a new copy of Constitutional Law 5th Edition by Erwin Chemerinsky on Amazon for $167. A used copy is $104, but it’s only $35 to rent the book for the semester.

Another money saving option: Many schools offer what’s called Course Reserve, where copies of the textbooks and other materials are set aside at the library for short-term use by students taking a specific course.


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