Back to school bargains

For deal-seeking parents, back to school is a season second only to holiday shopping. Retailers start offering deals on backpacks, glue, and designer jeans in July. Competition is fierce. And if you play the game right, you can score several products for next to nothing. Here are some tips for the determined back-to-school shopper.

Dig through last year’s supplies

The crayons may be down to little nubs, but do you really need to buy new scissors each year? Mine last year’s supplies for any reusable items before heading out to shop.

Use ‘deals’ sites

Local money-saving site is one of many websites that track deals by store and matches coupons., a site useful to even those of us without a drawl, already has a back to school guide with target prices. For example, the site estimates that a great deal on spiral notebooks will set you back 15 cents each. When you find the deals, don’t wait. Get to the store early in the week to reduce sell-out risk.

Also, keep an eye on Groupon and other daily deals sites. My guess is it will have several offers related to back to school, including discounts on dance lessons and other after school activities.

Be patient

It is tempting to fulfill the entire school list as soon as the advertisements sprout. But being patient can pay off. Retailers will spread the best deals throughout the summer.

While most teachers expect all school supplies at the beginning of the year, clothing is another story. Say your son’s pants look like my six-year-old’s—holey, faded, and hanging three inches above his ankle bones. Buy a pair or two to start the year. But the remainder of clothing needs can wait for the steeper discounts that come in September.

Keep receipts

If you subscribe to the “two dry erase markers in hand...” philosophy, you may want to purchase items you think are great deals, keep the receipts, and return them if better deals reveal themselves later on. Or use the aforementioned price guide.

An even more important reason to keep receipts: Tax savings.

In Minnesota, most school supplies can be counted toward the refundable K–12 education credit or the K–12 education subtraction. has more information on who can take advantage of these tax breaks and what expenses qualify.

Use those teachable moments

This idea came to me when my second grader brought home a worksheet calculating school supply prices. Why not get my kids more involved in the purchasing of their school supplies? Of course, bringing a child into the school supply aisle needs some coaching (“No, we are only buying what’s on the list”) and a lot of resolve (“No, the super cute puppy folder is not on the list”).  But explaining how to compare prices, use coupons and budget are valuable money lessons to teach your children.

If your child is old enough to care about designer jeans, they are also old enough for a clothing allowance. What better opportunity to talk to your child about wants versus needs, how much you are willing to pitch in for certain status items, and how to earn money in the neighborhood or around the house?

Time is money

Last year, exhausted by a busy work schedule and three young kids, I chose convenience over cost and spent five minutes shopping for school supplies.
I purchased ready-made school supply kits through our elementary school. They cost more than I would have paid driving all over creation looking for free No. 2 pencils. Or did they? I love a good deal and the thrill of the hunt, but after considering how much money I’d spend in gas, and how much time I would expend compiling two school supply lists from a dozen stores, I decided the easy route wasn’t that much more expensive. Before you start Mama or Papa’s school supply marathon, consider the value of your time and sanity. Also remember that many stores price match and others offer specials online.