Like the unwelcome arrival of Christmas decorations on store shelves in October, back to school displays of crayons and backpacks crash summer vacation months every year. I don’t like thinking about back to school while basking at the beach, but some of the best deals are to be had right after the fourth of July.
As it is with most child-related decisions, back to school shopping is a balancing act between time and money, needs and wants, finding teachable moments, and getting-it-done-quick.
I asked some smart and savvy Minnesota parents to share their back to school shopping strategies.
It’s an ongoing debate in the mind of this bargain-hunting mom. Sure I could spend several summer Sundays scouring ads for loss leaders and driving store to store to cobble together the cheapest bundle of supplies. Factor in valuable time and the cost of gas, and you start to wonder if this is the best strategy. Over the years, I’ve finally decided that purchasing a back to school supply kit through the school is my preferred method of fulfilling those lengthy supply lists. Plus the PTO earns a little money in the process.
Now if you’re in the camp that secretly enjoys the hunting and organizing that a big bargain-hunting mission requires, have no shame. Go for it, using the back to school comparison lists put together by the team at Maple Grove-based pocketyourdollars.com. Each week Carrie Rocha not only tracks the prices of 30-plus items at a dozen stores, she also compares them to last year’s prices so you can tell when a so-called deal is a deal.
Becky Sun, a Minneapolis mother of three, hates shopping in physical locations—unless it’s her own home. Like many parents, Sun scours her home for existing supplies first, on the lookout for extra pencils or glue sticks that have accumulated, as well as items that can be reused such as scissors and calculators. She heads online for anything else.
Whether shopping in malls, big boxes, or online, smart parents have smartphones at the ready. Mobile devices are playing a much larger role in the shopping process these days—from research to locating items to downloading coupons.
Find the teachable moments.
Yes, learning about money is important and kids absorb more of the lessons when it’s directly related to stuff they want or need. But I tend to leave my kids and their pester power at home. It’s an infallible equation: kids + big box = big cart + empty(er) wallet.
Parents with stronger constitutions use school shopping to teach about the value of money. Winnie Williams of Woodbury set her girls on a back to school budget after one of them suggested a trip to that magical money machine—a.k.a. the ATM—after Williams said they didn’t have the money for a particular item.
She started with a fall back to school clothing allowance, but decided an even better lesson would be learned if her daughters had a yearly budget that required allocating money for clothes for all seasons, including winter coats and boots.
Over the years, there were disappointments about not being able to afford must-have items and “they thought winter coats were a fortune,” Williams said. (Don’t we all?) “But they definitely learned what a good value is.”
Her daughter, Marta, became so interested in money matters that she joined the Credit Union National Association’s C-Note teen panel and wrote an article on couponing for teens that will be published on the C-Note site (googolplex.cuna.org/1/cnote/).
Don’t pass up tax savings.
Finally, don’t forget to save your school supply receipts for tax time. It’s not a huge tax break, but Minnesota parents with K-12 kids should look into the education credit and subtraction. In years past at the Minnesota State Fair, the Minnesota Department of Revenue passed out free envelopes to keep track of school receipts. The agency’s booth is typically in the education building—a great place to pick up free school supplies too.
Kara McGuire is a personal finance writer and a St. Paul mother of three. Send comments, questions and story ideas to