How to Save on Back to School Supplies and Clothes

Sending the kids back to school seems to grow more expensive every year. They need school clothes, school supplies for themselves, and school supplies for their classrooms. Most schools distribute lists of needed items for each grade. For families on a budget, this can be stressful. The good news is that you can equip your child for the upcoming school year on a shoestring budget.

Shop throughout the year

You will spend the most money on school clothes and supplies if you put off all your shopping until August. As seasons change, merchants put the previous season’s clothing on sale and eventually on clearance to make room for new merchandise. As winter approaches, shop the clearance sales for school clothes. You will find a wide selection of clothing at bargain prices, even at higher-priced retailers. You could shop for the current year or for next year by purchasing a size larger. This strategy could be risky, since you don’t know how much your child will grow in a year.  Toward the end of the school year, you can purchase spring items on clearance and use them just two months later when school starts in the fall.

Shopping throughout the year will allow you to take advantage of more sales events. You can budget a certain amount for school supplies and clothing each month and watch for sales. This may allow you to purchase more than you could in one big shopping trip during the back-to-school season. You can find sales for clothing and school supplies in your Sunday newspaper, online, and by joining your favorite retailers’ email lists.

Buy used

Buying used clothing and supplies is an effective savings strategy. Garage sales, flea markets, thrift shops, and consignment shops are great places to look for good deals, especially if you are shopping throughout the year. You can often find name-brand clothing for very low prices and school supplies for pennies.

Garage sales are hit-and-miss because each one is unique. If you go to garage sales regularly, though, you are bound to find deals. Garage sales are usually the cheapest source of name-brand items, and you don’t have to pay sales tax. The most successful garage sale shoppers get an early start to score the best items.  

Flea markets or swap meets are great places to score amazing deals. Flea markets feature a combination of new and used items. Some flea market merchants have full-blown storefronts, while others occasionally sell garage sale items through the flea market. Most are somewhere in between. This adds up to a wonderful treasure trove for the bargain seeker. Flea markets are usually open on the weekends only.

Thrift shops are full of deals. Some are more organized than others. Chances are, you have several to choose from in your community. Thrift shops typically receive donations and sell them for profit or charity, or they purchase items wholesale at auctions and sell them for a slightly higher price. You will quickly determine your favorites. Typically, thrift shop prices will be higher than garage sale prices, but well below retail, and you will have to pay sales tax.

Consignment shops are good sources of bargains on name brand clothing. Consignment shops generally sell high-end brand name clothing in gently used condition for slightly higher prices than thrift shops, but much lower than retail. At most shops, you can sell your own (or your child’s) gently used clothing to and take your proceeds as cash or store credit. If you opt for store credit, the amount is usually higher than if you opt for cash.

Nationwide, the largest chain consignment store that specializes in children’s clothing is The Children’s Orchard. This store has a “Mom’s Club” that includes an email subscription to exclusive discounts and offers, such as their periodic  fill-a-bag sales, which allows you to stuff as many clothes as you can into their plastic bags for a low set price. They have a store locator so you can find the one nearest you.

Shop at discount stores

Whether you shop year-round, or just during the back-to-school season, you can save by shopping at close-out and discount stores for school supplies as well as clothes. These merchants include the Dollar Tree (everything is a dollar), The Family Dollar, Dollar General, Big Lots, TJ Maxx, Marshalls’, Ross, and Burlington Coat Factory. Many of these stores offer discontinued name-brand clothing at a fraction of the retail price. You can also find items such as notebooks, binders, backpacks, and other school supplies at these stores.

Comparison shopping is important, even at these stores. The Dollar Tree, which sells everything for a dollar, might be more expensive on items like pocket folders, which sell for a dollar there, but for lower than .25 at other stores. Sometimes, major retailers have the best deals on things, so think outside the box and don’t lock yourself into one shopping method if you want to consistently find the best deals.

Shop online

You can find almost anything you need online, and often for lower prices than you can find locally. You can find quality used and new items through eBay, Amazon, and Alibris, among others. sells many items online that are unavailable through their stores, often more cheaply than Amazon or eBay.

You can shop online locally as well, through sites like Craigslist. Craigslist is a free classified ad website where people sell or give away used items, including clothing and school supplies. Many newspapers maintain websites with free access to online classifieds.

Take advantage of sales tax holiday

If your state offers an annual sales tax holiday, finish your school shopping during this event. Many stores offer additional savings during this time, so you can maximize your savings by shopping primarily at these stores. This is a busy time, so if you don’t crowds, set your alarm and shop early.

Local assistance organizations

If your family cannot afford all the school supplies you need, many assistance organizations and churches distribute free school supplies to families in need. Most major metropolitan areas offer a 211 service, where you can dial 211 and receive information about local assistance programs. In addition, your child’s school may be able to provide this information or even offer assistance. Do not be ashamed to accept this type of assistance. It benefits your children, and the help is available for that purpose because times are hard.