Wichita on the Cheap

Live the Good Life for Less & Never Miss a Deal

Tips for Saving with Back to School Sales

It’s back to school season again! Here are my best tips for saving money on school supplies. Over the years I’ve been interviewed by local and national media on this topic, and these are the same tips I give them. They haven’t changed much! 

You have an opportunity to save big and still get your kids all the school supplies they need. Just pay attention to the pennies here. They add up!

If you’ve ever left the checkout lane at a discount store wondering how you could have just spent hundreds of dollars, then you’ve experienced firsthand how rapidly small amounts can turn into large amounts.

Well, it works in reverse, too. That 59 cents you save by using a coupon or shopping at a particular store will add up, pennies at a time, to significant savings.

Here are some of my best tips for saving on school supplies:

Don’t buy everything at once

This is the biggest tip I can give you. To save the most money on school supplies, start your shopping in mid-July and go every week until sometime in August.  If you live in a rural area, you might not be able to do that because you’d spend more in gas than you save on supplies. But if you live or work in town, it’s definitely worth making a weekly stop at the various stores.

Don’t shop the dollar stores

It seems counterintuitive, but when school supply sales are going on the dollar stores don’t have the best deals. Why pay $1 for a notebook when you could get it for 35 cents? (Same is true of “two-for-a-dollar deals.” Off brand crayons for 50 cents per box isn’t as good a deal as Crayola crayons for 50 cents.) Take a look at the school supply price list linked below to get an idea of what you should be paying for school supplies this time of year.

Don’t buy everything

I love the smell of new books, the anticipation of opening up a brand new pack of pens, and the sight of colorful new 3-ring binders more than the average person. But the truth is that if we want to spend less on supplies, we have to actually buy less. Almost every household has perfectly good school supplies sitting around unused, maybe left over from last year, that will go a long way toward fulfilling this year’s list. Once you’ve convinced yourself, it’s time to convince the kids.

So right now at least a few of you are thinking that your child will never agree to reusing last year’s pencil box. I hear you, so I’ll let you in on my big secret.

Give each of your kids a certain amount of money for school supplies and the list of basic supplies they need to buy with that money. Then tell them they can keep whatever is left over. You’ll be surprised at how attractive last year’s backpack starts to look.

And suddenly you’ll have a bunch of little helpers looking at the ads each week. Of course, one of the rules is that everything on the list has to be present and accounted for (whether purchased, repurposed, reused, or pulled out of the dumpster — ha, I’m kidding) before school starts.

Follow your list

School supply lists are available for most districts in Wichita now. Print the list and bring it with you every time you go shopping. And then follow the list. It’s easy to be lured in to buying a Limited Edition four-wheeled Disney backpack with detachable water bottle and matching iPhone case, but it’s a waste of money if your child’s school doesn’t allow wheeled backpacks.

Also see the School Supply Price List, which is a compilation of some of the lowest prices on school supplies we’ve seen in previous years. You can use that for comparison.

Watch the sales

You probably already know that stores often mark prices on certain items waaaay down to get you in the store. The stores lose money on these loss-leaders to get you into the store where, they hope, you’ll decide to just finish off your shopping list. I have nothing against that, because school supply shopping is like a big, fun, traditional spending spree for some people. It was for me and my mom.

But I’ve made this time of year into a big, fun, traditional savings spree. We watch the sales flyers each week, gather our quarters and our school supply list and see how little we can spend to get the things we need. (The “fun” aspect for the child is dreaming of all the ways he or she will spend the leftover money.)

I’ve paid as little as one penny for rulers, loose leaf notebook paper, mechanical pencils, ballpoint pens, and more; I’ve gotten name brand goodies like crayons, markers, and highlighters for 25 cents each.

We’ll see what happens this year, but I’ve noticed fewer weekly sales and more “season-long low prices.”

Either way, try to find sale flyers to help you decide where you’re going to spend your time and money this week. Sometimes you hit the jackpot–the loss leaders at one store make up the majority of items on your list and you can get a lot of shopping done in one trip. Other times you go into a store for a 25-cent pack of pencils and that’s all you leave with.

But once a sale is advertised, don’t wait too long. The best deals do sometimes sell out. Thank goodness some merchants put a limit on the number of items you can buy at sale price. That way, there’s enough for everyone!

Here are the stores in/around Wichita that I most often check for school supply deals: 

  • Dillon’s
  • Walgreens
  • Target
  • Walmart
  • Menards
  • Office Depot
  • Five Below
  • Ollie’s

Walmart really does generally have the lowest prices overall, but Dillon’s and Target really give them a run for their money. And sales at the other stores can sometimes save you even more money on single items (like a pack of pencils, dry-erase markers, paper towels or wipes, etc.)

Use the unit price

When you’re comparing prices on a package of pens, pencils, etc. and you really want to know if you’re getting a deal, divide the package price by the number of items in the pack to come up with the unit price. 

This is most helpful when shopping for supplies in bulk. I can’t just glance at, say, a 200-pack of Ticonderoga pencils at Sam’s Club or Costco and tell you if it’s a good deal. I have to do the math. 

Look for coupon match-ups

Loss-leaders or sale items matched up with a coupon are the best! They can also be a test of patience, because the brand, size, type, quantity and every last detail of the sale item and the item on the coupon needs to match. For example, washable markers might be on sale, but your coupon is for regular markers, or vice-versa. But that’s where kids can help — they have energy to burn. Show them how to do it and let them find the matchups. 🙂 (I’ll bet it’s even more educational than playing a matching game.) Find Printable Coupons.

Save on Big Ticket Items

It’s great to save 30 cents on a pack of markers, but isn’t it even better to save 30 dollars on a backpack, school uniforms, or a graphing calculator?

Yeah! So beginning in July, start looking at prices on either your favorite brands or at your favorite stores so that you can easily spot a deal when they start their back-to-school promotions.

For sanity’s sake, try to limit the stores and or brands you watch. For example, if you know you like the quality of a certain brand of school uniform, watch for deals on that brand. (If you’re brand-loyal, you’ll probably already know which stores carry that brand. If not, a quick internet search will tell you.)

Also, sign up for promotional emails from that brand.

Backpacks can be so expensive! And in my experience, the quality can vary widely. Did you pay an exorbitant amount on a backpack last year because you reasoned that it would last more than one year? Now is the time to give it a good overall inspection to see if it can hold up for another year.

Not buying a new backpack is the easiest way of all to save money on back-to-school. Some backpacks even have lifetime warranties, so before you replace yours with a new one, see if you can get it repaired for free.

Discount and outlet stores

One year I paid $10 for a backpack at Big Lots, but the zipper broke within a couple of months. The next backpack came from Marshall’s and it lasted for two years! 🙂 It was a well-known brand and of good quality. I think I paid $15, if I remember correctly, so it was definitely a great deal.

Summer clearance

In Kansas, school starts when it’s still hot outside, and it usually stays hot well into October, so when it comes to buying the kids new clothes for school, remember that you can hold off on the winter sweaters and long pants (unless the school doesn’t allow shorts).

A perfect way to save money on school clothes is to shop the summer clearance. That way, kids get new clothes and you get good deals.

Computers and device sales

For technology items, the sales don’t get a lot better than around this time of year.

Before you shop, know your specs!

Yes, you can find a laptop for under $300, but a Chromebook might be even cheaper and sufficient for the task. Know how much memory you need, what size and type of hard drive you want, how large or small it should be, what peripherals the item will work with, etc.

The same is true for calculators. Teachers may have specific requirements for those, and you often won’t find out what they are until after school starts.

For a scientific calculator, you should only spend in the neighborhood of $10. Graphing calculators are often closer to $100, so before you drop that amount, make sure the one you’re looking at will meet school requirements.

Watch out for deals that aren’t deals

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that “the really great deals” are at the discount or dollar stores.  Um… I haven’t seen that to be the case at all. (That’s why I gave this is own section up above!) While the dollar stores can be great places to find deals, I get the best deals on school supplies from the traditionally expensive stores.

The whole key is actually knowing (not assuming) you’re getting a great deal. Use my weekly school supply deals or the school supply price list to compare prices and ensure you’re getting a good deal.

Another mistake to avoid is thinking everything in a store’s weekly ad is a great deal. A recent example was a box of colored pencils “on sale” at an office supply store for $1. The same pencils (same brand, everything) were 97 cents every day of the week at another store across the street.  Doing a teensy bit of scrolling on my list reveals that, so please use it and save yourself some money. 🙂

Don’t fret if you paid too much

I speak from personal experience: It can be so frustrating to buy something for 50 cents only to see it on sale the next week for five cents. But the bottom line is that if you’re watching the sales, using coupons, following your list, and checking prices, you are going to save money, and your kids are going to have the school supplies they need. Enjoy the time spent with them, and don’t cry over a missed deal. 🙂

So now that you have these tips in hand, do you think you’ll be able to save more money this back-to-school shopping season? Do you have a great tip that I haven’t covered here? If you do, please share it with us in the comments below or email me at wichitaotc@gmail.com!

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