Avoid One-Stop Shopping. Space out your buying at different stores for greater savings, advises Tracie Fobes, owner of PennyPinchinMom.com. Make it easy by keeping the supply list in your purse for reference during normal errands—you might spot a good deal on highlighters while picking up soap at the drugstore, for example. If your school offers prepackaged school supply kits through a service, think twice before signing on. But if you’re pressed for time, kits can help you get through your list faster. “You’re paying for convenience,” says Fobes.
Do Your Research. As with any retail excursion, “if you don’t go in with a plan, you’re more likely to overspend,” says Deborah Fowler, professor of retail management at Texas Tech University. For the best deal-spotting, she suggests browsing online first to get a sense of what prices various competitors are offering. If your state has tax-free shopping days, be sure to mark them on your calendar.
Plug In to Tech Savings. Cut the cost of purchasing electronics with education discounts, advises Kyle James, founder of Rather-Be-Shopping.com. Many vendors offer them, as long as you have an ID card or a transcript to prove student status. Fobes also recommends buying refurbished electronics for deep discounts. Just be sure to shop at reputable sellers (think Amazon, Best Buy and Apple) and verify that the item was tested and has a warranty. But beware of overbuying, warns Carrie Rocha, blogger at PocketYourDollars.com. Your teen doesn’t need a $1,000 laptop just to do research, write essays and browse Facebook.
Keep Your Smartphone Handy. Try a free deal-hunting app to make things a little easier. Before you shop, browse store flyers using Retale (Android, iOS), or check out Favado (Android, iOS) to search by item and create a master shopping list organized by retailer. In-store, use RedLaser (Android, iOS, Windows) to scan an item and see whether it’s cheaper somewhere else. For online shopping, install PriceBlink (priceblink.com)—it alerts you to lower prices and coupons while you surf.
Look for Discounted Gift Cards. If your teen will wear only a particular brand, nab discounted gift cards for those specific retailers at up to 35% off face value on Cardpool.com or GiftCards.com, says Rocha. If the store offers rewards when you buy, like a coupon or credit to redeem at a later date, Fobes saves them to stock up on essentials, like socks and underwear. “You have to buy those anyway—why not get them for free?” she says.
Shop Secondhand—Online. Buying clothes at a discount is easier than ever with thrifting websites like Schoola.com and ThredUp.com. Donated items on these sites are inspected by hand to ensure they are free from stains, fading, pilling and holes. Searches can be filtered by brand, size and price to make the process painless and fun. There’s even a “new with tags” category for kids who may be turned off by the idea of used clothing.
Put Your Teens in Charge. “You’ll be amazed at how creative your kids can be when suddenly it’s their own money,” says Rocha, who suggests giving teens the budget and letting them keep any leftover cash. Shell out a school supply allowance in installments, provided your teen is using the money wisely. Or try Fobes’ approach: She sets a limit on how much she’ll pay for items, and if her kids want something more expensive, they pay the difference. “Nine times out of 10 they decide they don’t want the more expensive shoes,” she says.