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The number crunch

The National Retail Federation predicts that in 2023, Americans will spend a record $41.5 billion on school supplies, up from $37.1 billion in 2021 and $36.9 billion in 2022.

The bills are getting bigger in part due to the technology that is often expected to accompany the student — 69% of back to school shoppers expect to buy some kind of electronic device this year, the highest percentage in the history of the NRF’s survey.

But don’t worry, there's light at the end of this expensive tunnel — if you know where to look.

Many states offer tax-free shopping days for school supplies during the summer months. But if you missed out on those special deals, here are 10 suggestions to help you avoid spending too much on pencils and books, and help your kids avoid teachers’ dirty looks.

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1. Host a “supply swap”

Gather friends and neighbors with children in similar grade levels and host a supply swap. Exchange gently used items like binders, backpacks, or calculators. This practice not only saves money, but promotes sustainability. As an added bonus, you get to know your school community better.

2. Reuse and/or upcycle

Repurpose items from the previous year and get creative with upcycling — for example, you can use fabric or stickers to refresh old binders and notebooks. According to the National Retail Federation, families with middle-school or high-school-aged children are expected to spend an average of $890.07 on school supplies this year, $25 more per family than in 2022, and another all-time high. Reusing items can substantially cut this cost.

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3. Buy in bulk

File this one under “another community initiative.” First, compare prices of in-store items versus bulk buying, and then purchase the cheaper school necessities in bulk. Once that’s done, split the cost among multiple families. This typically works well for items like pencils, pens, and loose leaf paper.

4. Utilize your credit card’s cashback and rewards programs

Use credit card cashback options like the one offered by Credit One Bank Platinum X5, store loyalty programs, or cashback apps. Just make sure to pay your credit card balance in full every month to avoid owing interest on your balance.

5. Shop at dollar stores

Check out local dollar stores for the things on your back to school list. Highlighters, construction paper, and pencil crayons often get stocked on discount shelves and you can often find these items at a fraction of the price offered by big-box stores.

6. Monitor price match policies

Many retailers, including Walmart, Best Buy, and Target offer price matching. If you buy something, and then find a lower price at a competing store, the original store may match that lower price. This will ensure you get the best deal possible. Some stores will also price match on the spot if you bring in a flier from one of their competitors that advertises a lower price.

7. Avoid brand names

Instead of buying brand-name items, go for store-brand or generic versions. They often offer similar quality at a lower price, saving you about 20-30% on average. Perhaps you want to save up for your electronic devices, but truly, paper is paper, binders are binders, and pens are pens.

8. D.I.Y. school supplies

Get crafty and create your own school supplies, like personalized pencil holders or book covers, with materials you already have at home. Sewing a pencil case, for example, is apparently an easy enough project for even the most basic of tailors. As an added bonus, it can make for a fun “crafternoon” with your kids.

9. Check out online marketplaces

Browse online marketplaces like Facebook Marketplace, Freecycle, or your local Craigslist pages for discounted, new or gently-used school supplies. It may even be feasible to buy refurbished electronics from reputable sellers.

We do have some suggestions, though, if you’d like to buy an iPad from Facebook. Research the market value of the item you’re considering, and beware of prices that seem too good to be true — that might be a scam. Check out the Marketplace profile of the seller, don’t be afraid to ask for more pictures of the item, and before you take it home, make sure it functions as advertised.

As always, we recommend that you be careful when meeting with sellers and that you follow proper safety guidelines.

10. Shop off-season

Stock up on school supplies during off-peak times, like after the back-to-school rush or during post-holiday clearance sales. In the lead-up to school starting, which happens from the beginning of August to the beginning of September, prices are already half of their regular shelf price. And once September rolls around, retailers like Walmart often mark down prices even further to get rid of their remaining inventory.

Remember, while a designer notebook might look appealing, its pages contain the same blank space as any other. As the age-old saying goes, "The pen is mightier than the sword," but nobody ever said it had to be a designer one.

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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.

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