How to Back-to-School Shop On A Budget, the Ultimate Guide

For those of you who are just joining the blog, my husband and I are working to pay of $52,000 thousand dollars in debt, so everything in our life is done on a shoestring budget including back-to-school shopping. This is everything I have learned about how to get it done as cheaply as possible.

How to back-to-school shop on a budget:

  1. Take inventory of what you already own, purchase only to fill the gaps
  2. Trade hand-me-downs with friends/relatives
  3. Join a local Facebook buy/sell group
  4. Plan ahead
  5. Buy on clearance
  6. Use cash-back apps like Ebates
  7. Compare sales
  8. Don’t over buy
  9. Stay organized, KonMari method everything!
  10. Start at the dollar store
  11. Get a school supply list and stick to it
  12. Start a sinking fund for next year
  13. Check thrift stores first
  14. Take advantage of door crasher sales
  15. Sign up for email lists 
  16. If you need to travel, carpool
  17. Take advantage of online shopping

I have learned so much in the past year about my personal shopping habits, and how we made this work for us. Lots of the experiences below I have learned the hard way, and so I would like for your learning curve to be a little less expensive/painful than mine had to be.

1. Take inventory of what you already own, purchase only to fill the gaps

In our culture, I feel like we have a tendency to over-buy because we don’t actually know what we own. This is especially true for people like me that hate laundry with a passion of one thousand burning suns, and over half of my kids clothes are buried in a giant laundry heap.

This past year before we started shopping for school, I didn’t finish all of the laundry and look at what my son actually owned, and what we needed to fill the gaps. This lead to me just guessing what his needs would be, and I could have done better had I taken my own advice.

My plan for 2019 is to take a page from Marie Kondo’s book by pulling all of my son’s clothes out, putting them in a giant pile and going through each item piece by piece. Clothing that doesn’t fit will get passed on to his cousins, clothes that are too worn out will be disposed of, and after all is said and done, I will create a list of things he is lacking.

More on that list later.

2. Look into trading hand-me-downs with friends/relatives

We are huge fans of hand-me-downs in this house, and we will continue to maximize those gifts prior to pulling out my wallet to buy.

My son is perfectly happy to wear clothes handed down to him, and while those don’t always suit my taste, they work well and I am rolling with it. Right now my desire to be debt free outweighs my desire for my son to roll in the latest fashions.

Don’t be afraid to dig through the hand-me-down pile and keep only what you know you will use. This not only helps to control “laundry-pocolyps,” as my husband calls it, but it helps feed into that minimalist mentality that I am trying hard to strive for.

Its okay to pass along things that you don’t use, if you can’t or won’t use it someone else will. Be thoughtful about this though, if you aren’t using something because it is beat up beyond repair, find another use for that item or bin it.

Not only is this a cost effective option, but you are also saving the planet by reusing what is already available, instead of buying something new. So… go you! You earth saving wonder woman!

3. Join a local Facebook buy/sell group for kids items

This one is fairly self-explanatory, but who isn’t perusing Facebook anyways?

I find these groups are incredible when you are searching for a specific thing, you can just put out an “ISO” (in search of) ____, and wait for other moms to fill up the comments with what they have for sale.

Kids grow so fast that they are often outgrowing things faster than they can wear them out, so this can be a great option before heading to the store.

4. Plan ahead

I could talk about this for such a long time, because it has been one of the major life lessons I have learned while we have tried to pay off our debt. When you decide that you are no longer using credit cards to cover expenses you didn’t account for, it takes your head out of the ‘now’ and you start looking further into the future to anticipate your needs.

Not only has looking ahead brought a whole new level of peace to my house, but it has saved us well over a thousand dollars this year. Start anticipating the school year at least 3-4 months in advance, if not a full year or season ahead.

When you are proficient in this, end of season clearance sales racks are your friend. I often scope out end of season clearance sales to see what I can buy for the following year.

5. Buy on clearance

This piggy-backs off of #3, because when you anticipate what your child’s needs might be, you can take FULL advantage of seasonal clearance sales. This is particularly helpful if you live in the Great White North as we do, and your child will need new quality winter gear pretty well each winter.

In the fall when they clear out all the summerwear, be anticipating what your child might need the following summer. Often you will find you can snag brand new items for a quarter of the price.

For a personal example, my son got a Columbia winter jacket and ski pants set for $50 dollars at the end of last year’s clearance sale, the original value for the set was almost $200. I was able to get something I knew would hold up to our winters, at a price I could afford.

6. Use shopping apps like ebates

Oh my goodness, if you guys don’t know what ebates is, you really need to check it out. They are a cash-back app that will give you cash back for any purchases you make online. You can either use them through an app (which is what I do) or you can use them as a browser on a desktop.

You simply open the app, click on the store you want to shop at, it takes you directly to the store’s website, and then you shop as usual. They will apply cash back percentages to your total, and will send you a big fat check once a quarter.

Last time our baby girl needed a few things, I hopped onto Ebates during a 40% of store wide sale at Old Navy, Ebates was offering 10% cash back on all purchases – so I got to double up my discounts. This took my savings up to 50% off of my entire cart, which is awesome!

Shopping for kids clothing is one of my favorite ways to save with Ebates because they often will have higher cash back options for stores like Osh Kosh, Carters, and Old Navy. Lets be honest here, online shopping is much nicer than having to drag cranky kids into a store.

Winning all around.

Oh! I almost forgot, you will get a $5 bonus reward when you make your first qualifying purchase through your account (of $25). I never say no to money back on things I was already planning to buy, its awesome.

7. Compare sales

Did you know that you can use the flipp app to compare local fliers easily on your phone? I know this sounds like an ad, its not, I just think that its flipping awesome (no pun intended).

This app is not only free, but it’s the same one that I use to compare grocery prices while grocery shopping, and it works just as well for back-to-school items and comparisons.

That means, that if I have to travel to shop, I can save time by looking at all of the fliers on my phone, “clipping” the best sales, and then going directly to the stores that have what I am looking for.

When you have to drive a couple hours to do these shops, this is a HUGE advantage. We create a hit list of stores to stop at and it spares us wasting our time on stores that are not worth the price.

8. Don’t over-buy

At our house I am really doing my best to not bring things into our house that we don’t need. I am so tired of having to be cleaning up junk all the time, and I am sure I can’t be the only one. Don’t buy so much that you don’t know what you actually have or need.

I am working hard to decide what the perfect number of each clothing item is for each of the kids, so that they are wearing things they love, without having unnecessary extras. I am also doing what I can to tame “laundry-pocolypse” and having only what we truly need will help keep that beast under control.

Try to reuse what can be salvaged from your child’s school supplies from this season.

Which leads to the how…

9. Stay organized, KonMari method everything!

The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up is pure gold if you are attempting minimalism. Did I mention we have way too much stuff?!

When it comes to back to school shopping, it would be easy to be buying things that are not needed, simply because we can’t find what we are looking for. This is why I love the Konmari method so much, it forces you

A couple of Marie Kondo’s key points are:

  • put everything from a category in a single pile (ie. writing utensils – all crayons, pencils, scissors, paper, notebooks). You want to see just how much of everything you own. Check:
    •  desks
    • junk drawers
    • art spaces
    • backpacks ect.
  • Once you have this pile, go through each item piece by piece. Get rid of everything that does not spark joy or no longer serves a purpose.
    • Everything broken gets tossed or re-purposed.
    • Anything you no longer use gets donated or finds a new home.
  • Whatever is left, gets put away to a specific home, and gets stored in such a way that you are able to see what you have quickly and easily.

Doing this will help you get a clear inventory of what you have, and what you need. Once you have that list, its easy to check off what you already have off of your list from the school, or when it comes to outfits, whatever you need to fill the gap of your child’s wardrobe.

10. Start at the dollar store

I realize that most of this article I am speaking more specifically into school clothing, however, let’s change gears and jump over to supplies here for a minute.

The dollar store has perfectly acceptable crayons, markers, and pencil crayons at a fraction of the cost of Walmart or staples (most of the time). So before you begin to check things off of your back-to-school supply lists, check here first.

Keep in mind that some things quality matters a little less, especially when your kids are in elementary school. There are times when you need to opt for higher quality items at Walmart such as scissors, but lots of the smaller ticket items can be found at the dollar store.

11. Get a supplies list from your child’s school

Every year, your teacher should have a list of items that your child will need for the school year. Just stick to the list.

On this list they often have a few extras to account for kids who were unable to afford school supplies. I don’t have an issue with this, here’s why:

  • Who in their right mind wants to be in charge of twenty five year olds children?!? Teachers, that’s who.
  • Teachers spend a good deal of their own time and money getting the classroom ready to bring out the best in our kids and their minds. That is a worthy investment to me. Yes, even on a bootstrap budget.
  • I like to give back when I can, and school supplies are cheap enough that I am able to help in that regard, without putting a massive strain on my budget. Specifically if you are able to sniff out the best deals.
  • You never know when you might need to be on the receiving end of other people’s generosity, so help out when you can, and if you ever are in a time of need it will come back to you.

12. Start a sinking fund for next year

Find a way to keep track of how much supplies cost you this year, so that you can be prepared with a savings account for that amount by the time next year rolls around. It takes the stress out of things knowing you have already put the money aside that you will need.

If you have read any of my other articles, you probably already know that I am a bullet journal junkie, and this is a perfect item for a special collection so next year I can look back on what our son needed, and how much it cost to set him up between clothes and supplies this year.

It also gives me a good ball-park amount to have pre-saved for when I need to do school shopping for both kids. If you are looking to avoid accumulating new debt, or using credit cards this is essential.

You can read more on what sinking funds are and how to use them effectively here.

13. Check thrift stores

This is right up there with dollar stores, and hand me downs. It is really incredible to me what you can find if you are willing to dig through the racks. Often times I have found really great quality clothes for my kids, for twenty-five cents an item.

Ask around your local thrift stores if they have fill-a-bag-events. Ours had one of these events where you could fill a bag for $5 (like the giant grocery type bags) and I loaded it right up. I got a board game for me and my husband, a pair of winter boots that will last through this season, jammies for both kids, two pairs of shorts for my son, two shirts for my daughter, and four shirts for a project I was working on.

That’s forty cents an item. Score!

How to back to school shop on a budget - motherhoodandmoney: We live in a high cost of living area, this is how I do back to school shopping on a tight budget.
Fill-a-bag event at our local thrift store. I got all this for $5!

14. Take advantage of door crasher sales

Osh Kosh, Old Navy, Carters and the Gap often have back-to-school sales, and will have select items heavily discounted to get you in the store. The flipp app is a great way to scope out where you can snag the best deals, and what stores are worth your time.

With flipp I can easily compare sale prices from several different stores at once, and it saves me time from stopping at five different places to get what we need at the best price.

This fall I spent a whole $53 dollars on brand new back-to-school clothes for my 5 year old between the door crasher sale and the clearance racks. This included two new pairs of jeans, a few t-shirts, a couple long sleeve shirts, and three new pairs of shorts for spring/summer.

15. Sign up to be on email lists

Every single mom I know has a specific brand that they love for their kids. If this is true for you, then sign up to be on their email lists. They will email you exclusive perks, deals and upcoming sales that you may not have otherwise known about.

In our house, our kids are super tall and slim, which means Carters fits them like a dream. I always scope out Carter’s email offers so I can snag new pants at a discount, a deal that’s made even sweeter when Ebates is offering an extra 10% cash back.

When you don’t live close to areas that host your favorite brands, then this is an essential way to snag the clothes you love for you kids at a fraction of the price online.

16. If you need to travel carpool

This tip is specific to those of us who live in rural areas. It is not uncommon for people in our town to drive to a neighboring city 3 hours away to do large shops, because our city does not have as much to offer for kids, specifically in regards to clothing.

If you are doing these type of stock up trips, take a couple other moms with you, and make a day of it. Not only is it more fun, but then your “savings” aren’t being offset by the expense of a tank of gas and lunch for the day.

I know for myself and other small-town dwellers, we get the itch for a road trip every now and again. Just be careful not to go under the guise of “sweet deals,” when in reality you just want a day away.

These trips typically ending up costing us more than we care to admit, so before you go make sure to assess if you need to go. If at the end of the day you decide it isn’t worth it, online shopping is your gift to your wallet!

17. Take advantage of online shopping

This is another tip for us rural dwellers.

The online world is a wonderful one for those of us who don’t have access to great brick and mortar stores, so keep them in mind for this shopping season.

When you are online shopping double check what their shipping and return options are. Free shipping and returns are always ideal. Shipping can get expensive quickly, so just watch out for it.

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