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Back-to-school shopping on a budget

By on August 20, 2009

photo by Danielle Scott

Back-to-school clothing and supplies don’t have to break the bank. It costs more when you don’t plan ahead. The following tips can help you as you prepare for the new school year.

INVENTORY: Find out what you already have. If items are still in good condition, your child doesn’t need new replacements. If you absolutely can’t send your child off to the first day of school without brand-new items, then rotate with older clothing and supplies to put less wear and tear on the newer items. For example, when your child comes home, have her change into older “play clothes.” Or keep an older set of shoes for outdoor play. Keep a simple wardrobe for kids with separates that can be mixed and matched easily. Avoid trendy character items that date merchandise. You can give older clothes a new look, too. Add embroidery, patches or applique or use fabric paint, bleach pens and stencils.

BUDGET: Create a budget, make a list, and stick to it. You don’t have to buy everything before school starts. While you certainly shouldn’t cater to every whim, understand that kids do want to fit in or create their own style, and they’ll see trends after school starts. Waiting will allow you to hit the fall and winter sales, and your children can get something they really like. Kids can pay for any extras with their own money or put it on a wish list for holidays, too.

KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN: Look for sales and rebates throughout the year at pharmacies, office supply, grocery and discount department stores, or check dollar stores, garage sales and thrift stores. Many thrift stores have Labor Day sales. Stock up for the entire year and even next year. These items can be incorporated into gifts for kids and teachers, too. Don’t overlook swapping with friends and family or shopping online, too. One reader, Bridget in Indiana, shares: “I use, and I think it’s a great way to buy essentials and avoid the chore of running to the store. It saves time, and everything is shipped to my door free. They have clipless coupons, which save even more!” This can work well for classroom essentials you need to send in, such as tissues, hand sanitizer, paper plates, etc.

SHOP QUALITY: It might cost a bit more up front to buy a quality backpack, shoes, lunchbox, binder or clothing, but these items will last much longer if you do. When buying folders, pencils and paper, choose plastic folders, refillable pencils and a small binder that holds looseleaf paper. These items are durable and can be reused the following year.

REUSABLE LUNCHBOX: Opt for a reusable insulated lunchbox and food-storage containers over brown bags and plastic baggies. Freezer packs keep things cold, but you can also freeze drinks and lunch will stay cool and the drink will thaw by lunchtime. Save money by buying full-sized packages of snacks versus individual snack packs and repackaging them yourself, too. Branch out, and try alternatives to white bread, such as pita bread, bagels, croissants, biscuits, English muffins, tortillas, crackers, breadsticks, rolls, cereal, pasta, rice, pancakes, waffles, French toast, muffins or rice cakes. Use spreads such as cream cheese, hummus, preserves or cashew butter instead of cold cuts. Invest in a food jar to keep hot food hot, too.

You might also enjoy reading Lunch box snacks kids won’t trade and Liven up the lunch box and Pack a homemade snack and Family routine makes life easier


  1. Melissa B

    8/20/2009 at 11:05 am

    I buy my daughter’s clothes at consignment sales. She’s at an age that she doesn’t know or care where the clothes come from. I get absolutely amazing bargains. Consignment stores are a bit more expensive than the seasonal (spring/fall) sales, but also an option.
    For meals, we do bento-style lunches in reusable containers. Make ahead and save by not having to send money for lunch. Google bento lunch for more info.
    For breakfast, we periodically make a double batch of pancakes or waffles and freeze. Microwave in the morning and there’s breakfast.

  2. Sara Noel

    8/23/2009 at 1:47 pm

    Swapping supplies and clothing with others can be helpful, too.

  3. Pingback: Monroe on a Budget » Sara Noel’s frugal back-to-school tips

  4. Amy

    8/24/2009 at 8:37 pm

    Great ideas, Sara! I get a lot of hand-me-downs from friends, and so what I often do is wash and then put aside some of the hand-me-downs and bring them out a few days before school starts. They may not be “new” but they are new to my daughter and she is just as excited to wear them as if they were brand new clothes.

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