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How To Conquer Back To School Shopping on A Budget

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I walked into my local Target store recently and was surprised to see all of the back to school deals being advertised.

I couldn’t believe it was that time of year already. 

It never seems like summer lasts very long before. You work hard at school all year and the summer months just fly by.

Before you realize, it is back to school time and you start compiling a list of all the new things that are needed. 

There are two types of back to school shopping. Parents shopping for their kids. And college students returning to a start a new semester. 

I’ve broken down different ways you can save with back to school shopping. Whether you are a parent of 1 (or two or three) or a college student heading back to school for the fall semester, these tips will help!

Younger Kids and Teens

I remember as a kid always needing a lot of new items when school time rolled back around. 

There were notebooks, pencils, pens, rulers, and more.

And as you progress in school level, you only seem to need more stuff. You might need a scientific calculator.  Or, maybe you need a laptop/home computer just to get assignments done.

Before starting with any shopping, you should sit down and get a list together of everything you absolutely need. 

Next, you need to clearly define your back to school budget. Be firm with yourself, spouse and children that you can’t go over budget. 

This will help reign them in to just getting the essentials and you will be able to honestly tell them no without getting too many grumbles. 

Below I’ve listed some ways you can tackle all the things you need to get for the new school year without breaking the bank.

 School Supplies

Paper, Pens, Pencils, etc

School supplies are one of the first things you’ll need to get once summer is over. Walmart and Target are great sources for cheap supplies. 

Choose stores like those to stock up on paper, pencils, pens and more. Typically these items are on sale a few weeks before school usually starts. 

If you work in a corporate office, another way to save in this area is to see if there are any excess supplies going unused. 

There may be old binders or notebooks that you can snag. Or a few pens and pencils that won’t be missed. You don’t need that much of each, so you don’t have to worry about items being missed. 

Backpacks, Lunchboxes, Calculators, etc

Don’t let your kid(s) sucker you into getting them a new backpack every year. A backpack is one of those items that should survive a few years of school abuse.

But, if your child really does need a new backpack, I’d check out a place like TJMaxx. You can get a new one at a cheap price.

A cheaper option is to through your local thrift stores. You can find a lot of quality backpacks in good condition there. 

The same goes for things like calculators and lunchboxes. I’ve found both at local thrift stores for less than a dollar. 

Another place to look for school items are at garage sales over the summer. Some people might have children graduating and getting rid of a bunch of stuff. 

Check out the garage sales happening earlier in the summer, just after the end of the previous school year. 

When it comes to these items, I advise you to keep everything either plain or gender neutral, that way younger siblings can reuse items the older kids outgrow. 

Laptops, Tablets, and Cellphones

In this modern society, I honestly don’t know if one can make it through school without a laptop. Especially if you are in middle school or above. 

For my younger sister it was pretty much mandatory as some assignments were given online through the school’s online portal. 

One of the best times to buy new laptops, tablets and phones are around Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when the discounts are high.

You can also check out deals around Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.

If you can’t wait around until then, another option is to checkout sites like Craigslist, Ebay, and Amazon to see what quality items you can get at a lower price.

Keep in mind that a laptop and tablet are just for school work, so it doesn’t need to be anything fancy and doesn’t need a bunch of bells and whistles (despite what your child may tell you). 

Swappa is another excellent source for used electronics, especially for high end items like Ipads and Samsung tablets.


If you have a teenager, a car may be a back to school item you’ve needed to add to your list.

Maybe you can’t keep up with their social calendar and carting them around everywhere, or maybe they need wheels to get from school to their first afterschool job.

Before heading to the dealership to find something, see what you can find locally for cash. 

While you do want the car to be in good condition and safe to drive, don’t let your teen convince you that they need a cool coupe. 

Find something cheap that will last through their high school career and then see if you can help them with an upgrade later on. 

Clothes and Shoes

I consider clothes and shoes to be one of the most expensive aspects of back to school shopping and also one of the most unnecessary.

At some point, kids get it into their heads that they need a whole new wardrobe to go into the next grade. So when school shopping rolls around, they expect a shopping spree. 

I admit, I did expect this as a teen myself and my parents gave in to my desire to stay on trend. I encourage you not to be this type of parent. 

While I think getting one or two new items is great, a whole slew of items is really not needed. 

And if your child disagrees, then direct them to the nearest thrift store and consignment shop. Explain that you are on a budget and that buying used items is just as good as buying items new. 

I’ve gone thrift shopping and have walked away with name brand items that still had the original department store tags on them. 

Simple items like jeans (non-distressed) and plain t-shirts will last years…unless your kid is growing exponentially each year.

Another thing to keep in mind when buying used is to shop out of season. This is a good rule to adopt even if you’re shopping at popular stores at the mall.

When you shop out of season, you will buy winter items in summer and summer items over the winter. 

Shopping this way will yield bigger clothing discounts as stores try to switch gears and sell old stock. 

College Students 

For some college students, their parents are still very much in the picture to help with getting everything they need for school. This is especially true for first year college students. 

For students going on their Sophomore, Junior or even Senior year, back to school shopping isn’t really something you worry about because at this point you are basically living like an independent adult. 

But, each new school year does have some extra expenses so here are a few ways you can fulfill your shopping list on a student’s income. 

Dorm Items

Do not let your new graduate go wild with decorating their dorm room. Remind them that it is a dorm room, i.e., a temporary space needed only for sleeping and studying.

That being said, there are some key items you will need to get before you head off to college like bedding and basic household items (lamp, trashcan, alarm clock). 

Some of these things you won’t need to buy new. You should have several of these already and can just pack and take with you. So no, there is no need for a fancy new comforter or special sheets. 

If your teen wants to “decorate” their dorm, have them strip the decorations from their room at home and take with them to college. 


New textbooks are expensive. Thankfully you can buy textbooks used from your school’s bookstore. 

If you can’t score a used book there, I’d check out Amazon as another option or, you campus or city library. 

While a library may have the textbook you need, you may not be able to keep it long term and will continually need to renew it. 

I would save borrowing books for the classes that you know for sure you will only take once and not need any reference materials after. 


You will definitely use a computer while you are in college. A desktop computer is usually cheaper than a laptop, but it will mean being shackled to the dorm room for school work. 

The type of computer needed will also depend on the chosen major. Some degrees, particularly those that are design focused, will require key design features. 

But, if you’re just majoring in English or something like Biology, a simple computer will work fine. The same goes for a laptop. 

You can buy your computer new, refurbished or used. Check out decluttr or secondspin to find used electronics at a great price. 

Or if you can’t afford a new computer, make use of your campus library. I’ve known students who made it all the way through to graduationl without owning a computer.

 It may not be common but it is totally doable. And probably made them a better student too. 


Okay, if your college freshman is asking for new clothes, kindly remind them that they are an adult now and new clothes are not a college priority.

If you are a student looking to update your style as you head off to new adventures, keep in mind that college isn’t about what you have on. You’re there for an education after all.

But, if you really need to shop, the same rules as I mentioned above apply here too. Check out consignment shops and thrift stores before heading to the mall. 


When I was in college, I didn’t need a car. The school had a great bus/shuttle system since it was a smallish town and therefore went pretty much all over to get kids from their apartments to campus. 

If you didn’t take the bus then the next best option was a bike. For most, a bike will be enough.

But, if you go to a school with a fairly large campus or snag a job that requires a bit of a commute, then a used car is definitely the way to go. 

You can look at dealerships in your area or you can go on sites like Craigslist to see what’s available. I like Craigslist because you can often haggle over price and end up talking people down a few hundred dollars. 

Save the new car for when you have a degree and a fancy new job.

Final Thoughts

I’m sure a lot of parents are thrilled to see their kids head back to school right now, but aren’t so thrilled with the price tag associated with back to school shopping. 

This time of year doesn’t have to be expensive. Work within your budget, explain your financial situation with your family, and everything should run smoothly. 

Hopefully these tips will help you get through this time both worry free and with as little monetary loss as possible. 

Thanks for reading and happy frugaling this school year!

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