Dreading School Supply Costs? Here's How to Make Back-to-School More Affordable
Back to school is always an exciting but stressful time — for both parents and children. And while kids may be more worried about making friends, parents are dreading the high costs of school supplies.
Inflation is hitting parents' pockets even worse this year. Many families are spending hundreds (even thousands) of dollars just to get their kids ready for the school year.
But education doesn't have to burn a hole in your pocket. Follow these handy tips on lowering school supply list costs.
Back-to-School Costs Are Higher Than Ever
The early 2020s have not been kind to parents. After a global pandemic that left many struggling to find work-life balance or facing loss of income, inflation is hitting everyone's pockets mercilessly.
A U.S. News and World Report study found that one out of five parents are expecting to spend more than $400 per child on back-to-school gear. This includes everything from school supplies to tech and clothes. It also merges responses from both public and private school students.
With astounding numbers like this, it's no surprise that 96 percent of parents are at least a little worried about being able to afford back-to-school costs. Luckily, there are some simple strategies that you can follow to reduce hefty price tags.
Second Hand and Value Stores Are Your Allies
Clothes and supplies are items that aren't usually too expensive on their own. The issue is that they are normally bought in large quantities, which can end up in hundreds of dollars spent.
To avoid this, we recommend looking into value stores like Dollar Tree or shopping in second-hand stores. The first is great for school supplies, with notebooks, pencils, binders and more costing as little as a dollar. A difference of $3 to $5 may not seem like much, but when you need to buy for several classes or for multiple children, the savings are notable.
While buying used clothes was once taboo, the practice has now entered the mainstream. Most cities have at least one Goodwill or other stores where you'll find good quality clothes at great prices.
You can also go to websites like Thredup and shop for an entire wardrobe online. If you don't like the idea of wearing previously owned clothes, simply apply the "new with tag" filter for discounted items that have never been used.
Using Credit Cards Responsibly
Beverly Harzog, credit card expert and consumer finance analyst at U.S. News and World Report, points out that using credit cards is a smart strategy for dealing with school costs. This might seem counterintuitive since credit cards are often associated with debt. But when used responsibly, they can act as "a short-term, interest-free loan," as Harzog explains.
Look for credit cards that have a zero percent annual percentage rate (APR) for new accounts. They often offer 12 to 18 months without charging interest. If you pay the amount off in time, you'll have gotten a year or more to gradually cover the cost of supplies.
Harzog states that there are other benefits to using a credit card. If there is a signup bonus and a point system, you can then use your rewards to pay off part of your balance. In the meantime, you're building credit.
Credit cards also have the advantage of benefits. These vary widely depending on which card you get, but they include free subscriptions to delivery services, rental car accident coverage or cellphone insurance.
Still, Harzog warns that credit cards are not for everyone. "They're a tool," she says, "if you think you're going to carry a balance month to month, then you shouldn't use [them]." Otherwise, you might find yourself spiraling into debt.
Finding Creative Solutions
Another useful strategy is to get creative and tap into your resources. For instance, Harzog recommends checking to see if you're eligible for assistance from Need Help Paying Bills. Low- and moderate-income families may be able to get free or reduced-price supplies and uniforms.
But resources can also be local and informal. If you're in a neighborhood where people know each other, you can organize a swap or what Harzog describes as a "school supply farmer's market." She herself used this strategy while her children were in school and managed to avoid buying expensive winter coats for years.
Several states have sales tax holidays, often coinciding with the back-to-school season. If your state offers these shopping incentives, mark your calendar and plan to get some, if not all, supplies on this day.
Harzog encourages everyone to "be as creative as possible and look for a variety of strategies to try to save money this year."
Two Strategies You Should Be Careful With
The U.S. News and World Report study had another interesting revelation: 48 percent of parents are considering a buy now pay later (BNPL) plan as a financial strategy. Fifty-one percent will also try to use a deferred interest store credit card.
Harzog claims that, although these options may seem appealing, they could put people at risk of debt. Both work fine if you can actually finish paying off your debt within the given time period. But if you're still carrying a balance at the end, it can spell financial trouble.
BNPL plans usually give you fewer than 12 months. In the end, they work as a zero percent APR credit card without benefits and with a shorter repayment period. You also won't be building your credit. But the real downfall of this strategy, according to Harzog, is that people tend to get into several plans and then lose track of them.
With deferred-interest store cards, the risk is in the fine print. "With some of these plans, you pay interest on the original amount," Harzog clarifies. If you don't finish paying before the grace period ends, you could lose money.
Overall, each family's plan will vary and adapt to specific needs. Use these strategies as a jumping-off point for things to consider and things to avoid.