Bright ideas from our readers: back-to-school shopping tips

GreatSchools' parents share their secrets to successful back-to-school shopping.

By GreatSchools Staff

Thanks to our readers who shared their back-to-school shopping tips. Many readers mentioned the importance of timing to get the best deals. But they didn't agree on the best time. Demonstrating that shopping is more art than science, some advised shopping early in the back-to-school season, some advised shopping later and some advised shopping all year long. Some of their comments:

Buy out of season.

"In the summer, when I see loose-leaf paper, pencils, pens, highlighters, etc. on sale or clearance — I buy them!" wrote Heidi Hall of Arizona, a mother of two boys, ages 15 and 13. "I have found paper for a quarter and lots of pencils/pens for less than a dollar. If you wait until back-to-school time, lots of these items will be more expensive. Also keep your eye on cheap deals for backpacks and lunch boxes. Buying these things out of season saves money."

Buy next year's supplies this year.

A Hawaiian mother of three children, ages 4, 15 and 17, advocates this approach: "You'll end up having everything that you're looking for without the madness. Plus, you can catch all of the school supply sales at the stores when they start to mark down the overstocked items."

Remember which stores had good sales last year.

"Back to school is an exciting time in our house," wrote Sheneka Soloman, mother of a fifth-grader. "We make lists — sooooo important — and comb through all the advertisements for each store weekly. I always start shopping in July, I never wait until August, and I often look for uniforms on the clearance racks as early as May or June.

"The biggest and best tip I can give is to look for and remember the great sales. I know that each year one of our local pharmacies has 10 packs of 10 pencils for $1, so I never buy pencils until I find that sale. The same goes for deals on crayons and other important things. Try to remember where you got the great deals last year. They will more than likely be around again."

Look for last-minute sales and thrift-store bargains.

"I make sure to wait until the last minute before school starts to stock up on school supplies," wrote mom Nikki Zapien. "It seems that the sales get a lot better the closer it is until the first day of school.

"Also with clothes, I get some new things and then I hit the thrift shops, I can get clothes that are in like-new condition including name brands such as Gap, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, and other well-known name-brand clothing for pennies!! They just play in them and wear them out at school anyway, so there's no use for a whole wardrobe of brand-new clothes. We save so much money! Now we can make that vacation to Disneyland!"

Plan for emergencies.

California mom Alicia Jaramillo wrote: "I stock up on report folders because those are the things that my kids, son age 12 and daughter age 10, usually come to me the night before the report is due and say, 'Can you take me to the store and buy a report cover for my project due tomorrow?' So, I've learned to just buy them early in the year and keep them put away."

Look for promotions.

"I watch for store flyers beginning at the end of July and start purchasing sale items such as pencils, glue sticks, noteboks, binders, etc. — items that I know my children will need the first day of school," another parent wrote. "Staples, Target and Wal-Mart usually have great sales when schools open in our area and that's when we get the rest of the items the teachers have requested. Every August my daughters and I have a big back-to-school shopping day for their new clothes and shoes at a nearby outlet center. The center offers a coupon book and the stores have additional sales, so we save quite a bit of money."

Think about winter.

This mother of 7-year-old twins buys supplies to help her kids get organized and prepared for winter days: "The one thing I can count on in Wyoming during winter is dry air and whipping winds. I buy two pencil boxes at the beginning of each school year: One carries school necessities (such as pencils, scissors, etc.) and the other holds tissues, lip balm, Vaseline therapy lotion, inhalers (asthma!) and anything else that is personal. I also include a list of important phone numbers and a copy of our schedule, just in case."

Teach kids to be savvy consumers.

One mother shared her secrets of successful shopping with her two teenagers:

"My two young teen girls wanted all the latest labels. The costs were out of sight, of course. I developed a plan that worked wonders for all their junior high and high school years. I gave them each paper and pencil, money for lunch, and a budget of $300 each. It sounded like a lot, but we all know that even in those days, it didn't go far. The money was to cover their clothes for the year. (I mentally added a bit more for later on in the year.)

"They were to 'shop' their favorite stores, try on whatever they wanted, and put it on hold until the evening. They had to record the store, what it was, size and cost, keeping within their budget. I met them at a preappointed time and place, usually about 4:00 p.m. at the food court.

"I met them and visited their stores. I had veto rights. Anything too tight, too short, or otherwise out of order for school was vetoed by me. Anything else, I bought. If they had something vetoed, they would be able to shop again to make it up, either later that evening, or on another day. Knowing that I had the final say, they shopped very conservatively.

"The first year, the first thing they said when I met them was, 'Mom, did you know I can get three pairs of pants at ______ for the same price as one pair at _____?' Wonder of wonders, their learning curve just continued to go up. They became very savvy shoppers, and we all saved a day of frustration."

Celebrate going back to school.

One parent suggested using back-to-school season to celebrate success and build anticipation for the coming year, as well as collect necessary supplies: "Have a back-to-school party for your children and request that all gifts be school-related items — you'll be surprised what neat stuff is inside those wrapped packages. This is also a good time to set a standard for the coming year."

Another parent suggests setting up a "brag board" of last year's accomplishments and the coming year's activities, inviting a special teacher, and exchanging gifts of school supplies. "Don't forget to play popular recess school games, school colors, school song, or chants — have fun but don't spend much. Menu: Bag lunches — P & J sandwich (if allergies, use a meat), juice (milk or lemonade), fruit and cookies."