The complete guide to back to school shopping: how and where to save on supplies

Aug 25, 2019, 14:30 PM by Denali 

School Supplies

If your hard-earned money seems to go towards a never-ending stream of school-related expenses—we get it. The checklists teachers send out seem to get longer every year, and things like pencils just have a way of disappearing from kid’s backpacks. We know it can be hard to save and focus on your goals when the little expenses keep popping up—so we wanted to share some sure-fire ways you can save this season, and a few local places you can look for discounted items.

Look for Markdowns

If you’re a bargain hunter, you know there’s no better thrill than seeing that little red or yellow sticker. One way to save on back to school is by getting marked down, sale, or clearance items. Start your shopping in the clearance section and fill in the rest as needed. If your favorite store has markdown bins for things like seasonal items and party favors, don’t overlook it: these often carry useful items like erasers, pencils and little notepads. 

Plan Ahead

Saving starts before you hit the store. Make sure you have the correct requirements from your child’s school. Do a once-over of the house for items you already have, especially the kitchen or homework area where school supplies tend to congregate. As back to school season kicks into gear, pay attention to the deals being advertised and think about where you want to go. Look for coupons that apply to the items you need. Keep your list handy in the store, so you stay on task and don’t buy duplicates.

Go Online

We often pick something up from the store because we’re already there and it’s close enough what we’re looking for, only to find the thing we really wanted for less. Use your phone to compare offers as you go down the aisles and avoid overpaying. There are also many apps that help you find coupon codes at your favorite stores. But don’t be tempted to get all your school supplies online - this is an easy way to spend way more than you meant to. Apply those codes in real life when possible.

Focus on Quality

There are certain school expenses you can’t get around, like all those field trips (why so many?) and calculators that could land a rocket on the moon. So it can be tempting to go for the lowest deal you can. But you’ll save money in the long run if you buy quality products. Think about it: for most supplies, you won’t see a material difference in how they last or perform (your kid doesn’t need that minimalist tape dispenser). But certain items you want to get at a higher price point because they can be usable for school years to come. This is especially true if you have young kids who are rough and tumble, but it also applies to older students who might be facing bigger expenses like textbooks. So for big-ticket items like shoes and backpacks, choose durable over fast or trendy.

Check Out Nonprofit Events

Community-driven initiatives help reduce the burden of back to school shopping and ensure every kid gets what they need for a successful school year. There may be events in your area that supply free school supplies to people in the community. This year the Fairview Recreation Center held an event with the Anchorage Health Department providing pre-filled backpacks to school age kids - as well as health screenings for their parents. And Lutheran Social Services’ HUGGS program distributed 3,5000 backpacks to Anchorage School District families at their own event. Check to see what foundations or organizations are serving your area.

Shop Generic

When we go shopping we’re mostly paying for the label. That shampoo, body wash and even lunch meat is all made of the same stuff whether it has the recognizable name or not. In fact, many times it’s literally the same product repackaged. When shopping for back to school, look for the in-house version of each product. This is the generic version that carries the brand identity of the store. They’re often displayed right next to each other on the shelf! An easy tipoff is if the packaging is nearly the same, or it says “Compare to [more famous brand]” on the label. It’s an easy way to shave the cost off of the little things you student runs through: hand sanitizer, tissues, and even pencils and pens.

Buy Secondhand

It used to be that thrifting or shopping secondhand meant a bare selection and a long day of weeding through the bulk to find gems. But today there are so many great options for shopping secondhand. You can find all your favorite brands at impressive markdowns and in top quality. And by buying things previously owned, you can close the loop on the acquisition and purging that happens every school year. 

Shop Your Closet

If your child is still in grade school, they’re likely going through sizes really fast. One great way to lighten your shopping list is to shop your closet. There may be things around the house you’ve forgotten or could find a new use for. Make a game of it with your kid: mixing and matching outfits can help you see old pieces in a new light. Use hand-me-downs to fill in the gaps where possible. If there aren’t older siblings or cousins in the family, put together a neighborhood swap-meet. This is when everyone brings items they’re trying to hand off, so each guest leaves with something at the end of the night, but hasn’t added to their stash. Make it a party!

Where to Save

Dollar Zone: One school expense that adds up the quickest is art supplies. Save on paint, brushes, paper and more at a dollar store. You might think of dollar stores as a place to buy crafts, gifts, and seasonal items. But they’re actually a great alternative to big-box stores general shopping. You can take care of household and everyday needs, which also comes in handy if students have to supply anything like wipes or tissues for the classroom. With two locations in Anchorage, Dollar Zone is a local treasure with lots of great finds. 

Once Upon A Child: If shopping for young kids, Once Upon A Child supplies new and gently used clothes as well as shoes, toys and baby gear. Their Anchorage location is many families’ go-to for back to school season. What’s cool about their business model is you can sell as well as shop, so you’re freeing up space for the new things you’re bringing home. This also helps put some money back in your pocket. Keep an eye out for their back to school deals and promotions to save even more.

Office Depot / OfficeMax: With locations in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, Office Depot is an office supply hub that also runs under the namesake OfficeMax. It’s the land of all things pen paper, so it’s the place to go for bulking up on school supplies. They also sell backpacks, lunch bags and things for your kid’s locker. One thing that sets them apart from other places you might shop for back to school is their range of inks and toners, since they’re printer people, too. Having this supply on hand might is sure to save a few headaches when printing off homework at home.

Target: This one-stop-shop that caters heavily to families with school-aged children, so you can always expect deals on back to school for clothes, supplies, electronics, and even lunch. By getting all your things one place you can save not just money but time, reducing stress as you gear up for back to school. And while you’re there you can stop on essentials you know you’ll need throughout the school week, like snacks (and paper towels to clean them up). Target has two locations in Anchorage and one in Wasilla. 

Keep up the savings year-round

Back to school season is definitely expensive, but so are other times like birthdays and the holiday season. While some of these tips are specific to this season, but others can be applied to nearly every shopping trip. Using coupons, planning in advance, and searching for better deals online are things you should keep in mind during any purchase.
Cutting your costs is one of the easiest and quickest ways you can work towards financial goals. Increasing income can take time—but reducing spending can happen today. When you are able to save on the little things, you not only have more money to put towards items and experiences you really want, but you can also put more into your savings account and build an emergency fund, or put away more in an IRA for retirement.

No matter what your savings goals, Denali offers an account that can suit your needs. Learn more about how we can help you build the financial future you want here.