4 back-to-school savings hacks when money is tight

By Jackie Lam

Reviewed by Natasha Pearce

Aug 17, 2023

Read time: 3 min

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The new school year is creeping up again. And your kids' back-to-school shopping list seems to get longer—and more expensive—every year. (Hello, inflation!) New kicks. Fresh wardrobe. A laptop upgrade. And a new backpack to put it all in. It adds up so fast. The numbers are big. The National Retail Federation (NRF) says spending on back-to-school will hit a record-high $41.5 billion. If you have kids in college, it's even worse. You’re not spending billions, but you might feel like you are. These numbers shake out to $1,366.95 per household, which is double the amount families spent in 2019.

Because inflation. Ouch. Did your income double in the same time period? (Neither did mine.)

Let’s get creative. Here are some creative, savvy hacks to free up cash flow and make your dollars stretch. Say a big "no thanks" to overdrafting, drowning in credit card debt, or neglecting your bills. 

Our top four back-to-school shopping tips are:

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1. Buy Nothing (or buy as little as possible)

If you're a member of your local Buy Nothing group, you can post an "ISO (In Search Of)" request for sundry supplies on your kids' shopping list. As fellow parents get rid of their kids' clothes that no longer fit, or unused supplies they've found stashed in a closet, keep an eye out for stuff your children can use.

Or, consider organizing a little get together with fellow parents in your area, and advertise it on Nextdoor as well as Buy Nothing. I've personally thrown together a small potluck and free market exchange with fellow Buy Nothingers with seasonal themes: Holiday Bazaar, Summer Fun, and the like.

Trading with your community can help you avoid getting into too much debt, to the point that it causes you stress.

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2. Recycle and upcycle

While your tween or college-student kid might be picky about the brands and logos on their backpacks and clothes, they might not be so particular about, say, that graphing calculator they'll only need for this year's Calculus class.

Sure, you can look for back-to-school shopping deals, but you might be able to give someone else’s used item a new life for free or cheap. Look for gently used items such as notebooks that your child can personalize with paint markers or stickers. If your child needs furnishings for their dorm room or college apartment, check Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp. 

If your kids are cool with second-hand items, shopping platforms such as Poshmark, Flyp, and Depop feature fashion-forward, trendy clothing and accessories—with generous return policies. 

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3. Go refurbished 

Electronics and gadgets tend to be budget breakers. Refurbished cell phones, laptops, and tablets are significantly cheaper than brand new versions. You can sometimes shave off hundreds of dollars. The discount can be anywhere from 10% to 30% and upwards. Refurbs are factory reset to their brand new settings and can feel just like brand new. You can find them at major electronics retailers, directly from the manufacturer, or from local resellers.

Many refurbished electronics are backed by a one-year warranty. You might be able to get even longer protection by purchasing the item with a credit card that offers extended warranty protection. You’d want to carefully read your card agreement or make a phone call to the number on the back of your card. A refurbished laptop from the computer repair guy down the street might be considered “used” and not covered. But your credit card issuer might extend the warranty coverage on a certified refurbished laptop you buy from Dell. 

Another money-saving tactic? Look for open-box sections at major electronic retailers. These are new or returned items sold at a discount. Open-box items can be found in person and online. Read up on the return policy before you buy, and when you get the item, carefully inspect it. 

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4. Wait it out 

While you want your child to succeed and look and feel their best, there's no hard-and-fast rule that they must have a completely new wardrobe and computer by the first day of school. Purchase the essentials now and hold off for big sales to scoop up the best deals on supplies you don’t need immediately. 

Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, is a great time to find hot deals— especially on electronics. 

Jackets and puffy coats go on sale starting December 26 and continuing into the spring. Depending on the climate where you live, you could purchase winter gear after the holidays. 

The money you save now on back-to-school can go toward paying off your debts or covering the next big spending season (the holidays). 

Take financial advice that doesn’t work for cash-strapped households with a grain of salt. I prefer to focus on strategies that work when dollars are scarce. One way to get more mileage from your paychecks is to use the Achieve MoLO app. It’ll sync up with your bank accounts and track your expenses to help you find cash that's left over—to make smart money moves.

Jackie Lam - Author

Jackie is an Achieve contributor. She is an accredited financial coach (AFC®) who has written for Business Insider, BuzzFeed, CNET, USA Today's Blueprint, and others. She coaches artists and freelancers.

Natasha Pearce - Author

Natasha is Achieve’s Director of Social and Community. For over 10 years, she has built communities across social media and blogs through enriching storytelling that helps brands deepen connections with consumers.

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