Shopping for back to school supplies? Purchase what you need...

Shopping for back to school supplies? Purchase what you need to get the school year started and supplement those purchases as the semester unfolds, an expert says. Credit: Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

Back-to-school shopping is an expensive chore in a normal year; this year is anything but normal. But with August upon us, stores are putting out back-to-school displays in anticipation of children needing to learn, whether in the classroom or at home.

Two-fifths (40%) of more than 600 parents with children in K-12 or college anticipate their children will be attending classes both in-person and remotely in the fall, according to a NerdWallet survey conducted online July 16-20 by The Harris Poll. Planning for multiple scenarios could result in the need for increased back-to-school spending, but many may not have the extra money this year.

Nearly half (47%) of parents expect they’ll spend less on back-to-school shopping than they otherwise would, due to the pandemic. Of those, 40% say it’s because their household income has been affected by the pandemic and related economic effects.

One-fifth (20%) of parents expect to spend more this year on back-to-school purchases than they otherwise would, due to the pandemic. Of those, 54% think they'll be spending more to outfit a home learning environment, and 50% will be spending more to account for supplies for hybrid learning.

“Saving on back-to-school shopping takes some strategizing in a normal school year, but this year poses unique challenges: Not only is it harder to know what students might need, but many families are eyeing big purchases to make remote learning easier, including electronics and desks,” says Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet.

Here are few ways to save on back-to-school shopping.

Shop for the short term

Purchase what you need to get the school year started and supplement those purchases as the semester unfolds. Some items may get less expensive as the seasons change.

“Unless you have your eye on a specific type of computer or another item that could sell out, it’s OK to wait to make your purchases until after the school year begins," Palmer says.

Take advantage of credit card rewards

Putting your expenses on a cash-back credit card could put your money to work for you. Just make sure you’re able to pay off the balance each cycle, as interest can quickly negate any benefits.

Check prices before and after shopping

Price matching involves comparing identical items at other stores and asking a retailer to match a lower price.

Also, check a retailer's website for its price matching policy details. Many will refund the price difference if you spot a cheaper price within a certain time frame after the purchase.

Team up to buy in bulk

By teaming up with other parents, you can purchase things like hand sanitizer and supplies for homework and note-taking in bulk. If your child’s teacher is reluctant to give out parents' contact information, ask if they would send out yours in a group email so other parents can reach you if they’re interested.

Sales tax exemptions on clothing, shoes, books

Some states have sales tax holidays in August. In New York State, qualifying clothing and footwear purchases less than $110 are always exempt from the state’s 4% sales tax, according to the state Department of Taxation and Finance website. College students also can buy textbooks exempt from New York State and local sales.

Practice thriftiness

If money is tight, your child might be able to reuse some of last year’s supplies such as their backpack or leftover pencils and notebooks. You can also shop secondhand on sites like Poshmark or thredUP for clothing. Many schools also are putting programs in place that help outfit homes with the technology needed for remote learning.

“This school year will be unlike any other, which means parents and children will have to get more creative with stretching their back-to-school budgets,” Palmer says.

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