How to Go Back to School on a Budget

How to Go Back to School on a Budget

back to schoolHappy back-to-school! I don’t know what time it is at your house, but at my house August means back to school. With one of our school districts having the ridiculously early start date of August 5th, our back-to-school preparations are in high gear.

I have two high school students this year–and I’ll readily admit that I’m happy to be just about at the end of that. Not counting my own youth and college years, I’ve been shepherding kids through the first day of school for more than 20 years now. That means 20+ years of back-to-school shopping, and while I will confess that the office supply store and the stationery department is dangerous territory for my budget, I have pretty successfully managed to keep my wits about me and learned a few key strategies for not blowing the budget on all those tempting pens and pencils and notebooks.

We’ve been through back-to-school shopping at schools that just asked us to write a check so teachers could just purchase what they needed (cheapest, for sure!), back-to-school shopping where we just had to guess what we might need, schools that didn’t give out lists until after class started (the best bargains are usually gone), and schools that gave out a list that required a second mortgage.

So, how do you send four kids back to school and still eat in September? Here are some of the strategies we use to stay within our back-to-school budget.


When my two oldest children started school we lived in Southern California. The seasons don’t really change and we didn’t have uniforms, so there wasn’t any real need for a back-to-school wardrobe. Everyone usually needed a new pair of shoes by the end of summer and we decided to go with one new outfit for the first day of school.

When we moved to New Mexico, we had uniforms to contend with (I am NOT a fan of the school uniform but that’s for another post). Technically, they weren’t uniforms; it was a very restrictive “dress code.” After wrestling the problem of not being able to find school clothes in November when we moved, I learned to do all the “uniform” shopping as soon as school got out in May and I could find everything we’d need for the next year at the local thrift store for pennies on the dollar.

Now we’re in Colorado, no uniforms, but we start in August. It’s still 90 degrees and no need for winter clothes and coats, so we’re back to just buying a first-day-of-school outfit and new shoes. We only purchase other clothes as we need them, usually at the thrift store or on clearance.

Back-to-School Supplies

By now, I know all the basics. We stock up on those items when they’re on sale or at the end of back-to-school time when they go on clearance. I keep a box of supplies in the basement and my kids know to go there throughout the year as they need notebooks and pencils and such. While we do have those pricey calculators, we’ve managed to pass them along from the older two to the younger two. Otherwise, we don’t buy electronics. No computers or tablets or smart phones for high schoolers. They share the home computer.


Choose your backpack wisely. This is the one place where it’s worth it to spend a little more. We buy Jansport. They have a lifetime warranty. In my first semester of college, I went through five backpacks (college texts weigh a TON!). My parents bought me a Jansport backpack for Christmas that year. I used it for the next 16 years before I finally retired it and bought another.

Eastpak backpacks are of a similar quality and also have a hefty warranty but with more exclusions. They’re a good choice, too.

School Lunch

We just don’t go there. We’re a brown-bag family. When my kids were in elementary school and it was still, umm, fun to buy lunch, they got to purchase once a week. By middle school they figured out the food wasn’t all that great and standing in line for it wasn’t much fun. They have been making their own lunches since they were old enough to tote the lunch box—and we don’t fill the lunch boxes with pre-made, pre-packaged junk. We always have sandwich fixings, leftovers, and lots of healthy fruits, veggies, cheese, yogurt, etc., and someone makes cookies here about once a week, so there’s always something good for lunch.

So, how do you save money while sending your kids back to school? Share your favorite tips in the comment section below.

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