The average parent of a grade-schooler will spend almost $700 this school-shopping season, according to a national survey.
While 84 percent of parents said the sluggish economy will affect their spending, still $688 will go toward buying clothes and supplies for kids in grades kindergarten through 12, up from $604 last year, the National Retail Federation annual Back to School survey found.
“I think that’s a lot of money, especially for families with multiple children,” said Trae Bodge, a consumer savings expert with RetailMeNot, the leading online coupon site. “Parents should shop early and look for discounts.”
Experts like Bodge recommend comparison shopping and online retailers. And due to her frugal nature, Gretchen Wolf-Wiser, a Town of Tonawanda mother, has used these money-saving tips, mastering the art of deep-discount back-to-school shopping.
For her three sons, she won’t spend more than $350 combined to get them prepared for the new school year. The survey found that almost half of parents plan to start their shopping three weeks to a month earlier than last year, an increase from 42 percent, and 22.3 percent have likely already made a dent in their shopping list, saying they would shop at least two months before school starts, up from 21.8 percent last year.
Still, Wolf-Wiser has them beat again. She kicked off her shopping at home, immediately when school ends. Experts suggest salvaging supplies that survived the previous school year to reuse the next to cut costs.
“I open their backpacks, and I go through everything,” said Wolf-Wiser. “Pencils, pens, three-ring binders, plastic folders are usually in good shape. It’s saves me about $30, which is money I don’t have to spend.”
For Kim Krawiec, back-to-school shopping isn’t a one-shot, weekend affair, either. Instead, it’s a months-long, calculated and elaborate mission to save money. The Hamburg mother of three even started buying items before last school year even concluded.
“When you start early, you have the benefit of time, and you can gradually find good deals and buy supplies,” Krawiec said.
Staples, like pencils, pens, crayons, markers and glue sticks typically are much cheaper during the back-to-school rush than they are during the rest of the year. It’s a good idea to stock up now.
Bodge said “July and August are really sweet spots” for school shopping deals. There are savings for last-minute shoppers but they also run into the harsh reality of empty shelves, she added.
Most parents, about 67 percent, plan to shop at discount stores, according to the survey. Wolf-Wiser and Krawiec do the same but they dip in and out of stores, comparing prices and searching for sales.
“I go into all the stores,” Wolf-Wiser said, “and I’m very happy when I’m done because I know I’ve gotten the best prices.” More parents will use online retailers this year – 17.9 compared to last year’s 15.3 percent. And the survey found more will comparison shop.
“I go online for the best deals,” Krawiec said. For overall savings, Bodge said the Internet is your best bet. First check out price comparison sites, like and, and then visit sites like for online promo codes.
Krawiec aims for quality items that will last the school year and could be reused the next, but she doesn’t give in to marketing gimmicks. In fact, her kids don’t gravitate to the Justin Bieber binders or Disney folders because she leaves them at home. In some cases it can mean the difference of paying 79 cents for a generic notebook or $4.99 for a themed one, Krawiec said.
“I don’t get crazy, letting them get all those Trapper Keepers. I stick with the basics,” she said. “With three kids, you have to. You almost have to shop without them. If you take them with you, they’ll want the latest thing with the rock star or comic book character on it. But if you don’t have them, you can save a lot of money.”
The cost of clothing will make the biggest dent in school shopping budgets – totaling $246.10. And shoes for grade schoolers will average $129.20, according to the survey. But since kids are growing, Bodge said parents should also refrain from giving in to expensive trendy styles of clothing and sneakers, especially with tweens and teens, who tend to be more fashion conscious. She recommends including older kids in the budgeting process so they can understand the family’s financial situation.
Wolf-Wiser avoids the mall and shops consignment for children’s clothing and enjoys a big savings in an area where other parents don’t. Searches on sites, like ebay, have yielded great finds.
“Ebay is huge for clothes and cool backpacks,” she said.
Expensive electronics is only second to clothes on school shopping lists, costing parents an average of $217.88 per child. Almost 60 percent of parents planned to buy some of sort of gadget, an increase from last’s year’s 51.9 percent. With the technological advances and increasing use of them in education, Bodge said parents are grappling with the additional costs.
But Wolf-Wiser has an answer for that, too.
She turned to sites like Craigslist where she bought a deeply discounted e-reader for her boys.
“It’s like new and was super cheap,” she said.
Wolf-Wiser was surprised, even puzzled by the survey findings. “What could they be buying?” she asked. She has a son in middle school and two in elementary, and her back-to-school approach has evolved to fit her budget and family size, she said.