Back-to-school season generally starts around two months before the beginning of school—so if you haven’t started yet, you’re already behind. What once required a few Dixon Ticonderoga pencils and a notebook now requires carts full of supplies. In 2016, the National Retail Federation estimated that families with children in grades K–12 would spend an average of $673 on clothes, accessories, school supplies, electronics, and shoes during the back-to-school season. Based on robust wage growth, I expect that number to increase for 2017.
While most parents will take advantage of some sales during the back-to-school season, you can save more by identifying the right time to buy. As an industry insider, I can give you the tips you need to save on back-to-school shopping.
A lot of people are shocked to learn that clearance sales aren’t necessarily the best time to buy clothes. When the items go on clearance, the first markdown will generally be in the neighborhood of 20%–30%. On the other hand, retailers will regularly mark down items 40% during a one- to two-week sale.
The only clothes you want to buy on clearance are those that will go beyond a store’s first markdown. Unfortunately, markdown rates are set on a store-by-store basis according to inventory levels and can be difficult to predict. As a result, I don’t risk waiting for deep clearance discounts.
Instead, take advantage of seasonal sales for the best results. The deals vary by category, so I give some specific guidance of finding the best clothing deals.
Major clothing retailers will often advertise an annual “uniform sale.” This sale takes place a few weeks before private schools reopen in your area. Start watching weekly ads the week following the Fourth of July to be sure you catch the deals.
During their uniform sales, major retailers (especially Kohl’s, Macy’s, Target, and Walmart) offer huge discounts on khakis, polos, and black pants. You’ll want to buy enough during the sale to last the whole year.
When I worked in retail, savvy parents with kids in private school would often buy two to three different sizes during uniform sales. That way, they didn’t have to pay full price when their kid inevitably grew during the school year.
By the way, public school parents should pay attention to these sales, too. They are the people who get caught paying full price for Dockers when their kid has to wear black pants for a holiday band performance.
Summer styles typically go on sale in May and June, and they tend to go to clearance by early July. After the first day of school, your kids will probably spend weeks or even months going to school in shorts and T-shirts (depending on where you live), so you may want to supplement your school wardrobe with summer fashion choices that go on sale during those earlier months.
You won’t find sales on summer styles during back-to-school shopping, but you might find some decent clearance items. Remember, the first markdown on clearance is usually in the 20%–30% off bracket.
That’s not a great deal, and you’ll probably find fall fashion sales with lower-priced options. However, if you see an item for 50%–60% off the original price, it’s a good deal and worth buying if it fits your clothing needs. An item for 70%–75% off retail will generally be out of the store in a week or two, so snap that deal up immediately.
Steep discounts on clearance items don’t mean the product has quality issues. It just indicates that the product didn’t sell well at that particular store. Most stores have limited return policies on clearance items, however, so be sure you know the policy before you buy the item.
Fall styles typically start to go on sale in mid-July. Kids and teens who like shopping at name-brand stores should watch out for “annual denim sales,” which typically happen in early August. Certain denim styles stay on the market year round, making this the best time of the year to buy jeans.
In general, it’s best to skip most other “fall style” pieces until winter. The most popular fall styles will stick around until November, when you can scoop them up at significant discounts during the holiday discount season. The exception to this rule would be any BOGO (buy one, get one) deals that make sense for your kids’ fashion needs.
Backpacks and Lunchboxes
The new school year means a new backpack and lunchbox, right?
If your kid is still young enough to want cartoon characters or superheroes on their backpack and lunchbox, then a back-to-school sale will yield the best prices. These backpacks usually won’t stick around after September.
Likewise, you can find deals on insulated lunchboxes (which are also appropriate for adults who brown-bag). Buy during the back-to-school sale, and you’ll thank yourself later. While most retailers will stock a few extra lunchbox styles during the peak season, you shouldn’t expect to find these on clearance. Most stores stock just enough lunchboxes to get through the back-to-school rush.
However, teen and adult backpacks are a totally different story. Sporting goods stores will put these on a steep discount during the November and December holiday season. You also may see deals on camping backpacks in April and May. This is one purchase that is worth putting off if you can.
One thing I can’t stand is when I see parents buying new electronics for the upcoming school year. Yes, retailers will discount computers, calculators, and the like for the “back to college” rush, but waiting just a few months can save huge coin. So when should you buy?
If you’ve got a middle or high school student, they will probably need a TI-83+ for their math class. This is something that you should buy used, preferably in May or June when college graduates are unloading theirs for rock-bottom prices.
If you must buy new, June is the time to do it. Some online retailers will try to compete with the used market by dropping their prices. Set up a notification on CamelCamelCamel.com, and you’ll find deals around $75.
College students who want to buy Apple products should shop online or at the Apple Store for the best deals. Usually, Apple will provide student warranties, extra software, or other bonuses during late July and August. Apple doesn’t usually drop its prices, but the bonuses can be worthwhile. Netbooks and other lower-capacity laptops tend to see rock-bottom prices during Black Friday sales in late November.
Generic School Supplies
Ten-cent folders and crayons for a quarter? Deals like these will start rolling in about four to five weeks before schools start. Watch weekly ads to find the local loss leaders (a pricing strategy where a product is sold at a price below its market cost to stimulate other sales of more profitable goods or services), and buy them right away. If you’re feeling extra generous, stock up on generic school supplies and donate them to your local school. The teachers will thank you for saving their pocketbooks.
Back-to-school shopping doesn’t have to deplete your bank account. In fact, some credit cards will even offer rewards for back-to-school shopping. But before you apply for a card—which could ding your credit when the card provider checks your score—make sure you’ve got the requisite credit by checking your credit report for free at Credit.com.
Hannah L. Rounds is a contributor at CentSai, a financial wellness community for millennials and Gen Xers. She loves talking and writing about the counterintuitive intersections between marriage, family, money, and careers. In addition to “geeking” out over personal finance, she loves cooking, reading to her son, snowboarding, and watching superhero shows on Netflix.