The Four Stages of Back to School

Remember getting ready for kindergarten? All you wanted was that shiny red Spiderman kite, but mom was too busy looking for left-handed scissors. Fast forward to 10 years later, and you’re trying to run away from the store that’s overflowing with frantic mothers and back to school “savings.”

Now it’s your turn to be the frazzled parent on the hunt for your kid’s latest school demands. But whether it’s the biggest box of crayons or the smartest calculator that’s on your child’s back to school list this year, here are several ways to save big before you venture out into the August shopping chaos.

Preschool & Elementary School

Ask around.

Indeed, the teacher’s supply list can sometimes seem haphazard, but before you head out to fight off other parents at the pile of 1 cent folders, first check around the house or ask neighbors or friends if they have any of the odds and ends that your child needs for school this year. You might be in luck if your friend’s very picky daughter refuses to use her Hello Kitty backpack that your daughter has been longing for.

Packed lunches.

Let your child pick her favorite lunchbox and be happy knowing that you won’t be throwing your money away on dubious school lunches when you send her off to school with a nutritious, homemade meal.

Middle School

Community swap.

When your child hits middle school, it’s a transitional point—a time for more sophisticated supplies. So why not trade in those glitter crayons for a fat yellow highlighter at a local swap. If there isn’t one that you’ve heard of, why not organize one yourself? Post fliers in local cafes and stores, on telephone poles, and put up online ads or publish one in the local newspaper or community magazine. There are bound to be other parents who will be more than happy to swap supplies and save some cash.

Rent, don’t buy.

When the school year starts, evenings in your house may be filled with the glorious sounds of your child’s first attempt at the violin or saxophone. He might be ecstatic now, but in a few months, he could be itching to get onto the basketball team. To save yourself the headache, and some money, it’s best to rent, not buy, your child’s musical instruments.

High School

Hand me downs.

If your tween or teen student has older siblings, ask them to show their generous side and hand over any clothes, shoes, and accessories that they no longer fit into or need. And while the swapping is still in season, why not take a look at your closet, go through your drawers, and see if you have anything “retro” to offer that a middle school student might think was pretty awesome. You probably never thought leggings or bell bottoms would be in again.

Thrift store spree.

Your teenager may not want to be caught dead in her older sister’s outfits, so why not hand her some cash and send her out on a low-cost shopping “spree” to local vintage and secondhand stores? Hand me downs from someone who isn’t your annoying sibling and is way more relaxed.

Free test prep websites.

As your child starts to gather college applications, he’ll need to also take the SAT and/or ACT, two national college entrance exams. For some severe test prep and study advice, you could hire a private tutor. But first point your child in the direction of some excellent (and free) test prep websites like SparkNotes or Kaplan, both of which also offer homework help for healthy subjects and AP tests.

Take it easy on the tech.

While your teen may be required to have a specific type of graphing calculator this year, check to make sure you can’t rent one from the school first. Your next move should be to look online for used and discounted calculators. Check out Craigslist and Amazon to start with. As for cell phones, it may or not be a necessary item at this age, but you can ask your child to use some of her allowances to contribute toward the phone bills.

Off to College

Buying an e-textbook

The Kindle or iPad is usually much cheaper than buying the hardcover book. However, don’t forget that you may still need to purchase supplemental workbooks or lab books in hardcover.

Apply for book tuition scholarships.

Applicants for individual universities sometimes are offered the option to write a supplemental essay that gives them a chance at receiving money to cover all textbook costs if they decide to attend that university.

Rent or buy used textbooks online.

Search Craigslist and the university’s classified pages (likely online) for students who are getting rid of or selling their books at a discount. Try Amazon or websites like or Here you can not only buy e-textbooks and used hardcover textbooks at a premium—you can also rent textbooks for a smidgen of the regular price.

Don’t rush to follow the crowd to all those ‘Back to School sales’–be a savvy parent and look around you for alternative ways to obtain the supplies your student needs this year. And be sure to ask your child for ideas–you might be surprised how resourceful he or she can be.

Suchi Rudra is a staff writer for SuperMoney. Her mission is to help fight your evil debt blob and get your personal finances in tip-top shape.