Back to School Without Breaking the Bank

You’ve probably already heard them; the worst three words of summer: “back-to-school.” The end of July is the Sunday of summer. You still have a whole month left, but you’ve already got that first email from an overeager professor. Stores have started putting up their back-to-school displays, and shorts and tank tops are put on clearance to make room for sweaters and coats. And of course, seeing all those back-to-school commercials signals not just the end of summer – it also means it’s time to pull out the wallet for new school supplies.

The upside to this back-to-school rush is almost unlimited options for cheap pens, notebooks, and other supplies from a number of stores. The downside is that you and millions of other students are all hitting the stores at the same time. So the longer you wait, the greater the odds that you’ll only have poor quality and/or higher priced items from which to choose. To save you from this sad fate, I offer up some advice and observations from my own back-to-school experiences.

  1. Make a list. Before you even think about going to the store, figure out what supplies will be needed for each class you’re taking and write it down… Sticking to this list will help you avoid the temptation of walking into a superstore and buying everything on display. Don’t fall into the trap! Make a list, get what you need, and get out.
  2. Dumpster dive in your old backpack. Before you even go to the store, empty your old backpack and see what you can reuse. Pens, pencils, and folders are items you can typically reuse year after year. Personally, I even keep partially used notebooks as “scratch notebooks” for homework assignments and study pages. Other items like staplers, scissors, and your backpack itself are all reusable as well.
  3. Don’t worry about the color. “So last year I was into blue and white polka dots, but I just saw this awesome chevron print phone cover, which matches this new iPad cover I just saw…” wait, let me stop you right there. Do you really need to spend more money to switch up your style every year? Nope. I think it’s safe to assume that no one cares if your phone matches your iPad, or if your dorm room style is perfectly coordinated like a Target ad… Avoiding yearly upgrades for the newest trends is not only practical for your wallet, it’s also being earth friendly (reduce, reuse, recycle!)
  4. Start early. Waiting until the last minute to buy your supplies may leave you sifting through near-empty bins of picked-over items. School supplies often start going on sale around the end of July, so have your list ready and go shop right away. If you wait until the Sunday night before classes, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Supplies will be out of stock and you’ll have to pay full price for the expensive stuff. You don’t want procrastination to carry over to the school year, so start your year on the right foot and buy your supplies early.
  5. Buy quality. Okay, let’s be real. Sometimes the more expensive supplies really are better. Things like laptops and other high-end electronics may be worth forking out the extra dough if they will better meet your specific technology needs. And because you will use your computer all throughout college, you want to invest your money in a product that will last – not just whatever is necessarily the cheapest option. Electronic stores often have deals for students around July and August, so shop around for the best discounts on higher quality products.
  6. Buy used. Textbooks, that is. Your required materials list probably includes a textbook for each class. Talk to students who have taken the class before you and see if they’ll sell you their textbook at a discount. If not, search websites like Chegg and Amazon for used textbooks.
    • Even better, rent a used book. One mistake first-year students tend to make is buying all of their books thinking that they’ll use them in the future. This is a common mistake that will cost you an arm and a leg. Most students don’t even look at the book after finishing a class. Many campus bookstores offer rental options, but be aware: the earlier you look for books, the better chance you’ll have at getting one at its lowest price before they sell out.
    • Other alternatives to saving money on books include buying previous editions of the required text (which are often very similar to the current edition) or purchasing just the online access code to a particular text. To be on the safe side, you may want to check with your professors first to ensure you’re not missing out on anything by taking these frugal routes.
  7. Buy groceries. Not what you were expecting, huh? Okay, this is something that can wait until the Sunday before class starts. Your first week of classes will probably be a little bit overwhelming, even if you are an expert student. A new routine takes some time to master, so having your meals under control will allow for a smoother week. You’ve probably already thought about how early you have to be up for your first class, but take a look at when you’ll have time for lunch and supper, too. Packing your lunch will save you a lot of money, but can also be more nutritious than a greasy burger from the student union. Planning what you will have for supper each night will save you from last minute runs to the nearest fast food joint. And yeah, brain food is a real thing. Preparing your food will not only be healthier, but it will save you time during your day, and save you a good amount of money.

You don’t have to break the bank to get ready for another semester. “Back-to-school” might be the last thing you want to think about in the summer, but preparing early will save you money and start your new year off on the right foot.