By Ellen Chang, Contributor to Aunt Bertha

As students are counting down the last days of summer, parents are scouring ads for discounts on school supplies.

The cost of supplies, ranging from pencils and backpacks to laptops continues to rise annually.

The National Retail Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, and Prosper Insights and Analytics, estimates that families with students in elementary school through high school are expected to shell out an average of $696.70 this year, an increase from $684.79 in 2018. Parents who have children attending college are spending even more money at an average of $976.78, a slight increase from $942.17 in 2018.

Here is a breakdown on what families are spending their money on for children under the age of 18, according to the survey of 7,660 consumers: 

  • Clothing and accessories: $239.82
  • Electronics: $203.44
  • Shoes: $135.96
  • Supplies: $117.49 

College students spend their backtoschool budget differently:

  • Electronics: $234.69
  • Clothing and accessories: $148.54
  • Dorm and apartment furnishings: $120.19
  • Food items: $98.72
School supplies

Photo by Omar L. Gallaga


The increase in spending doesn’t mean saving money on back-to-school supplies is a lost cause. You can save money by shopping in early August since many clothing retailers are still offering massive discounts.

Stores such as T.J. Maxx, Burlington Coat Factory and Marshalls have layaway programs which will give you additional flexibility in your budget. 

Compare prices at local stores with online retailers such as Ebay and Amazon where you can find steep discounts.

Many retailers offer free shipping if you buy your items online and spend enough to hit their free-shipping minimum, often $25 to $35. 

Check out warehouse clubs such as BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco, and Sam’s Club for supplies and clothing.

Resale shops offer steep discounts often on brandnew or barely worn jeans, t-shirts, and other attire. 

Free Programs

Many organizations such as advocacy and non-profit organizations will provide both school supplies and backpacks to students in various neighborhoods for free.

Aunt Bertha lists free and reduced cost school supply programs across the country. It’s easy to find a program near you, just go to, enter your ZIP Code, and search for school supplies in your area.

Also check out Eventbrite to see which groups are offering free supplies in your neighborhood. Search for “School supplies” on the site or search by location on Eventbrite’s site map.

Military families can obtain free supplies and backpacks from Operation Homefront that works with retailer Dollar Tree annually. You can register your child and look for a local event here.

Many states have tax-free weekends to help ease the burden of shelling out hundreds of dollars for back to school shopping. In Texas, the tax-free weekend is August 9 to 11. Purchases of all clothing, footwear, school supplies, and backpacks that cost less $100 are exempt from sales tax. Here is a list of items that qualify under the program. 

Check out the website of your local city or county. Many cities also host their own programs, such as Houston. There are limitations: students must be attending elementary school to qualify. Here is more information on how to sign up.

Corporations also sponsor events for free supplies. For instance, Boost Mobile offers a program starting in August for free backpacks filled with supplies. You can find a local event through their Facebook page.

Companies often list their free programs on social media services such as Facebook and Twitter.

Local United Way programs often provide free supplies in August. You can find your local United Way here.

Ellen Chang is a freelance journalist who is based in Houston and writes for TheStreet and U.S. News & World Report. Chang focuses her articles on stocks, entrepreneurs, personal finance, energy and cybersecurity. Her byline has appeared in national business publications, including USA Today, CBS News, Yahoo Finance and MSN Money. She is a proud graduate of Purdue University and a lover of random acts of kindness, volunteering and dogs and cats. Follow her on Twitter @ellenychang and Instagram @ellenyinchang.