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Hold off on back-to-school shopping

Walk, don't run, to snag the deals retailers are breathlessly advertising; an analysis shows that 'sale' prices in July will almost certainly be the same -- or lower -- in August.

By Donna_Freedman Jul 24, 2013 9:39AM

Logo: Cash register (Hill Street Studios/Blend Images/Getty Images)Back-to-school sales are starting earlier and earlier each year, much to the chagrin of children across the country. Some appeared as early as Independence Day (try a little irony, kids).

But buying earlier won't save you much money -- and it might actually cost you extra, according to a new study from the NerdWallet personal finance site.

An analysis of more than 500 back-to-school deals from eight retailers showed that 90% of July "sale" prices will be the same or lower in August.


If last year's trends continue, Walgreens is the only major store whose July prices are as low as they're going to get.

Don't look for many loss leaders at Wal-Mart, by the way. That retailer's prices tend to hold steady all year long, according to the study.

Matthew Ong of NerdWallet says merchants are employing a Black Friday strategy: advertising well in advance of the event and making consumers feel they'll miss out if they don't act fast.

"Retailers want consumers to buy early and buy often . . . pushing the back-to-school season forward to try and encourage you to spend more money," says Ong, the site's senior retail analyst.

Savvy shoppers know that despite the loss-leader eye candy, Black Friday prices aren't necessarily better than December deals. The same is true for back-to-school items, Ong says: "Don't give in -- the deals will be the same or even better in August."

True saving strategies

The National Retail Federation predicts parents of elementary/secondary students will spend $634.78 on average for back-to-school shopping. For college students the figure is $836.84.

Sound like a lot? It is. You'll want to be careful how you distribute your own back-to-school budget.

Start by determining what your kids actually need. Round up last year's backpacks, lunchboxes, notebooks, pens and other supplies. If these items are still in decent shape, what's the point of replacing them?

Ditto the clothes, shoes and coats your kids already have. If they still fit, hang on to your bucks until these items are outgrown. (Remember who's telling you that children "need" new school clothes: the people who stand to make money from such purchases.)

Next, look for the best deals. That can be through an online price comparison website (see "Your personal bargain shopper" on MSN Money) or by the old-school method of comparing ad circulars from the Sunday newspaper (which can also be viewed online).

I'd also suggest following, where blogger and author Stephanie Nelson highlights the best deals each week at major retailers. Some purchases wind up being free or nearly free.

What price convenience?

Any time a store promises "one-stop shopping," prepare to pay more. The loss leaders may be hot, but the other items are not.

How often to shop and/or how many stores to visit depends on proximity and patience. Someone who loves snatching up loss leaders might shop every week, especially if the retailers are right on the way to work or located on a favorite walking route.

Driving 10 miles to save 50 cents obviously isn't cost-effective. In addition, multiple trips can mean spending more overall. "This is especially true if you're shopping with children," Ong says.

If you're extremely busy, hate being in stores or have kids who make shopping a giant pain, it's best to wait until August and getting everything you need in a couple of short, focused trips.

Ong suggests forming a parents' buying club to split the loss-leader shopping several ways. You'll hit the 10-cent paper and 50-cent notebook sale, then share your limit-six finds with a couple of relatives or friends who've shopped the stores closest to where they live.

Note: One-stop-shopping route might actually be the best route if you value your time more than the chance to save some money. Even so, you might want to wait until the prices hit rock bottom, probably toward the end of August. Why pay more than you have to?

A few more tips:

Buy used. Check thrift stores, yard sales and consignment shops for like-new clothing and supplies. If there's a chapter of The Freecycle Network in your area, start looking now for clothing and equipment.

Watch the sales
. Clearance tables will be full of items your kid can wear into the early autumn (or year-round, if you live in a warm climate). If a pair of pants or shirt fits and flatters, buy two or three.

Shop online
. Virtual retailers have clearance sales, too. Be sure to look for free-shipping and coupon codes at a site like Savings.comRetailMeNot or Coupon Cabin,


Use discounted gift cards. If you're buying from a major retailer you can probably save 3% to 20% by paying with plastic scrip bought on the secondary market. The aggregator site Gift Card Granny can steer you toward the best deals.


Readers: What's your favorite back-to-school strategy?

More on MSN Money

Jul 24, 2013 6:41PM
Son's a senior - One more year and it's all over! :)
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