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The Best Back to School Tips and Advice

By the time August rolls around, parents are divided into two clear camps: Team Send ‘Em Back Already! and Team I Wish Summer Was Forever.

There’s also an overlap of parenting players that could form a third team called I Just Don’t Want to Do Back to School Stuff—but fitting that on team jerseys would be a nightmare so they just pick one of the existing sides.

At YNAB, we’ve got the, “But we’re busy documenting and graphing the incubation of a rare breed of chickens right now,” parents and the, “My kids have gone completely feral and summer has felt like 42 years,” parents—but we all agree that back to school prep time is chaotic and expensive.

So, we did a survey on social media to find out when parents start preparing for the new school year, what their biggest struggles are, and asked for their best piece of advice in an effort to help everyone start the school season as smoothly as possible. Here’s what we learned from the answers of more than 2500 parents who responded:

What age group are your children in?

Most of the respondents of our Back to School Tips survey had children who are elementary school aged or younger. (58%)

Of the parents who responded, the vast majority had children that were elementary school-aged or younger, which makes sense since being fully prepared with a backpack full of new supplies on the first day of school seems more essential at that age.

Middle school, high school, and college students often don’t even know what supplies they need until they’ve met the teachers for each of their classes. Also, a lot of parents with older children just aren’t as tuned into back-to-school content. I have a  high school student and a kid in college—they basically need new shoes, a notebook or two, and a pen until further notice at this stage in the game.

When do you start shopping/preparing?

Most of the respondents of our Back to School Tips survey start shopping one month before the first day of school or as soon as supplies are on the shelves.

As for when people start shopping for school supplies, it was pretty evenly split, with most parents revealing that they start shopping well in advance—which makes sense for a budget-conscious audience.

Budget categories for school clothes, supplies, cafeteria food, class photos, gym uniforms, PTA fundraising.
Here’s what your Back to School budget categories may look like.

It’s also a great sanity saver. No one wants to spend the last weekend of summer fighting for glue sticks in aisle 9 of Target.

What is your biggest struggle every year?

  • Learning the ropes of school supply lists and back to school shopping and sales
  • Getting myself to even think about going back to school, it interrupts my summer mindset
  • Feeling overwhelmed—getting organized, buying supplies and clothes, doing meal prep
  • Buying new shoes for 5 kids
  • The desire to send barely used supplies versus the  pressure from my kids to buy new
  • Surprise school fees and costs for extracurricular activities
  • I don’t know yet—it’s my first time
  • Knowing what is actually a good sale price or when to buy
  • Schools not sending supply lists early enough for the sales
  • Keeping up with the trends and spending too much for my kids to “be cool”
  • Buying stuff my kids won’t use—the supply lists are always inflated
  • I want to buy all the school supplies and I’m an adult with no kids
  • Remembering to buy supplies that my child needs for both semesters, not just in summer
  • Not getting supply lists in time to make the monthly budget
  • Items selling out, which sounds like it may happen a lot this year
  • How many water bottles (and supplies) to actually buy based on what my kids will lose
  • The supplies listed on the generic supply list issued before school starts rarely get used
  • The struggle between quality and quantity when shopping
  • Buying uniforms
  • Keeping the kids’ excitement high, while keeping the budget low

What is your best back to school tip?

  • Check what you have, look through drawers and send things they didn’t use last year
  • Check the dollar store
  • Buy 1-2 outfits and wait for school to start to see what kids want to wear based on trends
  • Plan for unexpected costs like hot lunch, school activities, and sports equipment
  • You don’t need everything on the first day. Shopping during the first week of school can cut down on crowds.
  • We save $28 every month throughout the year in our budget  for one big shopping trip
  • Buy next spring and summer’s clothes at the end of the season by purchasing a size up
  • Get ready for an earlier sleep schedule and morning routine now or it will be too late
  • Read your syllabus and write out assignments by due dates in a planner or app
  • Support and encourage your child’s teacher so that your child models the same respect
  • Order supplies for fall right at the end of the school year
  • Sometimes it’s cheaper (and it’s definitely easier) to just stay at one store
  • No other parent 100% knows what’s going on either
  • Buy the shoes at least a month in advance. Do not wait
  • Be flexible, every year and every teacher is different
  • Go to eBay for semi-expensive gear. Calculators are way cheaper there
  • Start saving and planning earlier than you think
  • Let friends and family know if you need help with supplies. Some WANT to help
  • Wait for the syllabus to come home, you don’t need to buy extras (for high school and college especially)
  • Check the school website for supply lists
  • Buy a quality book bag and lunch box
  • Use Target pickup to avoid crowds
  • Watch the weekly deals, there are usually a couple of items that are extremely cheap and you can stock up gradually
  • There are companies and some schools that provide the whole box of school supplies for you. Just buy from them.

And there you have it. A road map to back-to-school success from parents who have been there, done that a few times before.

Summer is ending, whether you want it to or not. Take a deep breath, treat yourself to some nice new pens and notebooks, cross things off of your to-do list, and get a stress-free start as you fall back into the school routine.

Feeling the sting of the start of school in your bank account? Set up a budget and divide the cost of back to school shopping into manageable monthly chunks so that it doesn’t sneak up on your next year. YNAB can help with a free 34-day  trial.

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The Best Back to School Tips and Advice