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What to splurge (and skimp) on for back-to-school

When shopping for back-to-school supplies, there are some items that are worth spending a little more money on than others. Here's a list of when to splurge and save when preparing for school. 

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    A girl reaches for her backpack while her brother plays games on his phone. Find out what you should splurge and save on before going back to school.
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The first day of school isn’t here yet, but it’s not too early to start budgeting for the upcoming semester — especially considering the amount you’ll probably spend before the first class even starts.

2015 report by American Express found that parents planned to spend an average of $1,239 on back-to-school shopping last year. If 2016 spending follows suit, you could be shelling out a hefty chunk of change on academic necessities.

With so much to buy for your children (or for yourself), is there anything you can afford to skimp on? And which products are worth a splurge? We have the answers.

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Splurge: laptops or tablets

The majority of your back-to-school spending will likely be going toward technology, and rightfully so. Tablets, laptops and desktop computers are vital components of researching, writing and studying for almost every grade level.

Cheap or refurbished models may not carry you through for long, so pick a reliable model that can last a good portion of your child’s (or your own) academic career — particularly if you’ll be enrolling in any cyber courses.

A good investment will pay off later, and laptop sales are usually rampant in August before the school year kicks off. Additionally, some tech giants like Apple and Dell offer specials for students.

Skimp: fall clothing

For many, school is as much about making a fashion statement as it is about making the grade. But hold off on buying new clothes, unless you’re taking advantage of end-of-summer clearance sales.

Fall clothing items (like jeans and sweatshirts) will be full-price in August, but they’ll be more affordable come October, when the leaves change colors and the weather starts to turn. So wait to give your child’s or your own wardrobe a pick-me-up until then.

Splurge: backpacks

Backpacks, book bags and laptop bags (or whatever you use to carry your school supplies) are an important purchase. Don’t skimp on what you’ll be using to tote around your laptop and books.

You don’t need to go for a brand name, but you do need to look for a backpack with plenty of cushioning to protect your back and shoulders. Additionally, you’ll want enough pockets and compartments to store everything you need.

Expect backpacks to be included in back-to-school sales during July and August. Backpacks have also been known to be included in luggage sales at department stores.

Skimp: textbooks

There’s absolutely no reason to pay full price for a textbook. In fact, you can avoid buying brand new books altogether. Instead, go for used books or rentals, and don’t forget about e-books.

Check out textbook rental websites like CheggAmazon and eCampus.com before hitting the university bookstore (where prices are generally higher). Only buy new when there’s no other alternative.

This tip is especially helpful for college students, but it can apply to high school and younger kids as well. If you encounter a class that has a required reading stipulation, try buying a used version online or checking out a copy from the local library. You should definitely skip buying if you know you won’t use the book after the final exam.

Splurge: dorm room supplies

Dorm room furniture and related supplies are a must-have for college students, and retailers know it. If you aren’t able to find hand-me-down desks and office chairs from friends or family, look for dorm room sales to pop up at the end of the summer.

There are student discounts that you can take advantage of, too. Pottery Barn Teen for instance, offers a 15% discount to college students with a valid .edu email address or college ID.

Skimp: basic supplies

Basic supplies like pens, pencils, binders and folders definitely don’t necessitate a splurge. Cheaper brands will do the trick just the same.

So skip the pricey pens and pencils and go for the cheaper ones instead. Consider buying writing utensils in bulk, as it’ll lower your cost per unit. Plus, you’ll have enough supplies to carry you through the semester without regular trips to the office supply store.

At Oriental Trading Company, for instance, an assortment of 72 stick pens will cost you just $18.50. That’s around 25 cents per pen. Dollar stores are also a solid choice for pens, pencils, erasers, highlighters and the like.

And consider this. A six-pack of trendy Star Wars folders will cost you $15.25, but you can buy a box of 25 simple twin-pocket folders for just $6.99.

Splurge: calculators

In school, you need the right tools for the job, and scientific calculators are one of those tools for many students. Basic calculators just won’t cut it, especially for classes like statistics and calculus that require complex formulas and graphing.

But calculators can get expensive, so be sure you’re selecting the right model. If you (or your child) have plans to take advanced mathematics courses in the future, it may be worthwhile to buy a deluxe version now instead of buying several models over the course of your academic career.

Skimp: planners

Here’s one way to cut costs: Skip the planner or traditional paper calendar. Tech-savvy students check their smartphones more than their planners anyway, and there are plenty of apps that take homework tracking into the digital realm.

We like the myHomework Student Planner app (available for iOS and Android). The free version unlocks access to a calendar display of classes and lets users track due dates for homework, tests and assignments. That’ll save you the $13.99 a 2016-17 academic calendar would cost you from Mead.

So go ahead, ace your back-to-school shopping.

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email:courtney@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @courtneynerd.

This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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