The lazy days of summer are in full swing ... which can only mean one thing.
Back-to-school shopping—the second-biggest retail season—is officially underway.
According to the National Retail Federation, the average family plans to spend around $630 for electronics, apparel and other necessities this school season.
That's right—we're talking some serious cash.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
And if you're like most harried parents, you'll probably just end up heading to a big-box store at the last minute to pick up everything at once—and be done with it.
Or you could do your homework and get better bang for your back-to-school spending buck by being a bit more strategic.
Case in point: Many states have tax-free shopping days (see this handy chart) that coincide with back-to-school shopping season.
So to help set you up, and your budget, for success, we've created a week-by-week buying guide in the countdown to September. With this game plan, you'll be able to spread your spending across several paychecks—while also nabbing the best deals.
What to Buy the First Week of August
Set your sights on … Big-ticket computer and tech items
Why now? According to Brent Shelton, an online shopping expert and author of a monthly “when to shop” newsletter for FatWallet.com, back-to-school sales on laptops and tablets trump even those offered on Black Friday.
To get a retail advantage ... Check to see if you have an ID (student, teacher, military—anything!) that can help you score extra savings.
It's also a good idea to kick off your back-to-school shopping by checking out sites like RetailMeNot, ShopSavvy, KrazyCouponLady and CouponCabin that scour the web looking for deals and coupons to use in-store and online.
Another savvy way to save? Download your favorite retailers' apps, which often offer mobile-exclusive coupons. And consider signing up for their newsletters too—many will send discount codes to use while shopping and even texts with coupons.
What to Buy the Second Week of August
Set your sights on ... Clothes and accessories
Why now? Some of the biggest back-to-school discounts are offered on shirts, jeans and shoes around this time, says Shelton, because apparel retailers want to incentivize consumers to get back-to-school shopping done while hotter styles, colors and sizes are still in stock.
Bonus tip: If your child has gone Minions crazy, now's the time to snap up those branded items.
According to a RetailMeNot survey, Minions-themed school supplies will be in highest demand (33%), followed by Jurassic World (31%), SpongeBob (24%) and Star Wars (22%) items.
To get a retail advantage ... Consider downloading an app like Shopkick, which will guide you to in-store deals—and help you earn points by shopping at retailers like Macy's and JCPenney.
And don't forget to ask about return and replacement policies, says Trae Bodge, senior lifestyle editor for The Real Deal by RetailMeNot.
If you're in the market for a new backpack, for example, Bodge notes that retailers like L.L. Bean and JanSport offer warranties that can come in handy if your child trashes a bag early in the school year.
What to Buy the Third Week of August
Set your sights on ... Notebooks, paper, pens and other back-to-school stationery
Why now? Teri Gault, founder and CEO of The Grocery Game, says discount stores, drugstores and supermarkets always offer back-to-school deals around this time.
And although the savings may seem small, they add up.
“You can save hundreds by renting or buying used or digital textbooks. Plus, stores like AbeBooks offer coupons and cash back on used books and e-versions."
Gault has spotted such hefty discounts as 150-page packs of notebook paper on sale for as little as 50 cents and a 10-count packages of name-brand pens for just 33 cents.
To get a retail advantage ... You can score some of the best deals for basic school supplies using a coupon from a retailer’s weekly sales flyer, says Gault, which you can find in the Sunday paper and even online.
Lisa Lee Freeman, a shopping expert and former editor-in-chief of Consumer Reports’ ShopSmart magazine, also recommends going to Spoofee.com, which makes it easy to check out all the big stores' circulars in one spot.
What to Buy the Fourth Week of August
Set your sights on ... Textbooks and other reading-list books
Why now? Shelton says you typically see increased discounting for books at this time because many students—especially college-bound ones—have returned to school and now have details of class schedules and specific reading materials that professors and teachers want them to use.
Both brick-and-mortar and online bookstores respond by offering their best sales of the year now through Labor Day weekend.
To get a retail advantage ... “You can save hundreds by renting or buying used or digital versions of textbooks," Shelton says. "Plus, there are over 20 stores online, like AbeBooks and BookPal, that offer coupons and cash back on used books and e-versions to help you save even more."
Shopping finally done?
Great—but savings school isn’t out quite yet. Save your receipts and keep tracking those prices, since many stores will offer price adjustments with proof of purchase.