Back-to-school time was never a big deal in our household. This was probably because my mom was such a couponer that she had already done most of the necessary shopping months earlier. We had discount pencils and pens, paper and notebooks, binders and posterboard, and even backpacks and new outfits…because my mom planned ahead to safeguard the family budget in our single-income home. Whether you shop in advance or at the last minute, these handy tips can help you save as much as possible on this year's back-to-school shopping list.

1. First, take an inventory of last year's leftovers

This may seem obvious, but sometimes it’s the most obvious cost-savers that we tend to overlook when we’re in a hurry. You may find you have everything you need—or that you just need to shop for a few items to complete this year's supplies list.

Here’s a fun way to take inventory:

  1. Create a "school supplies station" on the counter in your kitchen.
  2. Place labels along the counter with the item name and the number required.
  3. Give each child their own personal list of required school supplies.
  4. Send them on a "scavenger hunt" through the house to find every item on their list.
  5. Offer a prize for the child who checks every item off their list the fastest.
  6. When you’re done, take an inventory of everything you have already.
  7. Highlight any items you still need to purchase.

2. Purchase the needed supplies in pre-packaged discounted bundles

I just marvel at how savvy some of today's marketers are. Did you know that many retailers now work with school administrators to pre-package together bundles of supplies by grade level? These bundles not only have everything you need for the school year all in one packet, but they typically will cost less than what you would pay to order each item separately.

  • What to do: Ask your school for a list of the year's school supplies. Also ask if the school works with specific vendors to pre-package the required supplies.
  • Vendors you can try: If your school doesn't work with a specific vendor, you can still find pre-packaged discount kits by visiting Amazon.com (do a search on “prepackaged school supplies” and “school supply bundles” with your child’s grade), Educational Products, School Kidz (by Staples), EduKit, and other similar vendors (many will prompt you to enter the school ID to find the specific packets you need).

3. Shop early or late…but not right at the last minute

The reason for this is simple (and you may have already figured it out). Just like holiday candy is discounted by 50% the day after the holiday passes, so too will you find that school supplies come at a premium right around the first day of each semester.

  • What to do: If possible, obtain the list of next year's school supplies at the end of the preceding semester so you have all summer to shop. Also, for supplies that may not be needed right away, try to wait until the "school supply rush" has died down and some of the excess supplies are discounted to move them before the holiday season begins.
  • Online versus offline: Browse and buy online wherever possible—this saves you both time and gas (and you can often take advantage of free shipping too!).

4. Take advantage of your state's sales tax holiday dates to save more

As fortune would have it, most states have a sales tax holiday (a time when sales tax on purchases is waived) right before the fall school semester starts. If you can time your shopping to take place during these dates, which fall during the first two weeks of August in many states (and often feature savings on school supplies), you can avoid paying sales tax for all your supplies!

5. Follow your favorite retailers on social media

While it’s true that many retailers often hike the prices for required school supplies just before school begins again, in the same way those retailers all compete against one another for customers. So be sure to follow your favorite local or online retailers on social media so you can snag early bird specials and customer loyalty coupons.

Social media handles for popular school supplies retailers:

Save Big Time on Back-to-School Supplies with These 5 Tips