Gephardt Busts Inflation: Finding the best deals on school supplies
Jul 31, 2023, 11:41 PM | Updated: 11:47 pm
SALT LAKE CITY – As stores compete for your back-to-school dollars, where you shop could help stretch your budget.
To find out who has the best deals, for the third year in a row, the KSL Investigators hit the same five retailers with the same back-to-school shopping list: Walmart, Target, Smith’s, Dollar General and Amazon.
The school supply list, provided by a local elementary teacher, included a box of No. 2 pencils, large pink eraser, ruler, loose-leaf paper, three spiral notebooks, three three-ring binders, backpack, scientific calculator, glue sticks, scissors, and a water bottle.
At each store, the KSL Investigators found the least expensive item available for each item on the list.
At $25.08, Dollar General was the least expensive retailer this year, but that total comes with a big asterisk – they don’t stock scientific calculators. So, you really need to factor in a drive to another store to buy that calculator which means tacking on another $10 to the list.
We were able to find everything the list at Walmart, for a total of $35.73.
The total jumped quite a bit at the other stores we tried: Amazon was $54.50, Smith’s $57 and Target $58.96.
An inflation story
Lots of other stores sell back-to-school stuff, so why do we keep shopping the same five? Well, because this just isn’t a story about penny-pinching. It’s also an inflation story.
When you crunch the year-over-year numbers, we found some interesting results.
First, there was not one single item that was more expensive at every store this year compared to last year’s shopping. Backpacks were more expensive at Smith’s, cheaper at Amazon and Walmart, and the exact same price at Dollar General and Target. Everything at Target was either flat or slightly more expensive year to year, except for a cheaper pair of scissors.
Percentage wise, the item with the largest jump this year was rulers. At both Walmart ($0.54 to $1.92) and Amazon ($1.79 to $6.52) we saw more than a 250% jump in price. Smith’s, however, saw a 68% drop (from $1.49 to $0.47).
Each store has prominent back-to-school displays, but we found that’s not always where you will find the best prices. For example, at Smith’s we saved a few bucks by shopping the store’s clearance section. At Walmart, we found deals by skipping the water bottles in the back-to-school area and buying $1 bottles in the store’s athletics area.
And don’t forget other rewards and membership discounts. An Amazon Prime membership would likely save on the shipping costs, although it is hard to pinpoint the exact savings. The membership costs $139 each year. At Smith’s it is more straightforward. A loyalty card saved us $17.09 on our back-to-school list.
The biggest takeaway
The biggest takeaway we found this year: Inflation on back-to-school items seems to be cooling. At Walmart, we saw prices jump 36% in 2022 compared to 2021. But this year, the total list cost went up less than 2% year-to-year. The trend was similar at Smith’s: The list cost went up 27% in 2022, but less than 1% in 2023. We saw a more substantial price increase at Target this year (just over 13%). But at Dollar General and Amazon, we paid less in 2023 than we did in 2022.
Other ways to save
The best way to save on back-to-school is to shop your own home first, says shopping expert Trae Bodge of TrueTrae.com. She recommends you take an inventory of what you already have before you go to the store.
“Because you may not remember what clothes your kids had from last year that are reusable,” she said. “You should have them try on all their clothes. Check their backpack – does it just need a good wash? Or pencil cases, lunchboxes, things like that.”
Bodge also recommends buying in bulk for many school items, especially if you have several kids to shop for, or can split the haul and thus the costs with other parents.
“If you happen to have a Costco or Sam’s Club membership, you could buy so many things in bulk, from pens to binders to paper, that’s a great way to go,” she said.
And don’t forget dollar stores.
“Especially for paper products,” Bodge said. “You can get such a good deal on things like filler paper and foam core poster board.”
If your student needs electronics such as a computer or smartphone this year, you can save money by going the refurbished route.
“Best Buy has a number of good programs, Amazon does as well. I know Apple has a program if you want to buy a Mac for your child,” she said. “It’s a great option. You just want to make sure that it’s certified or warrantied.”
And while you’ll want to buy the essentials right now, Bodge recommends holding off on some of the new threads and other supplies until after school has actually started.
“Simply because your child is going to go back to school and see what everyone is wearing and carrying, and they may want some of those things as well,” she said. “And if you’ve already finished out your budget, you can’t accommodate that request.”