Back-to-School Shopping [2024]: Is Inflation Affecting Spending?

MANAGE MONEY - BUDGETING
Back-to-school shopping signals the end of summer, and many parents breathe a sigh of relief. But how much will pencils, folders, and other supplies cost you this year?
Updated Aug. 25, 2023
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Family buying a backpack

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Kids across the country are heading back to school, and many parents are counting down the days. This year, school supplies cost more than they have in years past, and some parents will spend more getting their kids ready to go back to school than they did on holiday gifts last December.

How will inflation impact back-to-school shopping this year? We surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults to find out what they thought and pulled together notable statistics on school shopping trends.

In this article

Key takeaways

  • 51% of those surveyed said they would buy generic or less expensive brands of supplies.
  • Back-to-school spending is expected to reach $41.5 billion in 2023.
  • In 2023, college supply spending is expected to reach over $90 billion.
  • Electronics are the most significant budget category for K-12 and college students.
  • Parents are expected to spend an average of $890 on back-to-school supplies, including clothing and shoes.

51% of adults surveyed said they would buy generic or less expensive brands while back-to-school shopping due to inflation

Back-to-school shopping survey results graphic

In our survey, more than half of respondents said they’d shift their spending to less expensive items in response to inflation. Thirty-eight percent said they’d look for more sales than normal, 28% said they’d buy fewer new clothes than normal, and a quarter of respondents said they would use coupons more than normal.

Respondents are also planning to reuse old or leftover supplies (22%), buy “new” clothes from thrift stores (19%), enroll in a free lunch program (15%), and buy less expensive food to pack in school lunches (14%).

Source: FinanceBuzz

Parents expect to spend almost $900 on back-to-school shopping in 2023

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), families of kindergarten to 12th-grade students are expected to spend an average of $890.07 on back-to-school items in 2023, a new record high. In 2022, families spent, on average, $864.35, or only about $26 less than they may spend this year.

This increase in spending during back-to-school season appears to be driven by rising costs and demand for electronics and computer-related accessories. Sixty-nine percent of people plan to buy electronics during their back-to-school shopping, up from 65% in 2022. This is the highest percentage ever in the NRF survey history and is a 15% rise from the number of parents buying electronics for school kids a decade ago.

Source: National Retail Federation, Statista

The cost of school supplies increased by 23.7% within the past two years

According to the professional services firm Deloitte, the cost of school supplies has risen 23.7% since 2020. Despite inflation showing signs of easing, parents still feel the effects of rising prices. Three in ten parents say their households are in a worse financial position than in 2022, and 51% expect the economy to weaken within the next six months.

Due to rising prices, 34% of parents in Deloitte’s survey plan to postpone non-essential spending, up from 31% in 2022. Parents are expected to spend the most on electronics ($325.96), clothing and accessories ($257.12), shoes ($166.59), and school supplies ($140.39).

Source: Deloitte, Statista

Total spending on electronics is expected to reach $15.2 billion in 2023

According to the NRF, electronics are expected to take up most of the back-to-school budget this year, with expected retail sales reaching $15.2 billion. The devices in demand for the classroom are similar to years past, with people planning to purchase primarily laptops (51%), tablets (36%), and calculators (29%), over other types of electronics.

Source: National Retail Federation, Statista

Families expected to spend more than ever on college supplies

Back-to-school spending for college students has nearly doubled since 2019. Families with college-bound students are expected to spend an average of $1,366.95 per person in 2023, up from $1,199.43 in 2022. In 2021, families spent an average of $1,200.32 — a record high until 2023.

Spending on electronics, dorm room furnishings, and food are expected to account for more than half of the increase in parental expenditure in 2023. Of those planning to spend more, 43% said they need more new items than in previous years, while 32% said they need to purchase big-ticket items like electronics or furnishings.

Source: National Retail Federation

Inflation plays a significant role in 2023 back-to-school shopping

According to statistics website Statista, two-thirds of those surveyed said inflation and rising prices would impact them more in 2023 compared to 2022. Only one in fifty American households thought inflation would affect them less this year than last year.

To help save money, 45% of back-to-school shoppers plan to implement cost-saving strategies, like comparing prices online and shopping during sales. That number was only about 30% in 2019.

Professional services firm Deloitte found that 80% of shoppers will prioritize shopping at mass retailers, while 60% plan to use e-commerce stores to find the best deal. About 33% of shoppers plan to use dollar stores or off-price retail stores to try to save money in 2023.

Source: Statista, Deloitte

Most back-to-school shopping takes place in late July and early August

It may be no surprise that most back-to-school shopping happens later in the summer. According to Capital One Shopping research, most consumers begin hunting for good deals in late July, while 28% of people start shopping in early August. About 10% of people don’t begin shopping until after classes start, while just 2% of shoppers are early birds who start the process in late May.

A majority of consumers shopping for K-12 supplies prefer to make back-to-school purchases online (55%) and at discount and department stores (both at 45%). Drugstores and catalogs are the least popular places to shop for back-to-school supplies (6% each).

Source: Capital One Shopping

In 2023, 35% of online shoppers use social media to find deals

How people save money on school supplies has changed in recent years, with more than a third of online shoppers (35%) using social media to find the best deals. Millennials were more likely than Generation X to browse for deals online (46% versus 40%). Gen X parents were more likely to look for coupons or other cost-saving promotions.

Comparatively, 49% of back-to-college shoppers went online, while 35% shopped at department stores and 33% at discount stores.

Source: Capital One Shopping, Statista

More families intend to use cash over credit in 2023

When it comes to back-to-school shopping, cash is still king, with more than 77% of those Deloitte surveyed saying they intend to use cash for school supplies, compared to 72% in 2022. More than half (52%) said they plan to use credit cards. Even though inflation is taking its toll, six in ten parents are willing to splurge on better quality products or want to treat their child.

According to Statista, nearly four in five parents say their children could get them to splurge on back-to-school items like technology (75%) and clothes (80%).

Source: Deloitte, Statista

A majority of people still visit stores in 2023

Many still prefer to visit stores in person, with 60% of shoppers visiting two or three stores for most of their back-to-school shopping. Of people who chose online shopping, 58% of those surveyed by Capital One Shopping said they used a desktop or laptop computer, while 65% said they used their smartphone.

Despite rising costs, Capital One found that only 7% of those surveyed shopped at thrift stores for K-12 supplies, and back-to-college shoppers were only slightly higher at 9%.

Source: Capital One Shopping

19% of shoppers are covering increased costs using buy now pay later

Rising prices mean that you may be wondering how to manage your money for back-to-school shopping. According to the NRF, 39% of shoppers are combating the rising costs of school and college supplies by cutting back in other areas. Of those cutting back, 40% made less than $50,000 a year, while 38% made over $50,000.

Additionally, 22% said they are working more hours to cover the cost, while 19% said they would use buy now pay later services to help out. Parents also said they would handle increased costs by taking out a new credit card or otherwise going into debt (13%).

Source: National Retail Federation

Clothing and accessories have the most noticeable price increases

Shoppers are reporting higher prices for all categories of school materials, according to the National Retail Federation. Shoppers have found the most significant cost increases among clothing and accessories, with 77% of consumers noticing higher prices compared to years past.

The rising cost of school supplies, like paper, pens, and markers, was the next most noticeable price increase, with 67% saying they noticed the higher costs. Shoes (59%), electronics (58%), and furniture (23%) rounded out the top five most noticeable price increases.

Source: National Retail Federation

Parents aged 35 to 44 are likely to spend more than other parents

According to research by Capital One Shopping, parents aged 35 to 44 are likely to pay 13.2% more than the national average on back-to-school shopping. In 2021, parents in this age group spent an average of $1,007.69, compared to the national average of $849 per household that same year. Parents aged 25-34 spent the next highest amount, $1004.65, in 2021, an increase of 12.9% over the national average.

Households of 18- to 24-year-olds spent the least on school supplies in 2021, spending $629.05, or 25.9% lower than the national average. The next lowest age group was parents aged 45-54, who spent $784.02 in 2021, 11.9% under the national average.

Source: Capital One Shopping, National Retail Federation

Needing new items drives back-to-college spending

According to the NRF, the need to buy new things is expected to increase from 32% in 2022 to 43% in 2023 as a justification for spending more on college supplies. The second biggest reason for spending more was needing big-ticket items (from 28% in 2022 to an expected 32% in 2023) and having more things on the school list this year (from 20% in 2022 to an expected 25% in 2023).

Interestingly, higher prices were a more commonly cited factor in 2022 than in 2023. The percentage of people who said they spent more due to higher prices dropped ten points from 42% of respondents in 2022 to just 32% in 2023.

Source: National Retail Federation

90% of teachers spend their own money on school supplies for their classrooms

According to the National Education Association, more than 90% of teachers have spent their own money on school supplies and other items their students need. In 2020, educators spent an average of $500 out of pocket for classroom supplies not provided by the school or district, and it is expected that number has risen since the pandemic.

A survey done by My eLearning World estimates that teachers spent an average of $820.14 out of pocket on school supplies during the 2022-2023 school year, the largest amount ever.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, teachers can deduct up to $300 a year in eligible expenses on their taxes.

Source: National Education Association, Internal Revenue Service, My eLearning World

Students spend their own money on back-to-school supplies

In 2021, teens spent an average of $46.46 of their own money on back-to-school supplies, while preteens spent an average of $39.19. Students spending their own money on school supplies has steadily risen in the past decade, increasing 46.8% from 2011 to 2021. Among preteens spending their own money on supplies, the increase was 159% during the same decade.

Source: Statista, Capital One Shopping

How to save money back-to-school shopping

Saving money on school supplies can be challenging, but there are ways to do it without breaking the bank. As you think about how to save money on back-to-school shopping, consider some of the following.

Shop throughout the year

Keep an eye out for supplies that go on sale once school starts and throughout the year. You’ll likely find deep discounts once the back-to-school rush passes and stores need to make room for new merchandise. Keep an eye out for sales and, if possible, ask to be sent next year’s school supply list as soon as possible so you have longer to shop and can take advantage of deals as you find them. 

Buy items in bulk 

You may be able to save by buying certain items in bulk and holding them until you need them. Consider setting aside a bin of supplies you add to throughout the year. You’ll save money by picking up things at a reasonable price and also be ready for last-minute school projects or restocks. 

Reuse what you can 

When summer vacation starts and your child brings home supplies that are still usable, clean them up and add them to the school supply bin for next year. When you get the required list of supplies in the middle of the summer, shop from your container first and supplement with just a few new items to help reduce costs. 

Use a shopping portal or browser extension

If you enjoy shopping online, consider using a shopping portal like Rakuten, Ibotta, or Honey to help you find coupons or earn cash back for everything you buy. 

Shop during a sales tax holiday

Many states offer a sales tax holiday on certain items like clothing, shoes, recreation supplies, and even school supplies. Research your state’s sales tax holidays and time your back-to-school and clothes shopping for that week or long weekend to spread your budget further. 

Use a cash back credit card 

Strategically using a credit card for cash-back rewards or special programs can help maximize your shopping. Some card issuers offer special deals during the year when you can earn bonus points or additional cash back on certain items. Check the card website to see if the issuer offers special ways to earn extra points or money on school supplies or clothing.

Check out this list of the best cash back credit cards to help you find the right one.

Bottom line

Saving money during back-to-school shopping season can take time and effort, especially if you have multiple students to shop for. Be sure to reuse the supplies you can from previous school years and pass down usable items from older siblings to younger ones.

While back-to-school shopping is a major event for most families, right up there with some holidays, do what you can to help lower the costs wherever possible. While splurging on one or two new items of high quality for your child is understandable, remember that going into debt to do it may have lasting implications for your entire family’s financial future.

Sources

1. United States Census Bureau - Fun Facts: Back to School

2. National Center for Education Statistics - Fast Facts: Back-to-School Statistics

3. Capital One Shopping Research - Back-to-School Shopping Statistics

4. Deloitte: Back-to-School Spending Expected to Decline as Inflation Takes Its Toll

5. National Retail Federation - Retail Holiday and Seasonal Trends: Back to School

6. National Retail Federation - Back-to-Class Shopping Expected to Reach Record Levels

7. National Center for Education Statistics - Back to School By The Numbers: 2021-22 School Year

8. Statista - Average Back-to-School Spending per Household in the US

9. Statista - Share of Consumers Purchasing Back-to-School (BTS) Supplies in the United States in 2023

10. Deloitte: As Inflation and Uncertainty Abound, Back-to-School and Back-to-College Spending Surges

11. National Retail Federation: Back-to-School Trends to Know

12. National Education Association - Out-of-Pocket Spending on School Supplies Adds Strain on Educators

13. Internal Revenue Service - Tax Topics 458 Educator Expense Deduction

14. My eLearning World - Report: Teachers Will Spend Over $820 of Their Own Money on Classroom Supplies This Year

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Author Details

Kate Daugherty Kate Daugherty is a professional writer with a passion for providing others the head start they deserve on their financial journeys. Largely self-taught, Kate relied on books, blogs, and trial-and-error to learn how to budget and save for the future, all while working to pay back about $15,000 in student loans.

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