Back-to-School Shopping By the Numbers: What Parents Are Buying, Where They're Shopping, and How Much They're Spending [Stats]

With an unprecedented school year looming, parents are taking new approaches to back-to-school shopping.
Last updated Jan. 7, 2022 | By Stephanie Colestock
back to school shopping with masks

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As the start of another school year approaches, American families are preparing for a much different experience than years past, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. With millions of children getting ready to return, or perhaps not return, to the classroom, the usual preparations seem uncertain.

Many districts are still deciding whether they will offer in-person school days, online learning, or a hybrid solution. As a result, it’s difficult to know what back-to-school preparations should even entail for your kids. Do you buy backpacks and contact paper? Or should you create an in-home workspace instead?

FinanceBuzz wanted to see how families are approaching back-to-school shopping this year. We polled parents across the country and asked how they’re spending, where they’re doing their shopping, and how this year’s budgeting compares to previous years. Here’s what we found.

Key findings

  • 1 in 3 back-to-school shoppers plan to spend less this year compared to last year.
  • COVID-19 protective gear is in demand: 74% of back-to-school shoppers plan to buy hand sanitizer, and 73% will be purchasing face masks.
  • 16% of shoppers plan to do all of their shopping in stores this year, while 22% plan to shop entirely online. A hybrid is the most popular option — 59% plan to shop both online and in person.
  • Only 16% of back-to-school shoppers plan to shop at locally-owned businesses.
  • Price (76%), product availability (63%), and free shipping (46%) were the biggest factors in choosing where to shop. Only 16% of shoppers said a company's politics play a role in deciding where to shop. A desire to support minority-owned businesses is a factor for 14% of shoppers.

Back-to-school spending will be down in all categories

According to the National Retail Federation, families planned to spend just under $700 last year for back-to-school supplies, a then-record amount. But how does that compare to this year?

Our survey found back-to-school expenses will be the same or less for most parents this year, in every category surveyed. One-third (33%) of parents said they’ll spend less on supplies overall, too, while only 20% said they expect to spend more.

One surprising category where families plan to spend more? Lunch boxes. While only 14% of families plan to increase spending on lunch boxes this year, we didn't expect to see an increase at all. It makes sense, though, since many schools will require children to eat lunch in their classrooms and bring prepackaged food for meals and snacks.

Perhaps not surprisingly, 1 in 3 back-to-school shoppers plan to spend less this year compared to last year.

The decreased spending may reflect the reality that, with many children starting the school year virtually, there isn’t a need for certain high-cost items like new clothes, shoes, and backpacks. Also, many of the usual classroom items — such as dry erase markers, boxes of Kleenex and Ziplocs, etc. — are no longer necessary or requested.

Face masks and hand sanitizer are popular purchases

Of course, many parents are buying new items this year that weren’t even on the radar last year, such as COVID-19 protective gear.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of parents say that they plan to include hand sanitizer on their back-to-school shopping list, and 64% plan to buy disinfecting wipes.

One new supply that no one could have predicted? Face masks. A whopping 73% of parents plan to spend money on facial coverings for their children this back-to-school season.

As parents prepare for at-home learning, you might expect to see a drastic increase in spending on electronics. With virtual learning being mandatory — or even just a strong possibility — for most families, it would stand to reason that parents might need to budget for new laptops and tablets.

Surprisingly, though, only 1 in 3 parents said they plan to spend more in that category this year. In fact, 35% said they anticipate spending less on these items than in 2019, while nearly 36% intend to spend about the same.

With at-home learning comes a need to print out worksheets and assignments. Eighteen percent of parents said they are planning to buy a printer, and 28% will be buying printer ink to prepare for the year.

Where back-to-school shopping will happen this year

With store closures, social distancing regulations, and many parents unwilling to trot from store-to-store gathering supplies, back-to-school shopping may look very different this year.

COVID-19 has also impacted where back-to-school shopping will happen. Most parents (59%) will be back-to-school shopping at both physical stores and online, while 22% intend to shop entirely online. Only 16% of shoppers plan to get all of their kids’ supplies in stores.

Big box stores remain the most popular shopping destination for the upcoming school year, with 75% of parents planning to purchase supplies through stores like Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Walmart.

It probably won’t come as a shock that is the second most popular shopping destination on the list. Sixty-seven percent of parents plan to shop for school supplies at the online mega-store this year.

Price was one of the biggest factors for 76% of parents when choosing where to shop. Product availability was also an important factor for 63% of parents. Free shipping, though convenient, was only a key motivator for 46% of those surveyed.

Fourteen percent of parents said that a desire to support minority-owned businesses would factor into their decision about where to shop, while 16% plan to support small, locally-owned businesses. How a company has treated/is treating its employees during the coronavirus pandemic will influence where 1 in 4 parents buy school supplies, and 16% said that a company’s politics would influence whether they shopped there.

How to save on back-to-school shopping

Back-to-school shopping is never cheap, but with many families already feeling the financial impact of COVID-19, money for supplies might be extra tight this year. Luckily, there are a few ways you can save on those back-to-school supplies, whether your kids will be working from a classroom or the living room.

Use cashback apps when you can

Many cashback apps offer money back for buying the things that are already on your list, so it makes sense to use them whenever you can! For example, if you’re shopping online, consider using a website or browser extension like Rakuten, which rewards you once a quarter with cashback earnings; or Ibotta, where you can even get cash back on household groceries.

Use a rewards credit card

Whether you earn points, miles, or cash back, using a rewards credit card every time you buy school supplies is a no-brainer. It’s even better if you can strategize and buy from specific retailers, like office supply stores, with some of the best cashback credit cards that offer higher rewards in those spending categories.

If you're planning to make a big purchase like a new laptop, the right credit card can also offer you purchase protection in addition to rewards. Here are the best credit cards for Apple purchases.

You can even stack rewards, using both a cashback app and a cashback credit card to increase your savings. Before you fill your shopping cart, research how to earn cash back at Walmart and cash back at Target.

Consider buying in bulk

It doesn’t make sense to buy 200 pencils or a five-pack of markers for your children. However, if you can go in on a bulk purchase with other families, you could all save some money. You may want to divide and conquer, letting each family be in charge of procuring certain supplies, in order to save time. You can even pay your friends with a credit card through an app like Venmo or Zelle, if you’re worried about physical contact.

Only buy what you need

It can be tempting to pick up 10 folders at Walmart when they’re in the bin for only a few cents each, but it’s always wise to buy only what you need. Think about how to manage your money and take a look at what you already have at home. Does your child really need a shiny new 128-count box of crayons when you have a full bin in the playroom? Do you need to buy new scissors when the ones on the desk will work just fine?

Whether your child will be in the classroom or learning from home, limit yourself to their actual school supply list. Shop back-to-school sales and browse online for even better deals. Whether your child will be in the classroom or learning from home, this year is a great chance to minimize the supplies they’re carrying around each day.

Final thoughts

2020 has turned out much different than any of us ever expected, and the upcoming school year is no exception. When it comes to back-to-school shopping this year, though, the good news is that many of us plan to save money and even time when buying supplies for our kids.

Supply lists may not look like they did in 2019 (I’m trying to talk my kids into new house slippers instead of sneakers, for instance), but that doesn’t mean it’s any less exciting to prepare for a new year of learning.


FinanceBuzz surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adults ages 18 or older on July 11, 2020. Only those who plan to do back-to-school shopping were included in these responses.

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Author Details

Stephanie Colestock Stephanie Colestock is a credit card expert, travel rewards aficionado, and writer who enjoys teaching people how to be financially independent and confident about their money choices. If it has to do with credit, credit cards, or traveling the world on points, you'll find Stephanie writing about it. She also enjoys teaching people how to reach financial independence, regardless of obstacles in their path (such as the crippling student loan debt she once held). Stephanie graduated from Baylor University, and is currently working toward her CFP certification. Her work can be seen on sites such as Forbes, Dough Roller, and Johnny Jet, among many others.