Table of Contents
The 2023 back-to-school list is packed with higher prices — clothes for boys and girls, haircuts, pens, preschool tuition, college tuition and more — thanks to inflation and ongoing strategies to bolster corporate profits.
Prices of school supplies increased a shocking 23.7% in the past two years, according to the latest Deloitte Back-to-School survey, making it even more essential for many back-to-school shoppers to find bargains.
So maybe with all the dire buzz about high prices burdening households, you might not expect Target to be selling back-to-school chandeliers to decorate the inside of school lockers. Or find shoppers buying them.
You’d be wrong.
Clarey Collins has been steadily shopping to cover back-to-school items for her 12-year-old daughter Lila, who is heading to the seventh grade at Shrine Catholic Academy in Royal Oak.
“I definitely thought I was going to spend less than what I did. I thought we would be around $100 with this supply list that they provided,” Collins said.
“But we spent $175.”
Obviously, she said, inflation contributed to some of those higher costs. She quickly admits, though, that she and her daughter personalized the back-to-school shopping list a bit, too, with some extras.
“We probably went above and beyond,” Collins said.
A cool, gold chandelier, priced at $14.99 at Target, for Lila’s locker. A little white rug for the locker priced around $7. And then there were the locker magnets and more.
All together, the Royal Oak mother estimates, they’ll spend about $600 or so — including school uniforms, new school shoes, and another $25 or so on things like boxes of tissues, paper and cleaning wipes to contribute to the school’s own list of requested items.
“There’s always extras,” Collins said.
Inflation, sure. But a girl’s got to have fun, too. Whoever said back-to-school shopping had to be boring? For every economist dwelling on forecasting the next uptick in the consumer price index, there’s a middle schooler somewhere who could use a little glitter and glam.
Make no mistake, higher prices and the strain on family budgets remain an ongoing worry for many — and retailers recognize that, too.
Walmart announced that it is keeping a basket of 14 of the most popular items on many school supply lists at last year’s price. Those items will add up to $12.94, the same price as last year. Items include a 24-count box of Crayola crayons at 50 cents, Expo Markers at $4.88, pocket folders at 15 cents and several small items priced under $1.
Walmart is advertising backpacks that start at $6, too. Yet, not everyone is spending as little as possible, as the website had plenty of backpacks priced at $15 to $30 in mid-August.
High prices drive back-to-school shoppers to reevaluate the list
Back-to-school is typically the second biggest spending event each year for parents, behind the holidays, according to the Deloitte Back-to-School survey.
After going through 18 months of inflation, the survey noted, many parents have essentially had it and are reevaluating what they need to buy and what they don’t. Deloitte’s 2023 survey carries the subtitle: “Season of economizing.”
How successful parents might be at controlling back-to-class spending could be another story. Some aren’t heading for an A+ in cost cutting.
Retail forecasts expect that families could end up spending nearly $1,000 on their back-to-school shopping.
Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of about $890 on back-to-school items this year, roughly $25 more than last year’s record of about $864, according to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. The survey has been conducted since 2003.
Back in 2009, the expected average back-to-school spending per household was just $549.
What’s driving up back-to-school costs so dramatically? It’s not necessarily souped-up lunch boxes, locker accessories or designer dorm rooms. Instead, much of the extra spending is being triggered by more demand for laptops, computer tablets, calculators, smartphones and electronics over the years. Spending on electronics is expected to reach a record $15.2 billion, according to the survey.
Back-to-school spending overall is expected to reach a record $41.5 billion, up from $36.9 billion last year and the previous high of $37.1 billion in 2021, according to the survey.
Back-to-college spending is expected to hit $94 billion, about $20 billion more than last year’s record, according to the survey.
College students and their families are expected to spend an average of nearly $1,367 per person, breaking the previous record of about $1,200 per person set in 2021.
How inflation is hitting back-to-school lists
Year over year, inflation rose 3.2% in July, according to the Labor Department. But key back-to-school-related categories showed some higher price spikes.
Apparel was up 3.2% year over year in July, according to the Labor Department, but boys apparel was up 3.4% and girls apparel showed a 7.2% increase.
Music instruments and accessories were up 9.7% year over year in July, according to the Labor Department. Haircuts and personal care services were up 5.3%.
Going to another data source, pens cost an average of $4.05 a packet, up 5.7% from a year ago, according to data from the market analytics firm NIQ. Highlighters averaged $3 but were down 2.8%.
Overall, college tuition and fees were up 2%; elementary and high school tuition and fees for private schools were up 5%; and day care and preschool were up 6% in July, based on year-over-year Labor Department data.
The consumer price index for technical and business school tuition and fees jumped 2.3% over the last year through July, according to Labor Department data.
Lunches won’t necessarily be less expensive either: Cereals and bakery products were up 7% year over year in July; lunch meats were up 4%, and fruit and vegetables were up 2.9%, according to Labor Department data.
Lunch boxes, according to another data source, cost more money this year, going up 3.8% from a year ago, according to the market analytics firm NIQ. The data looked at the four weeks ending July 29, compared with the same time a year ago. Lunch box prices averaged $13.23 this year during July.
It is not hard, believe it or not, to spot a $20 lunch box for a child. Some cost even more than that. One pink glittery lunchbox — which also came in purple and turquoise — was priced at $21.99 on sale online at Target in mid-August, down from a regular price of $27.99.
Shoppers tired of high prices overall
When parents are buying so many items, every little price break counts, so does every coupon and every discount.
Some parents say they will pull back spending on clothes and tech. “Prolonged inflation has led to a worse financial situation for 31% of parents over the past year,” the Deloitte survey noted.
Tish Terry, a metro Detroit mother, does what she can to save money — shopping at dollar stores, signing up for emails at stores to get access to coupons, keeping an eye on clearance sections.
“I use the app for every store,” Terry said, noting a store’s app is often a way to get a break on prices.
Terry, who works as a home health care aide, was thankful she found a pair of jeans on clearance at Target for $4 for her 5-year-old Zuri who will be going to kindergarten in Roseville this year. Many times, she’s seeing children’s jeans priced around $15 to $20 — making jeans one item that she said seems exceptionally expensive this year.
With three children going to school this year, Terry guesses that she could spend around $2,000 to get them ready.
“Shoes, clothes, socks, T-shirts, underwear, supplies, coats, hats, backpacks,” she said.
It all adds up.
Her budget, Terry said, is worn down by higher prices — and high credit card debt that built up during the pandemic.
“It’s been bad since COVID,” said Terry, who was self-employed doing hair when the pandemic hit. She said her financial situation never bounced back.
She keeps coming up with new ways to make more money, including doing event planning and parties as a side hustle.
“You’ve got to hustle a little harder to make the money,” Terry said.
Where are some back-to-school price cuts?
Amazingly, prices for some back-to-school items have been trending down, if you take a close look at the numbers reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on Aug. 10. But it’s not enough of a break for many shoppers to stop fretting about all the extra costs they’re facing in the fall.
Key categories, based Labor Department data, showed price declines in some categories, including:
Computers and smart home assistants: Down 4.9% in year over year terms in July.
College textbooks: Down 3.6%.
Educational books and supplies: Down 3% year over year in July.
Boys and girls footwear: Down 1.3% year over year in July.
Sporting goods: Down 0.5%.
Toys: Down 2.9% year over year in July. (Yes, toys aren’t an official back-to-school item but many a shopping cart turns down the toy aisle in July and August.)
How can shoppers save money?
Wait a while: Sure, plenty of things need to be bought to get ready for the start of school. But as any teacher can tell you, it can be a very long school year. One parent’s trick: Load up the cart on extra school supplies when some stores put them on clearance as they’re opening up even more shelf space for Halloween.
Shop the closet: Before going online to look for deals or driving to the store, take a close look at last year’s leftover school clothes and supplies. One shopper cobbled together what she had on hand first and then went shopping for what was still missing from this year’s supply list. Have a clear idea of what you really need and how much you want to spend.
Keep an eye out for deals: Do some comparison shopping online to know what’s a good price now. Supermarkets, drugstores and dollar stores can offer decent discounts on some school supplies. Know both the online and in-store price. Make sure you use store apps to take advantage of some sales offered only through the store app.
Be flexible when you can: Some back-to-school lists are hyper-specific but if you’re able, try to pick the lower-priced items instead of insisting on buying a specific size or brand.
Check out student discounts: College students who spend big bucks can easily find a long list of discounts from everyone from Apple to Target to Walmart. Discounts might be especially helpful if you’re shopping for a computer or other expensive items.
Apple’s back-to-school offer runs through Oct. 2, which includes a gift card of up to $150 with purchase of an eligible new Mac or iPad, as well a 20% discount on AppleCare+, and other promotions. Apple offers year-round education pricing at its Apple Education Store online or Apple Stores where college students, their parents and teachers of all grade levels can get special pricing.
Parents may also want to comparison shop at a college tech store, if one is available and you qualify.
Amazon is running a special through Aug. 26 that offers up to 50% “college tech must-haves” and up to 30% off lunch essentials. Amazon also has a move-in hub for college students.
Target is offering 20% off for a one-time purchase for college students who have the Target Circle good only through Aug. 26. You’d have to verify your student status by “uploading a student ID, class schedule or tuition receipt.” A list of specific items are excluded, such as Sony Electronics, PlayStation consoles and accessories, and alcohol. You’d apply the 20% off on one qualifying storewide purchase, not just a single item. The discount can be stacked on other deals.
Walmart and Amazon also offer discounted monthly prices on memberships for college students. The Walmart offer ends Sept. 7.
Apps, like Student Beans and others, offer deals and discounts to college students on a variety of popular brands, such as Domino’s Pizza, H&M, Ulta Beauty, Best Buy, and Nike.
Find extra cash: Are there unused gift cards sitting in a cabinet that could be used to cover sneakers or new jeans? Can some birthday money be put toward bigger expenses, such as a cellphone?
Avoid credit card debt: Interest rates on credit cards have skyrocketed since early 2022. The average rate on credit cards has soared to 20.6%, up from 16.28% back in February 2022, before the first Federal Reserve rate hike hit, according to data from Bankrate.com. Rates on retail store-branded credit cards can be higher than 30%.
Just don’t buy it: Draw a line on how much you’re willing to spend to outfit a dorm room. Why do you need a $12 pink neon butterfly? Or a $30 egg cooker? It’s surprising how much money you can save by avoiding decorating lockers, too. I know, I know. It’s not a bad idea to budget a little for back-to-school fun, too.