School supplies

5 Ways to Budget for the Average Cost of School Supplies

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How to pay for elementary, middle school, high school, and college student expenses without breaking the bank

New parents quickly learn that school costs are sizable and require advanced planning. It’s true that every American citizen is entitled to a “free” public education. But in reality, parents are expected to foot the bill for all sorts of ancillary costs like school supplies, transportation, technology, uniforms, and more.

Things get even pricier when you consider college. There’s a good reason why many parents start saving for college right after their children are born. Even with scholarships and other financial aid, college costs can be downright exorbitant!

But it’s not all bad. In fact, there are several steps you can take to manage the average cost of school supplies for your children. Want to know how? First, let’s break down what you can expect to pay for this year’s school shopping in detail.

Father walking son to elementary school


What’s the average cost of school supplies?

According to a 2020 survey by the National Retail Federation, families with children in elementary through high school spent nearly $800 for their entire household’s yearly school supplies.

This was up by nearly $100 compared to the previous year, as the NRF’s 2019 survey saw most families spend around $700 per household for school supplies. The coronavirus pandemic likely increased costs by requiring students to use expensive electronic devices and software in order to be able to learn from home. Over the last year, most schools transitioned entirely to remote learning.

An additional survey by Deloitte for the 2020 school year found that most parents expected to spend over $500 per student per year. Since educational costs fluctuate from year to year, the average cost of school supplies for 2021 is likely to be between $500 and $800 per student, depending on factors like:

Elementary school

Elementary school costs are usually more straightforward than the costs for higher school levels. After all, elementary school students don’t need car insurance or a new and expensive textbook for each class! A typical school supply list for children in elementary school usually includes:

Middle school

As a distinct part of the school path for most students, middle school expenses are a little higher than those for elementary school students, though not quite as costly as high school in most cases. Common supplies for middle schoolers include:

High school

The costs for high school supplies are, on average, more expensive than they are for elementary or middle school supplies. Parents should be ready to incorporate additional costs into their yearly school budgets, including:


College is significantly more expensive than elementary, middle, and high school. According to the NRF, college students and families in the 2020 school year spent over $1,000 per family, not accounting for college tuition and fees or room and board costs. These extra college-related expenses were for things like:

As you can see, school expenses gradually increase as your children get older and progress from elementary school to high school and eventually into college. It’s no wonder many parents worry how they’ll pay for their children to attend college if they don’t start saving early!

Budgeting for school supplies

How should students help pay for school expenses?

While there’s no doubt that school expenses can be quite a drain on the family budget, there are ways to both minimize these costs and help students and parents pay for monthly expenses through a few financial hacks. Let’s take a look at five of the best budget-saving tips for school expenses:

1. Buy refurbished electronics

The increased reliance on electronics in school systems has affected everyone from elementary school to college. But students don’t necessarily need cutting-edge laptops to get their homework done on time.

Parents looking to save money and pay for school expenses without taking out personal loans can instead buy refurbished electronics from many retailers. Refurbished electronics are more affordable, typically well-maintained, and often come with warranties that offer free technical support from their retailers.

2. Use free resources

Students can and should take advantage of the variety of free resources available to them throughout the country. For example, online academies and educational institutions offer free classes to teach students new languages, coding courses, and more.

Of course, there are also local libraries that often offer additional studying materials and books (which can be a lifesaver for college students who don’t want to buy a new, expensive edition of another textbook). Local libraries may offer students tutoring and help with their homework, which can be important for students whose parents have to work late or have other responsibilities.

3. Use financial aid resources

College students must submit a FAFSA form to get any kind of student aid. But why stop there?

There’s a host of financial aid resources that prospective and current college students should investigate to pay for their college and living costs. For example, students can apply for:

4. Take a part-time job

Lastly, enterprising high school students and college attendees might consider taking part-time jobs during the summer or when they aren’t in class to help pay for school-associated costs. Part-time jobs won’t provide enough income for full independence in most cases, but they can help families cover expenses like books, meals, gas, clothing, and gadgets.

The average costs of school supplies are unlikely to become significantly lower anytime soon. But with the above strategies and some early planning, you and your family can budget for the average cost of education no matter where your children go to school or how many years they have left before they get their degrees.

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References accessed on July 10th, 2021:

National Retail Federation – Back to School 2020

Deloitte – Back to School 2020 Survey

National Retail Federation – Coronavirus Could Push Back-to-School Spending to Record Levels as Uncertain Families Gear Up for At-Home Learning

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