Perhaps the biggest reason to get a head-start on back-to-school shopping is that a number of states begin their so-called sales tax holidays as early as July 31. These short periods of opportunity enable you to save up to 7% in popular back-to-school categories, since state sales taxes will not apply.
The savings don't stop there. It’s become a common practice for credit card companies to offer people with above-average credit hundreds of dollars (not exaggerating!) in initial rewards bonuses just for signing up and spending a specified amount during the first few months their accounts are open. Other cards offer significant discounts at specific stores or as much as 2% cash back across all purchases. And with the average household expected to spend roughly $630 on school supplies this year, according to the National Retail Federation, getting paid to open a credit card will certainly come in handy.
But which card to choose? CardHub compared more than 1,000 credit card offers (some of which originate from advertising partners) in order to answer that very question. What resulted is the following list of the best credit cards for back-to-school shopping, which, perhaps surprisingly, includes a number of small business offers since they are particularly adept at saving entrepreneurial parents money on office (aka school) supplies.
This card offers 40,000 bonus points — redeemable for $400 in cash (or $500 in travel expenses booked through the ThankYou Travel Center) — in return for spending $3,000 during the first three months. It does not charge an annual fee during the first year ($95 thereafter).
This card offers 1% cash back on all purchases, 1% cash back on the amount of your monthly bill payments, and a 0% intro rate on new balance transfers for the first 18 months. It does not charge an annual fee. However, you will need excellent credit to get approved for this offer.
If you have good credit, you may want to look into the Capital One Quicksilver Card, which offers 1.5% cash back across all purchases, a $100 initial bonus for spending at least $500 during the first three months, and 0% financing for the first 15 months. Like the Citi Double Cash, it does not charge an annual fee.
Last but not least, people with fair credit should instead consider the QuicksilverOne Card, which too offers 1.5% cash back but does not have an initial bonus and charges a $39 annual fee.
All-Around (Store Card)
This store card saves you 5% on every purchase made at the superstore, in addition to offers free shipping for online purchases and extends your window for returns by 30 days. Plus, there’s no annual fee.
Like the Target REDcard, this store card saves you 5% on in-store and online purchases in addition to scoring you free shipping. It does not charge an annual fee.
All-Around (Business Owners)
This card rewards small business owners with a $500 statement credit after they spend $4,500 in the first three months and on-going 2% cash back on every purchase. It charges a $59 annual fee beginning in the second year.
This card rewards small business owners who spend at least $5,000 during the first six months their accounts are open with a $250 statement credit. Cardholders also get 5% cash back on office supplies and telecommunications services and 3% cash back on a spending category of their choice on up to $50,000 spent in these combined categories, 1% on everything else. It does not charge an annual fee.
You will earn 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year, 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year and 1% cash back on all other card purchases with no limit to the amount you can earn. You'll also earn $200 bonus cash back after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, no annual fee.
For a $95 annual fee, Chase has a second option, which currently offers 60,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, in addition to 5 points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year, 2 points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel each account anniversary year, and 1 point per $1 on all other purchases with no limit to the amount you can earn, this offer has no foreign transaction fee.
Back-to-School Savings Tips
In addition to timing your purchases to coincide with your state’s sales tax holiday and making sure you have the right credit card moving forward, there are a number of steps that you can take to reduce the cost of back-to-school shopping both this year and in the future. Below you can find a breakdown of our editors’ biggest tips. If we’re missing your favorite back-to-school saving strategy, make sure to tell us in the Community Discussion section below.
- Stick to a Budget: It’s hard to avoid overspending if you don’t have a good idea of what you can afford. That’s especially important to note these days, as only 40% of people have a budget and keep close tabs on their spending, according to a survey from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. So, before you head to the store to make your back-to-school buys, create a list of what you need, how much you can afford to spend, and therefore what you can allocate to each item. And remember: sticking to a budget is tough, but sticking to a budget when you have a whining child next to you asking to buy seemingly everything in sight is even tougher. In other words, you may also want to consider leaving your kids at home for this trip.
- Time Your Purchases: Taking advantage of state sales tax holidays can save you up to 7% on school-related purchases. Timing your shopping to coincide with retailer-specific back-to-school sales will help you supplement your savings even more. For example, Macy’s offers 20% or 15% off on clothing and shoes for junior guys and kids, and Target offers 20%-25% off on select school and office supplies. Apple also announced its back-to-school promo: a pair of Beats Solo2 On-Ear Headphones — or upgrade to a pair of Beats Solo2 Wireless Headphones for $100 — when you buy an eligible Mac with education pricing.
- Comparison Shop: Every retailer will try to convince you that its prices are the lowest around, but that obviously can’t be the case. As a result, it really pays to comparison shop for the best deals, at least when it comes to items that comprise a significant portion of your budget. You shouldn’t rule out shopping online over fear of shipping charges, either, as more and more retailers are offering free shipping options. You may also receive the added benefit of shopping tax-free without being constrained to a few-day window.
- Avoid Trends: Buying the “latest” goods — from the computers to clothing styles — is a great way to overspend. Saving is the name of the game at back-to-school time, so concentrate on things that were “hot” — last year. Such items will have cheaper starting prices and are more likely to be on sale as well. All you’ll need to do is convince your children that vintage is cool.
- Don’t Go Overboard On Electronics: Kids these days have access to more types of electronics than ever before, and it’s easy for a young person to convince themselves that they need each of these toys. They may even try to convince you that they’ll use the computers, tablets, smart watches, and even video games to learn rather than for games and social media. Your job is to bring some discipline to the back-to-school process, and while some popular electronics do have academic applications, make sure not to acquiesce to every request. Perhaps choose to give your child one of the things they have their eye on, but maybe for their birthday or the holidays, rather than giving them instant gratification.
- Make One Trip: Buying everything you need for the new school year in one fell swoop will help reduce the stress and time involved in the process. Doing so will also help you take full advantage of sales tax holidays as well as the one-time discounts that many store cards offer. Keep in mind that we mean you should make only one trip to a physical store. Shopping online is more accessible and can be used to supplement anything you may forget.
- Buy In Bulk: Piggybacking on the importance of grouping your transactions, make sure to expand your timeline beyond the first few months of the year. What supplies will your child need throughout the entire school year? Buying larger quantities of pens, pencils, notebooks, etc., will likely enable you to get a better deal relative to purchasing some now and the rest later, when back-to-school sales are no longer in effect.
- Save For College: Why not use back-to-school season as an annual reminder to contribute money to your child’s college fund and evaluate your saving progress? After all, it’s the best gift you could give your child, both educationally and economically speaking. For a complete breakdown of the best ways to save for college, check out our Guide to College Savings Funds.
- Use the Right Credit Card: It should be clear by now just how much you can save — both on back-to-school shopping and on an ongoing basis — by simply using a well-targeted credit card or two. This is especially true these days, with the best rewards card offering a $500 initial bonus, the best 0% credit card waiving interest on new purchases for 21 months, and people with existing debt able to get a free balance transfer deal.
So, whether the right card is already in your wallet or you wish to apply for a new offer, you have plenty of time to set up your plastic for maximum savings on back-to-school shopping.