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 29. 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 $674 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 content is not provided or commissioned by any issuer. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of an issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by an issuer.
Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 in travel when you redeem through the Ultimate Rewards program. Alternatively, you can redeem the bonus points for a $500 statement credit, which might be more helpful for back-to-school shopping, unless going back to school involves travel.
This card charges a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95 each year thereafter. And it doesn’t charge a foreign-transaction fee. For more information, check out our full Chase Sapphire Preferred Card review.
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 doesn’t charge an annual fee, but it does have a 3% balance transfer fee. You will need good credit to get approved for this offer.
People with fair credit should instead consider the QuicksilverOne Card, which offers 1.5% cash back and charges a $39 annual fee.
Great for parents sending kids to faraway schools, Arrival Plus offers a 40,000-mile bonus – redeemable for $400 in travel expenses – in return for spending $3,000 during the first three months your account is open. You’ll also earn the miles-equivalent of 2% cash back on all other purchases and receive a 5% rebate on miles redeemed for travel.
This store card saves you 5% on every purchase made at the superstore, 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 purchases made both in store and online, while also scoring you free shipping on orders over $14.99. It does not charge an annual fee.
This card offers a 25% discount on the first purchase after account approval, with no cap on savings. Customers will also get a separate 15% discount coupon when their card arrives in the mail. Being a Kohl’s cardmember entitles you to at least 12 other special discounts offered throughout the year, as well. There is no annual fee.
If you’re planning to do most of your back-to-school shopping on Amazon.com, Discover it can help you save up to 10%. It gives you 5% cash back on the first $1,500 spent in rotating bonus categories each quarter, which include Amazon through September. And because Discover doubles your total first-year rewards earnings, that adds up to 10% back at the e-commerce giant throughout back-to-school season. Plus, there’s no annual fee.
If you’re looking for a way to save on Amazon purchases throughout the year, you should also make sure to consider the Amazon.com Store Credit Card, which gives Prime members 5% back on all purchases.
Parents Who Own A Small Business
In addition to a $200 bonus for spending $3,000 within 3 months of account opening, you will earn 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each year; 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent at gas stations and restaurants each year; and 1% cash back on all other purchases. There is no annual fee.
Alternatively, for a $95 annual fee, you could get an initial bonus worth at least $600 as well as 5% and 2% earning rates that apply to the first $50,000 spent in applicable purchase categories each year, rather than the first $25,0000, from the Chase Ink Plus Card.
Parents Who Own A Small Business
This card rewards parents who own their own business with a $500 statement credit for spending $4,500 in the first three months, plus a steady 2% cash back on every purchase. It charges a $59 annual fee beginning in the second year.
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, Staples offers 25% off on school supplies if you buy a backpack, and Target offers 15% off on select school and office supplies. Office Depot also announced its back-to-school penny deals on select items that change weekly.
- 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.