Back-to-School Spending To Reach $75.8 Billion

With back-to-school spending on a “stock up” cycle rather than a “make do” cycle, the average family is expected to spend more freely on school and college supplies this year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics. Total spending for K-12 and college is expected to reach $75.8 billion, up from last year’s $68 billion.

“Families are still looking for bargains, but there are signs that they are less worried about the economy than in the past,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “Heading into the second half of the year, we are optimistic that overall economic growth and consumer spending will continue to improve as they did in the first two quarters of the year. We fully expect retailers to be aggressive with offering great deals both in stores and online for back to school shoppers. And retailers will keep a close eye on inventory levels as families spread out their shopping throughout the summer.”

K-12 Spending

Families with children in grades K-12 plan to spend an average $673.57 on apparel and accessories, electronics, shoes and school supplies, up from last year’s $630.36 for a total of $27.3 billion, according to the survey. That’s an increase of 9.6 percent from last year’s $24.9 billion and compares with a total growth of 54.8 percent over the past 10 years.

The numbers follow a pattern in which spending often increases one year as families stock up on supplies only to drop off the next as they get a second year out of longer-lasting items like backpacks or computers. Spending then increases in the third year once children outgrow clothing or items need to be replaced.

According to the survey, K-12 consumers plan to spend $9.54 billion on clothing (purchased by 95 percent), $8.27 billion on electronics such as computers or calculators (57 percent), $5.12 billion on shoes (94 percent) and $4.37 billion on school supplies such as notebooks, folders, pencils, backpacks and lunchboxes (96 percent). Parents say they will spend an average $235.39 on clothing, $204.06 on electronics, $126.35 on shoes and $107.76 on school supplies.

Consumer confidence in the economy continues to grow and is a significant factor in how families will spend for back-to-school this year. A few more families are shopping for sales (43 percent, up from 41 percent) or comparing prices online (32 percent, up from 31 percent). But the number who saying they are spending less overall is down at 23 percent compared with 27 percent last year. And the number who say the economy will have no effect on their plans is at 27 percent, up from 24 percent last year and the highest level in the survey’s history.

“The budget-conscious consumer is not forgetting about price, quality or value, and we continue to see this when it comes to back-to-school shopping,” Prosper Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow said. “That is why many parents are taking advantage of shopping early, scouring ads and websites for the best deals, and taking advantage of free shipping with online purchases.”

More families are tackling back-to-school lists earlier this year with 73 percent beginning about a month to two months out from the beginning of school, up from 62 percent last year. Only 22 percent are waiting for the last week or two, down from 30 percent. A total of 75 percent of those shopping early say they are trying to spread out their budgets, 63 percent of early shoppers don’t want to miss out on back-to-school sales and 51 percent want to avoid crowds.

While discount stores continue to be the choice of the largest share of shoppers at 61 percent, the number is at its lowest level in the survey’s history. But 46 percent of parents said they would shop online, a dramatic jump from last year’s 36 percent. The vast majority of online shoppers plan to take advantage of free shipping (89 percent of those surveyed) and conveniences like buy online, pick up in store (54 percent).

Bigger Kids, Bigger Bills

College students and families with children in college plan to spend an average of $888.71, according to the survey. That’s down slightly from $899.18 last year, but total spending is expected to be up at $48.5 billion compared with $43.1 billion last year due to an increase of consumers shopping for back-to-college.

“Whether it’s laptops for class or mini-fridges for the dorm, college simply costs more than the lower grades,” Shay said. “Some of these big-ticket items can last all four years, but when they need to be replaced it’s a bigger investment than pencils and lunchboxes. But retailers are ready to help students and parents alike stretch their dollars and make the investment in college pay off.”

The survey found college consumers plan to spend $11.54 billion on electronics (purchased by 50 percent), $7.49 billion on clothing (70 percent), $6.23 billion on dorm furnishings (43 percent), $5.78 billion on food items (69 percent), $4.26 billion on personal care items (72 percent), $3.84 billion on shoes (67 percent), $3.53 billion on school supplies (81 percent), $3.14 billion on gift cards (36 percent) and $2.7 billion on branded collegiate gear (49 percent). Spending on electronics will average $211.33, apparel and accessories $137.29, dorm furnishings $114.21, food $105.88, personal care items $78.03, shoes $70.39, school supplies $64.64, gift cards $57.54 and branded gear $49.41.

Similar to K-12, 30 percent of college consumers say the economy will not affect their shopping plans, up from 26 percent and the highest level in the survey’s history. Fewer will shop for sales (29 percent, down from 35 percent in 2015), spend less overall (26 percent, down from 30 percent) or buy more generic products (25 percent, down from 28 percent).

A few more college shoppers are starting early this year, with 26 percent starting two months before school compared with 24 percent last year while 25 percent will wait until the last week or two, up slightly from last year’s 24 percent. Of those shopping early, 68 percent say they are trying to spread out their budgets.

Discount stores still account for the largest share of college shopping, visited by 44 percent of consumers, but the number is at its lowest level in the survey’s history. Only 34 percent will visit a college bookstore, also a new low. Online shopping is the choice of 38 percent of shoppers, down from 39 percent last year and a peak of 45 percent two years ago.

The survey of 6,809 consumers asked about both back-to-school and back-to-college plans was conducted June 30-July 6 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.2 percentage points.


  1. Hank, sadly I think it’s some of both but more to the side of wishful thinking. Class sizes are even bigger than 20, try 30+. I can only speak for my school experiences as a parent. It seems the majority of parents in my kid’s classes over the years didn’t buy every item on the list. To my mind, one box of kleenex times 30 kids should make sure every nose got a tissue when needed, but it just hasn’t been my experience.

    I’ve seen maybe half of the list get provided.

    My kid’s school issues teachers a pass code # for the copy machine..once you reach a set # of copies, that’s all there is. There is also no supply closet to go get extra anything.

    Wow. If there are schools out there asking or toilet paper for the bathroom then we are really in trouble!

    That’s a new one to me.

    I think you ask good questions Hank. I don’t have the answer other than many parents can’t or won’t provide all the supplies.

    Maybe it’s the 80/20 rule?

    It’s one thing if parents can’t afford the long supply list; but, for parents who didn’t take the time to buy the supplies, no excuse seems appropriate. Not only is their kid losing out, other parents are picking up the slack and if there aren’t enough…the teacher is going to find a way.

    There was a Bill at the state legislature last session that would have allowed state tax credit funds to go towards buying supplies for use in the classroom…it died. A tax credit bill allowing testing fees for SAT and ACT did pass. It’s too bad the classroom supply credit died. That would touch EVERY grade and every student.

  2. mom, I know what you are saying, my question is on the $$ that the article is talking about. MY kids graduated from tusd schools and I had to provide all their supplies but this was at least 15 years ago. I see many parents at fry’s, walgreens etc buying stuff on sale which is approx 50-100% higher then similar stuff at the discount stores all the time. So who is providing, the thoughtful caring parents or the school teachers?

    Like you my parents had to furnish my supplies, or I borrowed a pencil or paper from a friend for whatever if I ran short, but the school never supplied me with anything. We also bought our books, as did my HS kids in tusd, again nothing provided for free. The school did have a store to purchase from if I had the money to go there but stuff was higher in cost vs getting at the store. Anyhow if the parents are asked to pony up extra in the beginning why do we read about teachers having to provide from their wages? That is a question to be answered. This also includes toilet paper, hand soaps etc that the schools get $$ for but claim they cant provide. Something sinks but no one asks why.

    I guess this is an example of folks taking advantage of things for their own benefit, and yes I understand the laundry list but just think if a class of 20 porovides the list for all there should be plenty for all is that not true or just wishful thinking?

  3. Hank– In the district my kid attended (not TUSD) parents are given school supply lists that include things like 4 Kleenex boxes, 8 glue sticks, 2 highlighters, 2 dry erase markers,3 boxes of pencils, 5 notebooks, 2 packages of cap erasers etc…which are for the whole class to use… there are only a few things that parents put their kid’s name on for personal use: scissors, box of crayons, a binder, and white board.

    You can bet most parents and teachers shop at the Dollar Store and shops the sales. I always run into my kid’s former teachers at the Dollar Store all year long. Being thrifty isn’t a secret we need to share with Teachers–they are thrifty! Many of us also shop after school starts when the supplies go on clearance for things like paper and pencils to stock up for next school year.

    So why do the schools ask for so many things? Even in middle class areas, parents either can’t afford or don’t bother to buy all the supplies on the list. I think it’s over the top a bit that the teacher says the notebooks have to have solid front–not pictures of puppies or kittens, but in the effort to “be the same” it’s easier if all conform to the standard issue.

    I went to private school as a kid so my parents had to buy each item and I was accountable to them if I lost my supplies.

    I have brought up the idea of having the kids accountable for their own things to the school, and while they agree with me, far too many kids would not have what they needed. So the group distribution works best for them.

    Some years, I thought it was over the top what we were asked buy and in other years, the items seemed reasonable.

    Bottom line, if parents are unable or unwilling to purchase the school supplies, I hope we all agree we shouldn’t expect the teacher to pick up the slack.

  4. How can this be true? We always read that it is up to the teachers to provide for the kids, but this article assumes that the parents will be purchasing! Will the 99 cent stores and dollar tree these school items are always cheap, when I went by one school now closed I used to give the teachers about $50 worth of stuff at christmas for the kids to uses. Pencils, paper, crayola stuff, even coloring books for the less developed, and that would be a bunch of stuff. Biggest thing they liked were the pencil erasers, said the kids used to eat them. There are always clothing drives so where is this spending, it obviously is not here in southern AZ? If folks bought supplies at the discount stores then they would not need to pay the higher prices at wally world, walgreens etc. and the kids still would have sufficient supplies.

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