Leave it to a pandemic to upend yet another American tradition: Back-to-school shopping. Oh, its still happening. It just looks different than, say, every mad-dash parent scramble for school supplies over the last century. It comes with a higher price tag and critical shortages too.
With so many students starting this new school year at home, the National Retail Federation (NRF) says spending could top $100 billion. That number breaks all kinds of records as parents and college students ditch the No. 2 pencils and trips to Forever 21 for more pricey supplies like laptops and desks.
On top of it all, theres a laptop shortage, as supply chain issues and trade tariffs on China add to months-long delays in meeting meteoric demand.
The good news? There are always workarounds in this day and age, and weve put the top five together here to help you get what you want and need, at prices you can afford.
1. Buy what you can, as you can.
Back-to-school times usually the second-biggest shopping season after the winter holidays. In years past, many experts advised waiting for the big sales during Labor Day weekend, but not this year.
“I’ve been covering Back to School sales for almost a decade, and I’ve never seen these kinds of shortages, or this kind of demand,” DealNews.com Consumer Analyst Michael Bonebright told me. Bonebright says that could make getting what you need a Black Friday-level challenge, so dont wait. “I have two kids in virtual elementary school right now, so I’m in the same boat as other parents,” he says.
Bonebright also advises casting a wide net, and striking while the irons hot. “You don’t have to buy a laptop on Amazon! Instead, buy a refurbished laptop or Chromebook directly from a manufacturer’s outlet, such as Dell or Lenovo. When you buy a refurbished product directly from a manufacturer, you’re getting a device that’s been thoroughly inspected and repaired, as well as a much better warranty,” he explains.
2. Go for Chrome(books) at home.
If moneys tight, set your sights on a Chromebook versus a laptop. Chromebooks often have all the features most students need, for a fraction of the cost, and there are still top models available.
One of the favorites from my recent reviews includes the 128 gigabyte, 10.1 inch Lenovo Chromebook Duet ($300). Its a handy 2-in-1, thats surprisingly sturdy at this price point, has two cameras – perfect for class Zoom calls – and comes with a detachable keyboard so that kids can use it as a tablet or laptop. The best part though is that as of the time Im writing this – its actually in stock – or available for pickup within a week –and expected to stay that way.
Also, dont be afraid of “open box” or clearance offers, as you can often score deep discounts on models that are still in great condition. Just make sure to check the specs, see if theres a warranty, and make sure theres a good return policy.
3. Get in-stock and exclusive deal alerts
One of the biggest frustrations is finally finding the device you want or need, only to see its out of stock when you try to put it in your virtual cart. Thats why savvy shoppers sign up for in-stock and exclusive deal alerts ahead of time – and make the sales work for them versus the other way around.
At Best Buy, for example, you can sign up for the Student Deals program to get exclusive offers on tons of back-to-school must-haves. “Students looking for any back-to-school tech, like laptops, printers, small appliances and hard drives, can sign up for free and access a number of different, exclusive sales available in stores and online,” says Keegan Shoutz, who works in Communications at Best Buy.
“On the Best Buy app and BestBuy.com, you can also see which products are available at your nearest store (although you wont be able to see the quantity we have in-stock),” Shoutz adds. “If a product is out of stock, you can sign up to get alerted when its in-stock again.”
You can also sign up for alerts from other services like NowInStock, zooLert, and DealNews to track several products at once, including from stores that dont offer alerts on their own.
4. Avoid payment pitfalls
Online shoppers might have noticed a new way to pay recently. Its an option called Affirm, and for many people watching their budgets right now, its become a more palatable sort of buy now, pay later, coronavirus counter to credit cards.
The way it works is pretty straightforward: When youre shopping online, youll see Affirm pop up as a way to pay at more than 6,000 retailers like Walmart, Wayfair, Adidas, and many others. Load up your cart, click Affirm at checkout, add a few bits of info – such as your phone number and annual salary – and get a real‑time decision that doesnt affect your credit score.
Affirm offers three, six, and 12-month payment options, with the interest rate – most often anywhere from 0%-20% – clearly set up front. On its website, Affirm says it doesnt charge late fees or penalties either, that what you see before you finish buying something, is what you get. That lets you decide in right then and there if its do-able within your budget, versus a panic or impulse buy.
“This type of point-of-sale financing is particularly attractive given the unanticipated expenses for consumers and their families right now,” personal finance expert Rich Jones, of the popular website and podcast Paychecks & Balances told me. “It makes it easy for people to get what they need and pay for the items over time.”
But Jones says people shouldnt use it as an invitation to spend money they dont – and wont – have, and warns that most point-of-sale financing isnt as transparent as Affirm. He says people should especially steer clear of retailers offering zero-percent promotions that almost always come with a major caveat. The worst – deferred-interest financing – is like a wolf in a sheeps clothing Jones says. Retailers pair an enticing offer such as, “no interest if paid in full,” or “special financing,” with a clause that allows the deal to turn ugly if you make the slightest mistake. Affirm is adamant that it doesn’t – and won’t ever – do that.
5. Invest in smart upgrades
A smart investment this time of year might be a techy-add-on that solves a common problem. Since most Chromebooks dont have much, if any, storage capacity on the device itself, an easy workaround is to pick up a portable hard drive.
Ive been using the just-released second generation WD My Passport SSD, which starts at $120 for the 500 GB model. Just a little bigger than a credit card, these handy little hard drives can be a perfect digital locker for homework and other school assignments.
“External storage devices including memory cards are great tools for distance learning and can make our lives easier in the everything from home environment,” Brian Pridgeon, Director of Marketing for Consumer Solutions at Western Digital wrote to me in an email. “Its the best solution for many formats of high quality content such as video and multi-media files too.”
What I like most about it as a problem-solving go-to though, is that it helps kids and families share devices with less worry about moving files between different devices, especially when its time to go back to school. Because, that will happen again someday, right?