Back-to-school spending to reach record levels as students return to schools in 2021 as they prepare for a return to in-person learning, according to the annual survey released July 19 by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics.

“The pandemic forced parents and their school-aged children to quickly adapt to virtual learning, and they did it with an incredible amount of resolve and flexibility,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in the survey. “We enter the new school year with plans to return to the classroom, and retailers are prepared to help Americans find and purchase whatever they need to make this transition as seamless as possible.”

Parents with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $849, topping the previous record by $59, according to the NRF. Total back-to-school spending is expected to reach a record $37.1 billion, up from $33.9 billion last year and an all-time high in the survey’s 18-year history. Total back-to-college spending is expected to reach a record $71 billion, up from $67.7 billion in 2020.

Additionally, 43% of all back-to-class shoppers say they plan to use money they received from government stimulus to purchase items for the upcoming school year.

Other statistics from the survey:

  • After a year of casual dress during learning from home, students and parents are ready to welcome new first day of school outfits. Half (49%) of parents with school-age children say their kids are most excited to shop for apparel this year, up from 42% last year.
  • Clothes and accessories top the list of items parents say their kids are most excited to shop for.

Families can stretch their dollar by shopping thrift. By doing so, families also are helping their community by providing job-skills training to people with disabilities and other barriers to employment.

Here are our budget-friendly tips on back-to-school spending:

  • Donated items with the color tag of the week are 50% off the ticketed price. Shop clearance racks for extra savings.
  • Go often. Frequency and quick decision-making can pay off. Goodwill and other thrift stores are in the business of donations, and what is donated is one of a kind. That means if you see something you like, buy it. You might never see anything like it again. Plus, if you go often you’ll have a better chance of scoring some of those amazing finds.
  • Jeans are a back-to-school staple, and children’s jeans at Goodwill start at $4.99. Adult jeans start at $6.99.

Don’t forget to go beyond apparel. Check the racks for belts, purses, backpacks, dorm-room totes, shoes, desk décor, blankets and more.

What to look for

Here are our tips for shopping thrift for back to school:

  • Shop new with tags. Just because they are at a secondhand shop doesn’t mean they have been worn or used before.
  • If you have a child who goes to day care, shop thrift for items they can leave there rather than taking back and forth between home and day care, like changes of clothing, winter outerwear and blankets. The same is true for elementary-school kids who need art smocks (think oversized tees) and go outside for recess and need snow pants and boots.
  • Children grow so quickly year to year that sometimes they don’t have a chance to wear out their clothing before they have outgrown it. Winter coats can fall into that category. You will find some great-quality coats for a fraction of the cost.
  • Never pass up looking at the purses and bags sections. Find inexpensive laptop bags, backpacks and totes for all uses — to hold library books, craft supplies, toys for kids in the car, workout necessities for after school, clothes for sports practices and much more.
  • Have a teen girl? Shop the men’s section. Find this fall’s hottest trends, including oversized polos, massive hoodies, vintage button-ups and retro prints all in men’s.
  • Some clothing items are needed every year come fall. Sweatshirts and athletic apparel are two costly ones that top that list. Find new-to-you and budget-friendly options in name brands like The North Face, Adidas, Nike, Under Armour and more.