5 ways to get more rewards out of back-to-school shopping (updated for 2017)

Whether you’re staring down your elementary school student’s very specific, itemized school shopping list or outfitting your new college freshman’s dorm, back-to-school shopping can dent your family’s finances.

If you’re strategic, though, the cards in your wallet can help you earn cash back or points toward future travel. Give these five tactics a try.

1. Let your cards help you decide where to shop

None of the cards in your wallet will have “Back to School” as an official category. But some may reward bonus points at places that sell school supplies.

  • Store cards: Target’s REDcard gives 5 percent off on all purchases, including supplies from the retail giant’s robust back-to-school section. Don’t forget – store cards don’t have to be brick-and-mortar: The Amazon.com Rewards Visa card from Chase gives 3 percent back at Amazon.com, where you’ll probably find some items from your child’s supply list.
  • Warehouse club cards: Warehouse stores have back-to-school supplies — and also have co-branded rewards cards that let you earn extra cash back when you shop at their stores (Read: Which credit cards to use at warehouse clubs). The BankAmericard Cash Rewards card includes warehouse clubs in its 2 percent cash-back bonus category.
  • Straight-up cash-back cards: If maximizing categories is too much for you during this busy time of year, find a card that offers an elevated cash-back return on anything. These days, there are plenty of cards offering 1.5 percent back on all purchases.

  • Cards with grocery store rewards: Several cards offer bonus cash back at grocery stores, and you may have noticed that your local supermarket has a back-to-school aisle. If you use, for example, the Blue Cash Preferred card from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner), you could get 6 percent cash back on all those markers, pencils and folders if you purchase them from eligible U.S. supermarkets.

  • Cards with office supply store rewards: Have a business rewards credit card? Some of them offer extra rewards at office supply stores – which often sell school supplies. The Chase Ink Business Cash card includes U.S. office supply stores as a bonus category, as does the SimplyCash Plus Business card from American Express.

2. Use your program’s shopping portal or offers program

Shopping online for school supplies and clothing not only saves you the headache of rifling through bins and racks while other harried shoppers close in – it allows you to harness one of the most powerful bonus-earning opportunities reward programs offer: Online shopping portals and card-linked deals programs.

Many cards and reward programs (such as frequent-flier programs) partner with retailers. If you sign in to your rewards program, click through to said retailers and buy something online, you can get an impressive number of points per dollar or a higher-than-usual influx of cash back.

“I definitely think that using miles and hotel point-shopping portals is worth it, and many of them are running specials for back to school,” Dan Miller, father of six, who helps families use travel rewards via his website Points with a Crew.

Here are a few limited-time-only (and soon-to-expire) examples from various travel shopping portals:

  • Through Aug. 3, 2017, Delta is offering 500 bonus miles when you spend $150 through its portal and 1,000 bonus miles when you spend $350. it also offers various amounts of bonus miles if you click through its shopping portal to buy with Dell, Kohl’s and more.
  • Through Aug. 18, 2017, United is offering 500 bonus miles when you spend $150 through its portal, 1,500 miles when you spend $350 and 3,000 miles when you spend $600.
  • Through Aug. 18, 2017, American Airlines is offering 500 bonus miles when you spend $150 through its portal, 1,000 miles when you spend $300 and 2,000 bonus miles when you spend $500.
  • Through Aug. 18, 2017, Southwest is giving 250 bonus points when you spend $125 through the portal, 900 bonus points when you spend $300 and 2,000 bonus points when you spend $550.

All these programs also partner with electronic stores, in addition to merchants that sell clothing and supplies – which could make these promotions lucrative if you’re buying your child a laptop or tablet for school.

“I think those kinds of deals are great for bigger-ticket items since many of those bonus deals require over $1,000 to be spent through the portal to get the bonus,” Miller says.

For those who prefer cash back and discounts to the nebulous world of miles, Discover Deals, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Barclaycard Rewards Boost and Amex Offers have plenty of partners for electronics, clothing and more.

For example, Discover Deals is offering 5 percent cash back at Walmart online, 5 percent cash back at Macy’s online and 5 percent cash back with Apple online. Barclaycard Rewards Boost is offering 3X rewards with Dell, 2X with HP and 2X with Staples.

3. Use the gift-card work-around

Maybe your card gives excellent rewards for supermarket purchases, but the office supply store has a bigger variety of school supplies and better prices. A possible solution: Use your Blue Cash Preferred card to buy a Staples or Office Depot gift card (and get 6 percent cash back) and then use that gift card to buy school supplies.

4. Double dip if you can

Consider this technique a hybrid of steps 2 and 3. Use your program’s portal to buy a gift card, collecting however many points that gift card’s retailer is offering. Then go back into the portal, click through to that same merchant and use the gift card to make the purchase and collect points for the purchase.

This works only for airline rewards portals (as they don’t require you to use their affiliated credit card for the purchase) – and sometimes not even then. For example, check out the fine print for Macy’s purchases within American Airline’s portal:

AA online portal macys no gift cards

However, there are plenty of success stories online; Miller has one of his own. We also outline several other double-dipping strategies.

5. Don’t let rewards override good purchase decisions

If your back-to-school shopping naturally folds into your rewards strategy, by all means rack up points and cash back. But if you’re chasing rewards and ignoring how much you’re spending, you’re spinning your wheels. So don’t buy something at higher cost because it earns more miles – and don’t use rewards to justify filling your cart with stuff you don’t need.

“One of my favorite sayings is that buying something you don’t need at 75 percent off is a waste of 25 percent of your money,” Miller says.

Updated July 2017

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