"Things that are under $5 … that's what we've been shopping for," said one mother doing back-to-school shopping.
"We filled up the cart and my mom left me alone and I went through and picked out what I could do without," her daughter, Asia, said.
According to a recent survey, 73 percent of parents say they'll be shopping at discount stores for everything from pencils and paper to clothing and electronics.
And many of the big discount chains like Target are ready with massive bargains. A five-pack of notebooks for 50 cents, a pack of crayons for 17 cents.
Experts call it "desperation discounting," part of a larger strategy.
"If a shopper buys the items that the retailer is selling at a loss than the shopper will hopefully then spend another $30 to $40 in the store on things that they make money on," said retail consultant Burt Flickinger III.
In addition to the store sales, nine states and Washington, D.C., offer sales-tax holiday shopping weekends, when parents can load up on school supplies and save on taxes.
But despite the discounts and tax breaks, there are many families who can't afford the basics this school season.
"Parents are really struggling," said Phyllis Freeman of Worldvision, which offers free backpacks stuffed with supplies to needy familieis. This year, there are more than 20,000 on the waiting list.
"School supplies may be, for many, a luxury as opposed to something that a few years ago was something that was very ordinary," she said.
And those are hard lessons to learn.