Frugal back-to-school shopping

According to the National Retail Federation, we'll spend $68.8 billion outfitting our students for school this year. Yes, I said $68.8 billion. Sounds like a lot of money, right?

More than 80% of the nearly 8,700 people surveyed say that the still-crappy economy has affected the way they'll shop for school supplies. For example:

  • 30.7% will comparison-shop online
  • 38% will buy store-brand or generic products
  • 44.6% will spend less overall

Good ideas all, but I'd add another tactic: Start early.

School Supplies Pencils Erasers August 07, 20103Ideally, you've already begun. No? Then start looking now if you really want to save money. Don't wait until two days before Labor Day and then go the one-stop-shopping route. The OSS retailers get you through the doors with a few loss-leader prices and make their money back on everything else.

The NRF notes that families with kids in elementary and secondary school spend an average of $603, and parents of college students fork over about $808. This includes clothing and electronics as well as notebook paper.

Can't afford to spend that much? Don't want to spend that much? Start by asking yourself…

What Do We REALLY Need?

Don't buy stuff you've already got. This sounds elementary, as it were, but apparently it isn't. Each year my sister and I buy school supplies to donate to a social services agency. And each year I see parents buying things like backpacks, lunchboxes and three-ring binders for the glum children they've towed into the store. I wonder whether the previous year's backpack, lunchbox and binder…

  • Wore out
  • Spontaneously combusted
  • Were lost in a poker game

Maybe. But it's also possible that some parents buy new because, well, it's a new year. To which I say: Are you out of your mind? Why are you instilling the relentless need for new Stuff when the old Stuff might work just as well?

Have your kid to go through dresser, closet and desk. Send her spelunking under the bed for stray markers. Make a pile of crayons, spiral-bound notebooks and other stray educational tools. Inspect the three-ring binder for cracks. Test the backpack straps and make sure the zippers still work.

Congratulations. You now have less to buy. But maybe not much less. That's because…

Your School's “Must Have” List is Longer Than My Leg

A kid might have to bring everything from dry-erase markers to a personal box of tissues. Just for gits and shiggles I checked one of these lists.

Elementary-aged kids need, at minimum: a backpack, gym shoes, tissues, lunch bag, pencils, crayons, white glue, markers, erasers, scissors, pocket folders, binder, notebook paper, dividers, composition book, colored pens and a ruler.

What, no particle accelerator?

Crayola Lincoln Logs
Warning! The following statement makes me sound really old.

In my day, we brought a three-ring binder, notebook paper and pencils. If we couldn't afford paper pr pencils the school provided them. Crayons and scissors were doled out as needed for projects. Only the teacher had markers. Dinosaurs picked us up and delivered us back home.

Times have changed, so watch the office-supply stores (Staples, Office Depot, Office Max) for impossibly cheap school-supply sales. This morning I saw packages of pencils and index cards for one cent each. Buy the maximum amount allowed and you may get enough to last most (or all) of the school year.

Hit those sales as early as possible each week, because other parents have the same idea. Loss leaders may be sold within hours of the opening bell. If the ad doesn't specifically prohibit rain checks, ask for one.

Note: Your third-grader may plead for a new lunch kit on the grounds that the other kids will laugh when he takes his PBJ out of a “Batman” lunchbox. He might be right. In our increasingly media-driven universe, it's mortifying to eat from a pail emblazoned with the wrong superhero.

Or he might just be playing you for a sucker. (It happens.)

You might not mind buying a new lunchbox every time the fads change. But maybe you're wondering how you're going to pay for everything on that list and still keep the lights on. Or maybe you have an aversion to replacing items that are still perfectly usable. If so, then float a compromise: If you give in on the lunchbox, he's not getting a new backpack. (Nor should he, if the old one is in good shape.) Get one of those insulated lunch kits, which tend to be more generic in appearance, rather than a box with a cartoon character on it.

Tip: Put a note on your June 2012 calendar to inventory what your kid lost or “forgot” to bring home, then visit the school's lost-and-found. The L&F box at my daughter's elementary school looked like a department store. How in the heck don't parents notice that their kids' lunch boxes, backpacks, notebooks or winter coats (!) didn't make it home one day?

If money is really tight (hi there, all you downsized parents!), try these frugal hacks:

  • Look around your house for pencils and pens. Hint: The only place they aren't is…right by the phone.
  • Whenever you're in a place that gives away writing implements, take one and say thank you. If your fourth-grader is embarrassed to be seen with a credit-union pen, keep them around for doing homework and save the Bics and Dixon Ticonderogas for school.
  • If last year's spiral-bound notebooks were only partly used up, tear out the old pages and start afresh.
  • Don't give pencil sharpeners to kindergarteners or first-graders. They get a little carried away.
  • Hand sanitizer really is required in many schools. Small bottles of the stuff will likely go on sale at drugstores and office-supply emporia. Here's the rule: Junior keeps it in his backpack, not his desk at school, so you can refill as necessary from the jumbo bottle you got at Costco.
  • Start looking now for discounted gift cards to pay for these things as well as for any clothing (more on that below).
  • Truly desperate? Talk to the school nurse or principal about doing a little “shopping” in the lost-and-found. At my daughter's school, unclaimed goods were given to kids whose parents couldn't afford certain items.

New, or New to You?

Who came up with the idea of the back-to-school wardrobe? The people who sell the wardrobes, that's who. Before you re-kit your kid, think about whether it's really necessary.

Understand: I am not advocating that your child go to school in shoes that pinch or jeans that show her ankles. What I am saying is that there's no need to re-do a wardrobe if her clothes still fit and are reasonably presentable.

Just sayin'.

Having just-said it, allow me to suggest some ways to find lower prices on new clothes.

For starters, who says it has to be new? Consignment stores, thrift shops, and garage sales are all potential clothing sources. My niece uses all three sources and pays pennies on the dollar for name-brand clothing.

Clothing swaps are another possibility. Organize them through sports teams, parent groups or your place of worship. Online swap sites like ThredUp might be just the ticket.

Don't forget The Freecycle Network, either — I see kids' clothing on there all the time. Some parents even post pictures.

Remember: Nobody has to know your stuff isn't new unless you choose to tell them. You probably shouldn't, incidentally, since not everyone is frugal and some people are creeped out by the idea of clothes other people have worn. (What, they think no one has ever tried on the clothes they bought from the department store?)

Tip: If used clothes bug you, wash them. Problem solved.

New Doesn't Necessarily Mean Expensive

Start watching the clearance tables, because some of those summer duds — jeans, T-shirts, et al. — will work for September and maybe beyond. (They'll also work for next April; if prices are irresistible, buy a size up for spring.)

Tip: Live in a warm climate? Lucky dog. Just stock up on remaindered summer garb for the rest of the year.

Online stores have clearance sales, too. This is easier to do for younger kids and/or kids who fit in basic sizes, and who don't care if you pick out their clothes. Be sure to look for online coupons and free-shipping codes through sites like Retail Me Not and Savings.com.

Don't enjoy tracking bargains? Enlist the help of a price-comparison website such as Pricegrabber, FatWallet, and FindersCheapers. Tell these sites what you want and let them do the hunting and gathering. You might even be able to set a deal alert and receive an e-mail when those Levis go on sale, or a refund alert if something you already bought went on sale.

Tip: Use cash-back shopping sites to make discounts even sweeter.

Excited for School
"I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils..."

It's not that I don't think you should spend anything on your kids come September. On the contrary: I believe that there's nothing like that new-crayon smell. A couple of symbolic purchases can help your child get excited about a new school year.

Kidding! Few children are truly excited about the day after Labor Day. (Full disclosure: I was. Then again, I got called “teacher's pet” a lot.) It's fun to see their friends again, but getting back into the educational harness is always a period of adjustment. Seeing that Junior has all the necessary tools can help re-orient him back into that universe.

Bring him into the equation by asking him to look through the Staples or Office Max flyers with you and compare what's on sale to the list of necessary supplies. Suggest that money saved by sale prices and judicious re-use of last year's stuff could defray the cost of a coveted item. You know, like those shoes that are $20 more than you want to pay.

A special purchase might add a bit of frisson and make the transition somewhat easier. You'd also be modeling my personal mantra: Save where you can so you can spend where you want.

Finally: Some cultures start the school year with candy or other treats, to emphasize the sweetness of knowledge. Consider instituting this tradition in your own household by serving a smoothie loaded with berries or slices of mango and pineapple on the first day of school.

Avoid doughnuts or Froot Loops, though. They may lead to running with scissors.

School supplies photo by Steven Depolo. Crayon photo by Chris Metcalf. Photo of the bouquet of pencils (which J.D. loves) by Melissa Doroquez.

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Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

Besides clothing, you can find other great school supplies used at thrift stores. I’ve seen three ring binders, blank agendas, backpacks, lunch boxes, thermoses, laptop cases, etc.

It never hurts to look in the households section when you’re shopping for clothes and shoes.

Evangeline
Evangeline
9 years ago

I live in an area where school will begin next week. I use the supply list that was mailed out with the report cards to shop throughout the summer, slowly building up what’s needed. We use a hybrid of both new and old to begin the school term. I take advantage of the warm weather sales and purchase a few new things to combine with what already fits. Sometimes, backpacks are purchased, some years we recycle them. The key is to not get sucked into the advertising frenzy and just stick to good ole common sense.

Jenny1337
Jenny1337
9 years ago
Reply to  Evangeline

“I live in an area where school will begin next week.” Me, too. I got pretty confused when this article kept talking about “the day after labor day”. I didn’t realize, at first, that they were saying that’s when school started in their area…I kept wondering how they could call labor day “early” shopping when it’s a full month after school starts ^_^;; On that note, why does school start at different times in different areas? I’ve always lived in the south (though in a few different states) and school always started the first or second week of august (and… Read more »

Janette
Janette
9 years ago
Reply to  Jenny1337

Very regional. It has to do with farming- believe it or not. It seems to be settling into 1 Aug to 1 Sept routine.
One of my friends lives in a Northern state and gets the entire month of January off because of the snow!

Monica
Monica
9 years ago
Reply to  Janette

Doesn’t it have something to do with climate, too? When I lived in Texas, we started school very early in August (because it was too hot to be outside) and got out in early May (before it was too hot to be outside).

But it’s definitely regional. I went to schools in four states – up north we started after Labor Day. In the South, kids start going back next week.

Adrienne
Adrienne
9 years ago
Reply to  Janette

Here in the northeast school traditionally starts around Labor Day with weeks off in Dec, Feb and Apr. We have to do 180 days of schools which means we let out end of June (depending on # of snow days).

Speaking of which – does anyone watch Phineas and Ferb? How on earth do they calculate 104 days of summer vacation?? It’s more like 70 around here.

s
s
9 years ago
Reply to  Jenny1337

Unfortunately, our early start (Aug 22) in in prep for standardized tests – March of next year! More teaching time before the tests.

Some school systems were pushing the start dates to early Aug and the FL legisature passed a mandate that the public school year could NOT more than 2 weeks before Labor Day so that is what we do.

Jenny1337
Jenny1337
9 years ago
Reply to  s

Hrrrm…so if the early start is for standardized tests, do southern schools score better on standardized tests, I wonder? (If what some people are saying about how its too hot up north (without AC) to start earlier).

Monica
Monica
9 years ago
Reply to  s

Not in Georgia!

Laura
Laura
9 years ago
Reply to  Jenny1337

Also, at least in Massachusetts, the public schools, charter schools, and some of the parochial schools aren’t air-conditioned. July & August are the hottest months, so it’s better to start in September and go through June (the rest of the time off comes 1 week in December, 1 in February, 1 in April, and miscellaneous snow days).

Jenny1337
Jenny1337
9 years ago
Reply to  Laura

Oh man…I can’t imagine ANYTHING not having air conditioning in the South, much less a school…

smirktastic
smirktastic
9 years ago
Reply to  Jenny1337

Here in WI, the state mandates that school cannot start earlier than Sept 1. Helps tourism and the employers that depend on school-aged employees during the summer months.

SB(One Cent At A Time)
SB(One Cent At A Time)
9 years ago

school supply price drastically drop 1 week after the schools open. That is a high time to buy things for next year. Some times we get things 10 times cheaper

No+Debt+MBA
No+Debt+MBA
9 years ago

My parents never bought me new clothes for school. Thrift store or my existing clothes were good enough. My dad also ripped the used pages out of my spiral notebook and told me to just use the empty ones. I refused since it was pretty beaten up and I was in middle school where kids can be harsh. So instead he had a sack of note books to sit by the phone to take notes with.

STRONGside
STRONGside
9 years ago

It amazes me how much money parents spend every year on back to school supplies. It is almost as if going back to school was a second Christmas. Parents tend to feel like we have to spend a certain amount of money to provide our children with the specified amount of supplies, when in reality, they can get by just fine with MUCH less. It does not reinforce a very frugal and money smart position to blow money on school supplies every year. Conscious spending applies to this as well!

phoenix
phoenix
9 years ago
Reply to  STRONGside

I think the statistics must take into account that many people use the back-to-school sales to buy their children warm clothing in their after-summer sizes. As a parent, I was surprised by how quickly kids outgrow clothes. When it’s time for my kids to buy on jeans and long-sleeved tops for the first time after summer is over, they are an inch too short. The same with shoes (since during the summer, my kids wear sandals and flip flops). NOW I understand why my mom complained that she always felt she had to buy us clothes all the time. I… Read more »

karla
karla
9 years ago
Reply to  STRONGside

Isn’t one of the reasons that some people stock up is because back to school time is a clothes tax holiday?

I seem to remember that in Texas a few years ago when I was visiting in early August.

sandycheeks
sandycheeks
9 years ago

a few thoughts: LL Bean bookbags are great and come with a lifetime guarantee. Consider buying this quality item for $30(+) once instead of buying a cheaper alternative that needs to be replaced yearly.

I usually buy supplies very early, but was just told that the school system is culling it’s list. They will no longer consider tissues, disinfectant wipes, a “school supply” and non instructional aids will not be on the supply list.

Emily
Emily
9 years ago
Reply to  sandycheeks

Yes, there are long lists to come to school…but remember that the teachers spend sooo much out of pocket for school supplies. We have to have tissues and hand sanitizer and pens and markers and when they’re not there, we buy them ourselves. We don’t make much money, and what we do make is always under threat of cut. There isn’t money from the schools to buy supplies. For a free education, asking parents to contribute supplies isn’t too much to ask.

Laurie S.
Laurie S.
9 years ago

Well, Donna, I feel old too! When I was in grade school, the round-tipped scissors were passed around in a coffee can when we needed them. Then we put them back when done. We got 2 number 2 pencils to start the year and a box of 8 (not crayola)crayons from the school. I carried the same Pete’s Dragon (I never even saw the movie!) metal lunch box for years. Hand-me-downs were supplimented with new socks, underwear, and some extras. And none of this kept me from getting a good public school education. I look at the lists from the… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  Laurie S.

When we were kids (or at least when I was, in the ’70s) school districts had funds for things like art supplies, kleenex, hand soap, and paper napkins for kindergarten snack time. Not anymore. Our school puts out the extensive list of supplies AND has a “want” list of basic supplies like “food for the hamster” and “paper towels” in each classroom. The state decided to not pay 40% of the public school budget until some unspecified time in the future, to “solve” oru budget deficit – I bet this year they’ll be asking for toilet paper and lightbulbs from… Read more »

jennypenny
jennypenny
9 years ago
Reply to  Rosa

The lists are amazing this year. I have to supply each of my 3 kids with more supplies than I have in my own desk. Plus, I have to send in paper towels, Clorox wipes, tissues, and a host of other things. And we need 3 folders to go back and forth to school-one for homework, one for tests, and one for school papers. Really?? We can’t just use one folder for that? The amount of supplies required is off the charts. Add that to the number of books I had to buy for reading assignments and I get really… Read more »

Heather
Heather
9 years ago
Reply to  jennypenny

For my soon to be 1st grader, I had to get 4 boxes of 24 count pencils. Fortunately, I started early and caught them on sale for .97, but I am trying to fathom what my kid is going to do with 96 pencils in one year, particularly when every kid in the class is bringing that much. We also had to supply 24 glue sticks. We’ll take all this stuff and it will get put into a communal supply closet and any extras will not be sent home at the end of the year. I have already spent $30… Read more »

Milk Donor Mama
Milk Donor Mama
9 years ago

Please define your acronyms before you use them. NRF? OSS?

smirktastic
smirktastic
9 years ago

NRF was defined in the first sentence of that paragraph 🙂

honeybee
honeybee
9 years ago
Reply to  smirktastic

Not so. To properly define an acronym, it is necessary to spell out the words, then put the acronym in brackets, like this:
…according to the National Retail Foundation (NRF), blah blah…

Donna+Freedman
Donna+Freedman
9 years ago
Reply to  honeybee

“OSS” referred to “one-stop shopping” mentioned in the previous sentence. And as others have noted, “NRF” meant “National Retail Federation.” Styles vary, but at the newspaper where I worked it wasn’t necessary to write “the National Retail Federation (NRF).”
Blame the media for this one. It gets blamed for everything else.

Janette
Janette
9 years ago

If things are tight and you did not make it to the super sales, make sure your child has at least one of every thing on the list. They need 1 pencil, 1 pen, 1 small set of paper, an old set of spiral notebooks, 1 small set of paper, 1 set of crayons (old and in rubber band are fine), 1 box of kleenex, etc. Let your child know that you will get things as time allows. Your child will be prepared for school and you can wait the two weeks until everything on the list goes on half… Read more »

Joe
Joe
9 years ago
Reply to  Janette

This is great advice! In addition to this, when you wait to buy supplies, you get a chance to meet the teacher and ask him/her if the school supplies list is accurate. It’s often provided by the school or the district, and your child’s teacher has a different (usually smaller) list of supplies needed.

Daria
Daria
9 years ago

I used to work in a elementary school and it was amazing the amount of supplies that were left at the end of the year. On the school supply lists, there were multiple requests for 2 boxes of crayons, two packets of construction paper, 2 boxes of tissues, etc… Most of the time you were told not to put your child’s name on the supplies because they went into the teachers supply closet and were doled out as needed. This meant that irresponsible children who would not take care of their supplies and would “lose” them got the bulk of… Read more »

Holly
Holly
9 years ago
Reply to  Daria

Good point, Daria. My 3rd grader’s class list includes a 12-pack of red pens. What do kids that age need so many red pens for? I’m okay with buying red pens for the teacher’s use if that helps with class, but does the teacher really need 250 over the course of the school year?

Annie
Annie
9 years ago
Reply to  Daria

My son’s teacher requested 10 boxes of pencils this year. So if each box has a dozen pencils (some have 20), that is 120 pencils. Really?! You mean my kid is going to go thru 3 pencils every week. I don’t think so. Multiply that by the 20 kids in class and you have 2,400 pencils.

jennypenny
jennypenny
9 years ago
Reply to  Annie

Cost aside, what a waste of trees that is. They probably have one of those “reduce, reuse, recycle” posters up in the classroom, and then throw out all of the half-used crayons and pencils.

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  jennypenny

I saw the state of supplies at the end of our last school year – everything was used up. I doubt they throw any of it away. I donated glue sticks for the last week of school because all 28 kids were trying to finish projects with about 3 mostly-gone glue sticks.

Ann
Ann
9 years ago
Reply to  jennypenny

In our district the request for multiple items is because half the class won’t bring what they’re asked. So it’s just like health care bills: those that pay, pay for themselves and another.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

We’re done shopping. I love back to school sales. And if some other kid needs that unlabeled 20 cent package of 24 crayons more than mine does, I do not begrudge them of it.

Donna+Freedman
Donna+Freedman
9 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Nicole: Well said! In fact, I’d go one further: If you can afford it (especially if you luck into 1-cent pencil sales), take extras and give them to the teacher so that no child will go without.
There’s a reason my sister and I take grocery-bags full of supplies to the social service agency: Because the folks who use its food bank certainly can’t afford to buy notebook paper.

leslie
leslie
9 years ago

We have year round schools here so school supply sales start in early July (3/4 of year round students start back right after 4th of July). I have been stocking up for weeks now because my kids have actually recently changed schools and are back on a traditional calendar where they start at the end of August. I buy extras of the really cheap stuff (penny deals on things like paper, pens etc.) because if they don’t ultimately need it at school during the year then we will use it at home OR be that much ahead next year. Whatever… Read more »

Claudia
Claudia
9 years ago
Reply to  leslie

As a middle school library assistant whose desk has the best-functioning pencil sharpener in the whole school, I must say that “you get what you pay for” applies to pencils. The store brand or super-cheap ones have leads that tend to break or the graphite will be maddeningly off-center. I am a Dixon-Ticonderoga or General’s fan for these reasons.

Holly
Holly
9 years ago

I struggle with the style vs. cost issue. In our family, the rule is that the kids can get a new backpack only when they move up to a new school. (In our town, that is every 3 years.) It’s been a compromise that works, and it helps me convince my kids to consider durability.

Two years ago my favorite jeans ripped, and the kids & I did a sewing project, making the legs of my jeans into custom lunch bags.

graduate.living
graduate.living
9 years ago

Thrifting for clothes is a really effective way to build a wardrobe – particularly if you live in a mid-to-large size city. We live in a very large city, and just a hop, skip, and a jump away from us is a rather affluent neighborhood – with a number of thrift and consignment shops. I’ve found barely-worn Gap dresses for $6, and my BF regularly finds great Brooks Brothers button down shirts – again for $6! Non-name brand stuff goes for even cheaper. If your school kids are concerned with name-brands, think about going to thrift stores that might cater… Read more »

Donna+Freedman
Donna+Freedman
9 years ago

Ditto. I did a video for MSN Money about finding deals at thrift stores and found three or four things in a row that still had the department-store tags. Nice things. I went to the Salvation Army 50%-off sale on Saturday and bought three blouses, a pair of shorts and a soft blue zip-up hoodie for $11.06 with tax. And my purchases were on the higher end of the price tag; I saw other items that would have cost 50 cents. There were a couple of folks in there whose carts were piled high with children’s clothes; either they were… Read more »

Monica
Monica
9 years ago

I think there is a happy medium to be had. I remember when it was time for back to school shopping, I didn’t care if I used last year’s protractor or my brother’s old-but-unused red binder. But it was REALLY embarrassing to go to school with half used colored pencils and a random assortment of pencils rubber banded together. We always won that battle … but now as an adult, I can definitely see where my parents were coming from! Mostly, it was a compromise — we got the “must haves” but the “Are you really going to use this?”… Read more »

clockworktomato
clockworktomato
9 years ago
Reply to  Monica

Great point here, Monica. I read this article with interest, though I will say it made me glad that I don’t actually have children, because I remember all too well how embarrassed I was as a child about things that were far less frugal than the suggestions here. I’d be far too sensitive to those feelings to send my children to school with obviously used colored pencils, crayons, folders, spiral notebooks, etc. On the one hand, children are going to be teased no matter what you do, and growing the backbone to deal with it is just one of life’s… Read more »

Ellen K.
Ellen K.
9 years ago

My husband’s primary back-to-school memories involve bringing a baggie of used crayons to grade school every year. I don’t think it scarred him for life, but I question whether saving 50 cents or so (late 70s/early 80s) was worth the blow to a young kid’s self-esteem on a day that is nerve-wracking for nearly all children.

Donna+Freedman
Donna+Freedman
9 years ago
Reply to  Ellen K.

Again: I’m NOT saying that you can’t have new crayons! I’m saying that you need to pick your spots, hit the sales, etc.

Ellen K.
Ellen K.
9 years ago
Reply to  Ellen K.

I didn’t mean to nitpick about crayons in particular. : ) Of course it’s a matter of shopping wisely. My husband’s dad had been unemployed, and his mom likely felt she was doing the most prudent thing by reusing some supplies. But kids in poor families can feel the small pinches more acutely than the large ones.

clockworktomato
clockworktomato
9 years ago
Reply to  Ellen K.

I think Ellen’s crayon example was just anecdotal discussion. The “shame items” are going to be different for every child, every level of education, etc. The important point is finding the happy medium, especially when the true savings might only be one or two dollars here or there, but overall the difference between making a child’s education seem fun and rewarding or making it a burdensome display of parental frugality disguised as poverty that, as we’re seeing in the comments, yes, those children will carry with them for a lifetime. We all know that there are penny pinchers out there… Read more »

Nancy+L.
Nancy+L.
9 years ago

We are pretty frugal for our BTS shopping already, but the school supply lists kill us. They never repeat from year to year, and they are always overkill because the teachers assume there’ll be some kids that don’t bring in stuff so they ask each parent to send in everything, rather than splitting up the requests. I’d rather give the teacher $20 and let the teacher purchase supplies when needed rather than have them get 24 boxes of markers that don’t all get used. And I’d rather the teacher hung onto the markers for the next year’s class rather than… Read more »

Mom of five
Mom of five
9 years ago

I love how Donna understands that sometimes kids need a certain item just so they’ll fit in. Here’s my frugal tip along those lines – keep the Sponge Bob/Batman/Harry Potter stuff to items you know won’t make it to next year and may not even make it to the end of the school year – a folder for instance, is perfect for the fad stuff. Other stuff, like jackets and bookbags, are better off being solid colors. I may just be lucky with my kids, but with no attention being drawn to their blue or red jackets, backpacks, and pencil… Read more »

Maureen
Maureen
9 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

I think that is a terrific idea. You could add an inexpensive novelty key ring to use as a zipper pull to update the backpack from year to year. Or get specialty accessories like Batman pencil cases which are probably a lot cheaper than the licensed backpacks.

Donna+Freedman
Donna+Freedman
9 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

Excellent advice! Thank you.

techsupported
techsupported
9 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

Back in the dark ages when I was in school, my mom and I would wait until after school had started. I would figure out which “in” item I wanted the most, and we’d get that, and fill in the rest with stuff that was kinda close. Mind you, this was the swingin’ sixties. We didn’t have sponges as cartoons. Just the Mod Squad. But they were hot…..

Katie
Katie
9 years ago

I wonder whether the previous year’s backpack, lunchbox and binder… * Wore out * Spontaneously combusted * Were lost in a poker game I find the mocking tone of this weird – my experience with three-ring binders as a kid was that they lasted about ten minutes before the rings got bent out of shape and wouldn’t hold papers solidly. Using one for more than one school year would have been impossible. Also, frugality is good but there are few pleasures in life like being a young child opening up a brand new box of perfectly sharpened crayons. On a… Read more »

Donna+Freedman
Donna+Freedman
9 years ago
Reply to  Katie

As I noted in the piece, there’s nothing like that new-crayon smell. As also noted, I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend money — I’m saying you should spend it intentionally.

Amy
Amy
9 years ago
Reply to  Donna+Freedman

Donna’s a meanie-head who hates new crayons!

-Just kidding. It’s kind-of weird, but even as an adult (without school kids) I always get the urge to buy new crayons this time of year. Fond memories of elementary school, I guess.

Luke
Luke
9 years ago
Reply to  Katie

I’m not sure that I saw this comment as at all mocking. In fact, it just seems indicative of Donna’s ability to inject a bit of humour into a dull topic.

Eileen
Eileen
9 years ago

Office supply stores often have insanely cheap “deals”. Several years ago, we purchased a plastic drawer unit with wheels and decided that was “the place” for the school supplies. It holds anything related to schoolwork/homework/projects. No more running off to find the “report cover” needed at the last minute. I add to it when the “deals” are available, but our stock is limited to the drawers we have in the unit. Now I don’t re-buy colored pencils or notecards because I’m not aware they are tucked away in someone’s room. With the very cheap bundles of spiral notebooks and discounts… Read more »

Claudia
Claudia
9 years ago
Reply to  Eileen

Don’t forget to grab some posterboard while you’re at it. The need for it always seems to come at the last minute. To store flat and out of the way, put it in a couple of strong magnetic clips and attach it to the side of your dryer or washer.

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  Claudia

Ours is behind the buffet in the dining room, with the cutting mats for quilting.

Eileen
Eileen
9 years ago
Reply to  Claudia

Right – can’t forget the poster board!

And mine is also tucked in behind the buffet. But I have to admit needing it and crossing fingers to see if there was still one sitting back there.

Donna+Freedman
Donna+Freedman
9 years ago
Reply to  Claudia

What a great idea. Thanks!

cerb
cerb
9 years ago
Reply to  Claudia

Claudia is right, we stored ours behind the piano.

Jackie
Jackie
9 years ago

Haha, I love the “don’t give a pencil sharpener to kindergartners or first graders” tip — too true. My son will be starting college this year, so it might be a slightly different story, but in the past he’s probably been a deprived child compared to his peers. That’s because we don’t buy new stuff unless he actually NEEDS new stuff. He’s only just now on his 3rd backpack period, and lunchboxes were paper sacks. (Until he started eating at school, which was another story,)

karla
karla
9 years ago
Reply to  Jackie

so is my daughter….kids with elementary aged students think BTS is expensive?? Wait until they have to kit out a dorm room.

(well, in my defense, she is going to college on a different continent from where I am, so that does incur a bit of an extra cost)

but she is sending on her half-empty notebooks and other normal school supplies. we don’t have to buy any of that 😉

karla
karla
9 years ago
Reply to  karla

okay, I have to drink more coffee….

PARENTS with elementary-aged children

Lesley
Lesley
9 years ago

I am so thankful my kids school has a bulk buying program. They purchase all school supplies to the exact specification they require and the parents pay a reasonable fee per child. Since my kids are relatively young, I’m still pretty new to this. As to the clothing thing, at least for my kids, a “new” set of clothes each year (whether purchased new or used) is non-optional – they grow too fast! Since the school year is also the beginning of cooler weather, it’s a reasonable time to do it. Thankfully my kids are the same gender and we’ve… Read more »

Laura
Laura
9 years ago

I take advantage of the loss-leader items (I’m perfectly fine with buying only those items and nothing else), then the huge discounts once school starts, and I buy lots of those items that I know will roll over from year to year (pencils, folders, paper, etc). We have a plastic cart with drawers next to the computer and all extra supplies go in there. When I get the list in summer, first I check the cart. Now that my son’s going into high school (!), it’s become rare to need to buy any standard school supplies now. Also, I work… Read more »

Mom of five
Mom of five
9 years ago
Reply to  Laura

My kids wear uniforms too. We actually have a uniform closet in the school where parents can take what they need and leave what no longer fits. It’s great for families who are struggling and really it requires very little maintenance to keep it going – it’s just getting the school to give up the closet space. About twice a year the school asks for a volunteer to go straighten out the uniform closet and resort the clothes by size order.

Donna+Freedman
Donna+Freedman
9 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

I hope other parents whose kids wear uniforms suggest this idea at their schools. What a kind gesture.

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

What a great post! I just posted on FB to have people send me a full list of what’s needed for back to school. These helps everyone. It helps me for getting ready to have kids that will someday need me to shop for stuff and 2 it helps them see how cheaply I can get it. My goal is to take a few lists (if I can get them) and go out and buy stuff. Yes, I’m late to the game as the office supply stores already started their back to school sales but I will still try. I… Read more »

Sassy
Sassy
9 years ago

Not the most frugal approach but for a few years my kids and I would collect all the school supplies, check out the list, go out and price everything…if they could use it from our collected supplies and did, we split the difference between what I would have spent buying all new and what I actually spent. My kids like easy money so they really thought through what they thought they “needed.” All of a sudden backpacks were just fine, and slightly used markers, highlighters, notebooks, etc were good enough too. I have to say, I did succumb to the… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
9 years ago

Our state has a “tax-free weekend” for clothing every summer during which any clothes/shoes under $100.00 (so, athletic shoes but not the most expensive models) are tax-free. This can make a difference.
When I was a child, my mother let us get only one new outfit in September. All of August I’d agonize over the Sears catalog choosing what dress I’d choose.

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

For those of us who don’t have kids, it’s also a good time of year to stock up on office supplies 😉 It’s been a few years now since I was a grad student or a teacher, but I never got out of the habit of going through all my old supplies to see what works/what doesn’t any filling in any gaps.

And as a former teacher, parents: don’t let your kids have everything all at once! You wouldn’t believe the stuff that’s treated carelessly when kids know there’s always more in the package or more at home.

Marsha
Marsha
9 years ago

My older son is starting college with the Eddie Bauer backpack I bought him in third grade. I even bought it on clearance way back then, paying about $15 for it.

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago

Right around the start of school is a great time to thrift for kids clothes – lots of parents buy new clothes and donate outgrown ones to the charity stores.

Mary H
Mary H
9 years ago

“In my day, we brought a three-ring binder, notebook paper and pencils. If we couldn’t afford paper pr pencils the school provided them. Crayons and scissors were doled out as needed for projects. Only the teacher had markers. Dinosaurs picked us up and delivered us back home.”
Donna, thanks for the trip down memory lane – I remember those dinosaurs!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

I hate school! No more reading whatever you want, no more going to the beach, and all that endless math homework… DEPRESSING.

alysa@impulsesave.com
9 years ago

The key is figuring out what to buy cheap (folders for 1 cent each? Super steal!), what to invest in, and what not to buy at all. I have a backpack that I used all through high school and college, and I bought it on sale too! As we wrote about on our blog (http://tinyurl.com/3ze7zre), it’s important to know when to shop and then buy only what you need. The store always suggested I purchase things I didn’t need, so it’s probably a better idea to not let the kids see them (otherwise they may convince you they that they… Read more »

Luke
Luke
9 years ago

I like the idea of incentivising back to school shopping for children – as long as they can be relied upon to not miss out things they might actually need in the hope of chasing an improved reward 😉

J
J
9 years ago

I can’t believe that kids have to take in supplies for the whole class or the teacher in the states.

In the UK most things are provided at primary level (notebooks, pencils) then you just need your own pencil case, pens, calculator etc in secondary – but you’d never have red pens, or white board markers or boxes of tissues – that’s ridiculous!

Ann
Ann
9 years ago
Reply to  J

Oh, it gets worse–in Indiana, we’re required to “rent” our childrens’ textbooks. Kindergarten books were $60, high school depends on the classes chosen; our teen babysitters book rental fees were $400 each. That gets pricy when you have more than one child!! I know of kids who chose their courses based upon the book list 🙁 (If you qualify for free/reduced lunch, the book fee is also reduced.)

Rachel211
Rachel211
9 years ago
Reply to  Ann

I bet that within the next 5 years, all textbooks will be converted to some kind of Kindle device that we will be required to purchase. Which actually might be a good thing if they don’t make you upgrade it every year.

Luke
Luke
9 years ago
Reply to  Rachel211

Could be worse – your school could be stupid enough to coerce parents into buying an iPad for every pupil:

http://www.kentonline.co.uk/dartford_messenger/news/2011/july/15/1,400_pupils_to_get_ipads.aspx

Suzy
Suzy
8 years ago
Reply to  Rachel211

In our school corporation (Northeast Indiana) last year they started a program where K-2 use iPod touches,3-5 use iPads, and 6-12 use laptops. We have to pay a maintenance fee for renting these throughout the school year on top of book rental fees. If any of these get stolen, we’re required to pay for them to be replaced. In the younger grades K-5, they keep the iPod touches and iPads at school, but grades 6-12 have to carry their laptops back and forth to school everyday along with everything in their backpack. My problem with this program is that not… Read more »

the+other+Tammy
the+other+Tammy
9 years ago

Our school had back to school kits that you could buy for $20 that had all the required school supplies for your particular classroom. I checked to see if I could get that same stuff cheaper by shopping around, but the savings was so little that I decided not to fuss with it and just purchased the kit. School supply shopping done!

School uniforms, however, cost a flippin’ fortune! I’m hoping to pick up good stuff at the school uniform swap sale here next week…

techsupported
techsupported
9 years ago

I’d like to point out that even for those of us who don’t have kids, now is the perfect time to shop for office supplies. Last year, I got four packs of index cards (the kind I like to write down daily expenses on) for 1 cent, a backpack for work for $9 at Borders (may it RIP), two college rule notebooks for a dollar, and so on. Oh, and a new desktop PC for afterhours webdev work….

One of my fav times of the year…!

across80
across80
9 years ago

I’m in Canada but I’m fortunate enough to live in a school district that does not send home supply lists. All my son has to take to school is his backpack and lunchbox (re-using from last year). For any other supplies he needs (for home) we go to the dollar store. We can find almost anything there for $1!

lu
lu
9 years ago

I hear so many parents complaining about the price of uniforms these days. They have every right too! If you want to buy a uniform that lasts at least the whole school year the more expensive are the better choice. One parent, who is also a school teacher, told me over the weekend that another friend of hers gave her all of her daughters school uniforms becuase she’s starting to outgrow them. This is a great idea for those parents who have trouble finding the extra money for uniforms: find someone with a girl or boy about the age of… Read more »

FrauTech
FrauTech
9 years ago

I’m surprised no one has mentioned this yet, Garage Sales! I’m pretty sure growing up about 1/3 of my yearly school supplies (folders, binders, crayons, markers) came from garage sales. I actually liked it, got some interesting name brand or colorful items from this, otherwise it was the cheapest solid color items we could get. Backpacks were supposed to last several years (though usually fell apart), one pair of payless shoes a year, and a lunch bag like you can get at a grocery store, solid color and cheap. I don’t remember being an outcast for my non-name brand items,… Read more »

Donna+Freedman
Donna+Freedman
9 years ago
Reply to  FrauTech

Garage sales were in fact mentioned in the piece. You find a whole lot gold among the dross.

Sandra
Sandra
9 years ago

I decided to buy a “box of school supplies” through my DD’s elementary school. Even if it doesn’t save me any money, it saves me time in that I don’t have to go to multiple stores in an attempt to get all the loss leaders. Although I had to buy extra glue sticks several times (kindergarten), various extra supplies did came home with my DD at the end of the school year.

katgon3
katgon3
9 years ago

As a middle school teacher, we decided this year to bring the students out to the hallway and empty lockers one by one. It was sickening how much stuff (a lot brand new) they had in their lockers that they would throw away if we weren’t watching. Remind your kids at the end of the year that you’ll be expecting them to bring home the items they don’t use. Quite a few of ours refused to take it, so we have a good stash this year for kids who can’t afford to buy the supplies. Another thing we did as… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

I reuse everything that can be reused but I do end up buying items before school starts and they are: CLOTHES: I have 2 boys, age 14 and 11 and got them 3 tops, 2 pants and sneakers per kid. I found leather sneakers for my kids in MENS 14 and 11.5 on Amazon for $47 and with free shipping! I also buy required uniforms with coupon codes. Our school does take in used uniforms and then sells them at a garage sale in the Summer. It’s a way for the school to make $ and for parents to buy… Read more »

adnan
adnan
9 years ago

I think the department of education is in collusion with the retail industry to try to extract as much money from parents as possible every year. So the schools create these ultra long back to school list but the items never get used by the kids during the school year. What happens to that box of tissues from last year that my kid never used?

Squirrelers
Squirrelers
9 years ago

You bring up a great point about the loss leaders. Last year a local store sold these composition notebooks, 100 pages I believe, for 25 cents. I bought a few for myself too:)

Rachel211
Rachel211
9 years ago

Just bought supplies for my daughter who will be starting Pre-K next week:

Supplies from the list: $150 a Walmart
Uniform shirts: $116 from Lands End
Uniform pants/skirts: $52 from Walmart

Ugh. Shoot me now.

frugalscholar
frugalscholar
9 years ago

My colleagues toss out piles of folders unclaimed by students. One of my students (mom of 4) and I used to retrieve the folders and recycle–she to her kids, I to my children and my students.

Supplies are not as cheap as they were during the housing bubble. Still, you should buy enough for the full year, because the deals don’t roll around in January.

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

As a previous homeschooling mom, back to school shopping seems stressless compared to the first years of deciding on books to buy as well as everything else. I did an inventory of all the stuff that came home with them last year before I bought. I spent $31 on the things I didn’t already have, not bad, considering half of it will likely come home again at the end of the year. My kids attend public school, and there is a dress code but not uniforms. I am sending them in uniforms anyway. I spent $300 to completely outfit my… Read more »

mapster
mapster
9 years ago

My favorite frugal “school supply” purchase was the two LL Bean backpacks I bought for the kids as a Christmas 2008 gift/wrapping (we were moving in early January, so put travel games, snacks, etc.), on a closeout sale. I can’t remember how much I paid for sure, but I know it was dirt cheap, compared to their regular prices (which, in my opinion, aren’t too bad to begin with). It pains my daughter that she doesn’t get a new backpack every year with the t.v. character of the month on it, but those backpacks will probably last until they graduate… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie
9 years ago

I really liked this article. The author did a great job! I don’t even have kids, but I still get caught up in the back to school hype! I had to talk myself out of getting a dry erase board the other day at Target.

For the record, Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils are the absolute best!

fetu
fetu
9 years ago

School started here today. My kids used to get $100 each to spend on new clothes for high school each year. They could be thrifty with it and get plenty of on sale items or splurge on just a few things. It was up to them. As a child I loved the feeling of new notebooks for the new school year. If the big lists is because you are buying for those who do not buy…..be one of those who do not buy too! No….I would not do that to my child…..but I think to send him off with one… Read more »

grace
grace
9 years ago

In response to the complaints about the length of school supply lists: As a result of federal and state budget cuts, schools are no longer able to provide the classroom supplies needed for teachers to teach. (e.g. How could a teacher demonstrate solving math problems on a whiteboard without whiteboard markers?) Items that you think your child may not use ARE used by the teacher to instruct and keep the classroom running. For example, I regularly buy two extra sets of notebooks (not to mention the other materials required to start the school year) for each of my students to… Read more »

sandycheeks
sandycheeks
9 years ago
Reply to  grace

I was also unsure why the supply lists seemed so extensive. But when I volunteered in the classroom, I saw a different perspective. Now I know why classrooms need so many tissues, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, ziplock bags etc.

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  sandycheeks

Yeah. even if your kid never has a runny nose, don’t you want the kid *with* a runny nose to have a tissue instead of wiping it on his hand and touching stuff your kid will touch?

Jan
Jan
9 years ago

I’d like to add that outfitting a college freshman girl with dorm decorating was a killer for me a few years ago. I now know that by the 2nd weekend in September Target will have everything for dorm rooms at 50% off or more! Ugh! What a money trap for freshman parents.

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