School supply lists can add up to big bucks, fast! Did you know that families with kids in elementary through high school are expected to spend an average of $696.70 in 2019*? Yikes!
Granted, my family won’t be spending so much this year, because we thankfully don’t have some of those technology requirements yet.
But while some districts now just ask you to give them a flat fee so they can purchase the appropriate pencils, pens and other materials in bulk, many still ask you to source your own items. If you fall into the latter category, here are some tips I’ve come up with in the past few years.
How to save money on back to school supplies
1. Shop at home first. My daughter came home with probably half of the number of pencils we were asked to buy last year, and she didn’t write with them once. Tally up all the extra and leftover pencils and pens, see if there’s life left in that pink eraser, and whittle that list down a little without leaving the house or spending a dime.
2. Look beyond the all-encompassing big box stores. Did you know that office supply stores like Office Depot, Staples and the like have some GREAT sales on school supplies? Check out their websites or weekly ads, and see who has the best prices on your list. I wrote out the items we needed for our school supply lists, then added three columns off to the right. I looked at three different stores’ ads and websites and wrote each store’s price in its own column. Boom, I have an idea of what’s cheapest where.
3. What’s worth more – your time, or your money? I ask this because it makes a difference where you shop. I started a couple of weeks ago and was able to map out what I wanted to buy where, using the tip in #2 above. Then I figured out a way to work those different stores into various trips I already had planned. That way nothing is out of my way, and I’m not spending gas and time just to save a couple of dollars on pencils. So decide if you want to get everything in one fell swoop, or if you want to –simply – make a couple of trips.
4. Is price match an option at any of your stores? Some stores offer this. Check out what the policies are ahead of time so you’re prepared and have the ad in hand, the screenshot, or whatever it is they need to give you the lower price.
5. Decide how you’ll tackle requests for things NOT on your list. My daughter spotted the new backpacks at the office supply store and told me that the zipper was broken on her old backpack and that she needed a new one. Of course, the one she wanted WASN’T the one on sale for $15, but it was the full price $40 design. (I should not be surprised, the girl has good taste and can also spot quality.) We didn’t walk out with a new backpack that day. While she was disappointed, she accepted that I needed to check out her existing pack and then do some research before I bought anything that wasn’t on the day’s list.
Set your ground rules before you leave the house, because it lessens the chance you’ll be dealing with a meltdown in the store. Maybe they take some of their own money, and the extras they want get funded out of their own pockets? Maybe you have a $5 or a $10 “bonus” fund set aside? Whatever it is, tell them ahead of time so they know what their options are.
6. Plain supplies cost less. Yeah, that mermaid pencil box that looks teal when you look at it from one direction but purple from the other way is awesome. But it’s also $10, and there’s one next to it that’s only $2. Do you have stickers and other art supplies at home that they can use to personalize those supplies and give them some pizazz?
7. A word on those Ticonderoga pencils – I wondered why our school district specifies Ticonderoga pencils on the supply lists, and I asked my bestie, who’s also a teacher. She reports that those Ticonderoga pencils are worth the extra dollar or two – they sharpen better and break less, so they’re less frustrating and distracting in the classroom.
Think about it – a pencil breaks, and that goofy kid in class (maybe it’s yours or maybe it’s mine, this is a judgment free zone!) gets up and has to cross in front of all the classmates to get to the loud pencil sharpener mounted on the wall, and distracts everyone in the room in the process.
Or maybe the pencil breaks in the middle of a difficult work or test, and the student loses concentration. My 4th grader is old enough to have some mechanical pencils, so I’m sending her with some of those as well as traditional pencils – and we’re saving a little money in the process. But there you go – knowledge is power, folks!
8. Buy quality when it’s warranted. A $10 backpack may not make it to the end of the school year, and then it becomes a $20 backpack when you have to buy another (or a $30 backpack, because they’re no longer on sale!). I expect a $40-$50 backpack to last multiple years, provided it’s made well. Do your research and buy wisely. Look for brands that offer a lifetime warranty, or one that would at least cover you for a couple of years.
9. Label everything. While this isn’t a shopping tip, it’s one that could save you from making another trip to replace a lost item (or that $9 mermaid pencil case).
10. Stock up. Will you be replenishing notebook paper later this year? Buy an extra pack or two now when it’s on sale.
11. Get what you need now, but check again a few weeks after school starts. Watch as they start to mark down extra inventory and clothing. Can you pick something up that they’ll need for next year? I stash tee shirts that are a size larger for next spring and summer. Then when we get to the change in season next year, I’ve got something on hand to replace those too-short sleeves or high-water pants.
What are some of your favorite savings tips for back to school lists?
*Source: National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights and Analytics’ annual back-to-school spending survey