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The Best Back-to-School Shopping Tips

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The best way to get the most for your money when shopping for school supplies is to start early. While there are some good deals and good sales during the summer before the school year starts, you can only take advantage of them if you’re prepared. Some deals aren’t ask great as they’re advertised to be, so it pays to take on this task deliberately, not in a mad rush the day before school starts, with crowded stores, frantic shoppers, and empty shelves.

The goal of back-to-school shopping is to get what the students need and to do so without spending a fortune. In today’s consumer-driven world, it’s not surprising that kids want what they see on television and what other kids have. The balance between these wants and needs is important, and parents shouldn’t be afraid to say that needs come first and wants can be evaluated later.

1. Receive guidance from teachers.

Many teachers communicate with parents before the school year starts to make sure incoming students have a list of the materials they’ll need for the class. Notebooks, pens, pencils and subject-specific tools usually top the list of requirements, and this can be a long list. In this article, I was planning to include a list of the required materials for incoming sixth graders at a public elementary school in Queens, New York, but it was too long to include here. Take a look at this list (pdf): Grade 6 Student Required Materials.

You can anticipate lists like these getting longer as schools don’t include materials for students in their budget and teachers, who often pay for school supplies from their own pockets without school reimbursement, are affected by the recession just like everyone else.

2. Locate your reusable materials from last year.

Students do not need a new backpack every year. A quality name brand backpack should last several years, if not an entire elementary school career. Some manufacturers like Jansport have a lifetime guarantee, so there is rarely a need to buy a new backpack unless it’s been severely damaged, and certainly no need every year. You may save money in the short-term by buying a generic backpack, but if it’s made out of lesser quality materials, it won’t last long.

Unused paper from one year can be a starting point for the current year. If the child didn’t fully use notebooks from the previous year, the leftover pages are as good as new. Pens, pencils, markers, and crayons can be used until they’re depleted. Loose-leaf binders and folders can survive more than one year. It surprises me that a Flash drive is required for sixth graders, but there should be no need to buy new drives every year.

3. Find the best deals.

I’ve acquired a habit of going to Amazon.com for many of the things I buy. They usually offer the lowest prices, and I benefit from free shipping and, at least until the law is eventually changed, no sales tax (though the use tax on my state income tax return negates that benefit). When it comes to school supplies, however, I’ve noticed that Amazon.com does not always have the lowest price, even taking into consideration those advantages.

During the summer, it’s best to keep checking local convenience stores like CVS or Duane Reade for their best specials. Walmart and Target will often present too-good-to-be-true discounts on back-to-school items, and you’ll generally need to move quickly to take advantage of these.

Staples often competes well with these stores for school supplies. I was in Staples a few days ago and they were selling a $10 savings pass. This pass grants the holder a 15% discount on back-to-school items for a limited time. Some quick math tells me you would need to spend about $67 in back-to-school supplies at Stapled in order for this savings pass to pay for itself.

Check for your state’s sales tax holiday. Most states that participate in sales tax holidays have several days set aside for shopping for back-to-school supplies. Being granted the benefit of not owing sales tax is not a guarantee that you’re getting a better price. Check the sales at the stores where you shop to determine if you lose a discount in exchange for the brief tax relief.

Price comparison websites also help. Keep FatWallet and PriceGrabber on your internet speed dial.

4. Manage your child’s expectations.

At a certain age, children start feeling pressure to fit in. That means they are concerned about their appearance. They want to have clothes and accessories (like backpacks, book covers, and bags) that allow others to quickly identify them within a certain group. Parents have the tough job of balancing the need for their kids to not be an outcast with the need for their kids to understand that superficial things like clothes aren’t all that important.

Growing children go through clothing fast, and it can be expensive to clothe a child with new threads every year — or more often than every year. The art of parents convincing children that wearing handed-down clothing is not shameful seems to be lost, for the most part. If a child has a source for slightly used clothing, like an older sibling or a bigger friend, these handed-down clothes can serve as a core wardrobe with one or two new items each year.

Back-to-school shopping can be a teachable moment for parents and their children, identifying the differences between wants and needs. Needs should be the priority, and parents can indulge in their children’s wants only when their finances make it possible. That is, all other needs should be met first. This approach does not work well unless parents effectively live by this philosophy for their own expenses. A child who is neglected the satisfaction of realized desires during the process of learning about needs and wants could develop a negative attitude, particularly if it’s clear that the parents indulge their own desires without prioritizing needs first.

5. Keep your budget in mind.

Back-to-school shopping is not a monthly recurring expense, so many unsuspecting parents forget to include this need when planning a budget. If a household doesn’t have cash left over from income after taking care of other expenses and saving, families could end up raiding a goal-oriented savings account or taking out the credit card for back-to-school supplies. Few things feel worse than the need to reduce your vacation fund in order to cover back-to-school shopping as if it were a surprise. Going into debt would feel worse.

Either way, make a note to remember to budget for school supplies next year.

If back-to-school shopping was included in your budget, establish a frugal mindset for yourself to ensure you stay within budget. Again, it comes down to managing your children’s expectations.

What are some of your best practices and tips for back-to-school shopping? Leave your suggestions below. If you are a member of the Consumerism Commentary community (use the Log In or Register link at the very top of the page) and you leave the best suggestion, you will receive extra points that can be used for purchasing Amazon.com gift cards in the Consumerism Commentary Store.

Photo: kevindooley

Updated August 9, 2011 and originally published August 8, 2011. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar krantcents

In college, we get a syllabus and a list of books and materials. Why wouldn’t we want the same in K-12 classes? Checking with the teacher is an excellent idea. It should save you money. One small example is paper. All teacher want ruled paper, but there is such a variety of choices, The teacher could clear that up!

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avatar shellye ♦107 (Cent)

I have a huge issue with the school supply lists that teachers put out there; I genuinely don’t mind preparing my own kids for the school year but the lists seem so excessive to me – when they’re having each student bring THREE rolls of paper towels and TWO bottles of hand sanitizer. I mean, what classroom goes through 75 rolls of paper towels in a year (based on 25 students in a class). I would love for a school teacher to explain to me why my student needs to bring 10 red pens to class each year, just for correcting other kids’ worksheets. I’m sure some of it has to do with making sure there are enough supplies to cover the kids who don’t bring their supplies, but come on…

Now that I’m off my soap box, my best money-saving tip is for the college-bound: Amazon now has a textbook rental service, where students CHOOSE HOW LONG they want or need to rent the book, which is online rather than hard copy, saving untold hundreds of dollars in book expenses. I can’t wait for my kid to use it this year. AND, if your student has any kind of college email account, they can partake in Amazon’s Prime program, where you get 2-day free shipping on anything you order off the website. My college student used it last year several times for books, and I even had her order a couple of things for me so I could take advantage of free shipping as well. Otherwise, a Prime membership is $79 annually.

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avatar shellye ♦107 (Cent)

Pardon me, I didn’t read the school supply list from the 6th grade class in Queens, NY. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to provide legal pads or cash upfront for my student. And I’ve never been asked for more than 3 rolls of paper towels per student rather than the 4 rolls on this list. I guess Texas students have it better than others…or perhaps they’re less messy? LOL

And since WHEN did the Weekly Reader start costing $5.00? I didn’t realize it was still around (I read it as a kid myself).

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avatar Cejay ♦1,521 (Half-Dollar)

Like Shelley our local schools now include things like paper towels, kleenex, and even toilet tissue. I have to admit that I have issues with those items. I mean do we pay taxes to keep our school system running and these things should be included in the operating budgets. Also, buy in quantities when the prices are at their lowest. I do not have children but I took advantage of all these great sales and have tons of composition books, crayons, notebook paper and other items. I will take them to the local school where my niece and nephew attend. I know that they will be able to put them to good use. But it will not include paper towels or other supplies.

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦75 (Newbie)

Be upfront with your kids about how much money is available for back-to-school shopping. Ask them to look through the office-supply store flyers with you, comparing what’s on sale to the list of required supplies. The money saved by these sale prices combined with judicious re-use of last year’s stuff and, yeah, with hand-me-downs (and/or consignment-store items and/or thrift-shop clothing and/or clothing-swap items) could defray the cost of a coveted item. You know, like those hotshot athletic shoes that cost $30 more than you think they should.
It helps teach them not just the realities of an adult budget (“We simply cannot go into debt to outfit you”), but also the power of balancing wants and needs in order to get something from each category.

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avatar Ceecee ♦53 (Newbie)

This can also be a good time to buy office supplies for home or office because of the great sales.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

Two reams of copy paper? 4 packs of lined paper? Does all of the items go in a general area for anyone to use? One pack of lined paper in the 2″ binder would work nicely for a student. It sounds like the families are becoming the vendors for the district.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

I really like the ‘so your student can make a smooth transaction…”. I wonder how many families see through that one.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,480 (Platinum)

I think it says “transition…” the font isn’t the easiest to read…

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avatar qixx ♦1,890 (Half-Dollar)

Don’t forget to look at office supply stores for back-to-school items. The local OfficeMax often has backpacks, pens, mechanical pencils, etc on their 100% back in member rewards lists over the summer. As long as you will use the rewards before they expire these are great deals. It is often hard to beat free.

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avatar Sheree Swan

I recently just moved into a district that requires each child to bring in supplies for the classrooms use. (We also have to pay registration fees, and yes they’re public schools) I have 3 kids in 3 grades so its 3x the cost. For their personal supplies I agree with getting better quality items that will last a few years. Jansports never go out of style, and are as good as new after a quick wash. They can be found on Amazon for under $30 and sometimes you can catch them and other quality brands on sale at office depot/kohls. As for the classroom supplies go, I found a lot of the items can be found at dollar tree. Even if you don’t have a dollar tree by you, they do sell their items by the case online, and they’re still only a dollar per item. I plan on buying a case of a common requested item (ie red pens, black expo markers, sanitizer, tissues) every other month so to stay ahead of the game. By next year ill have everything all the kids need for their classes with enough surplus to last a couple years. Budgeting $20-$40 every other month for a few months is much easier than coming up with an extra couple hundred right before school starts. Also if you shop for good jeans and coats a size up every February when they’re on clearance in dept stores it will help offset back to school shopping costs as well.

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