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.
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.
Updated August 12, 2015 and originally published August 8, 2011.