Guest Post: 10 Tips for Saving on School Supplies (Part 1)


Summer is my favorite time of year. It’s filled with sunshine, lemonade stands, swimming, staying up late, camping in the back yard, s’mores, popsicles…and back to school. Unfortunately, summer or not, this is the time when the thought of back to school, and back to school shopping, starts cramping our summertime fun. I blame it on the many retailers that start running back to school ads the day after Independence Day. Is it just me, or does anyone else notice this trend? Are retailers trying to be cruel and cut our summer bliss and carefree attitudes short, or are they just trying to be the first to get you to open your wallet and start the back to school shopping frenzy? I can guarantee you it is the latter. With “back to school” becoming a two month marketing campaign for retailers, along with cash strapped schools placing more of the supply burden onto students and their families, it has become increasingly tough to get your kids equipped for the new school year without emptying your wallet.

1. Recycle & Reuse
Before checking so much as a single back-to-school sales flyer, you need to know two things: what you need, and what you already have on hand. Go through last year’s school supplies and see what is salvageable. Can things be repaired or cleaned so that they can be used again? Set these aside or create a “back to school” cupboard, drawer, or box in your home to house these items. By creating a space just for school supplies, you will be able to quickly reference what is on hand and what is needed. Check your child’s school website to find a supply list. If one is not posted on your school’s website, call (sometimes staff works in the office during the summer), send an e-mail, or even check your local office supply store….lots of them feature supply checklists for nearby schools.

2. Set a Budget & Use Cash
This is such an important step when going school supply shopping. School supply isles look like toy departments these days, and kids (and parents) can easily get distracted and “wowed” by the light up erasers, hyper color pencils, and other eye candy the stores and manufacturers use to ring their registers. It’s all the extra bells and whistles the stores sell that actually turn a profit for them. After figuring out the true school supply needs vs wants, set your budget and take out cash to cover the estimated cost of these supplies. This is all you will have to spend…don’t take alternate forms of payment “just in case”. This will give you and your child(ren) no choice but to stick to the list and the budget.

If you have older children, get your children involved in the budgeting process so that you can teach them the value of a dollar and how to set a budget at the same time. You can also use this list as an exercise in financial education (with my husband being a Registered Investment Advisor, this is a big topic in our house). Children are natural consumers. Most certainly your children will WANT something during your back to school shopping trip, like a pricey character backpack, when you’ve already decided to reuse last year’s backpack. To avoid overspending, determine how you’ll handle your child’s requests for non-essentials, or the most expensive alternative, before you head out to shop.

Here are a few ways I have learned to handle my children’s requests. I have seen this more valuable the older my children get.

• Allow one extra purchase.
• If your child has allowance, or money of their own, have them pay for anything that’s not on the list that they may want.
• Have your child pay the difference between what you’re willing to buy, and what they want to buy – again refer to the budget you set before stepping into the store.
• Buy basics vs the fancier counterpart, then let your child(ren) jazz them up with stickers, patches, and colorful doodles. This worked really well when my kids were young. They didn’t care what the folder looked like (even if it was the same one from last year), as long as they got to pick out a few stickers, or a new glitter paint pen in order to personalize it in a way that reflected their personal style.
• Refuse to give in to the request. Most of the time what they wish to have is a want vs a need. Explain the difference and don’t give in. It may not make you popular, but it is a chance to teach smart money management and restraint.

3. Shop Around
10-cent crayons, 5-cent erasers, 50-cent binders …you’ve seen the ads. Stores fight hard for your back to school dollars. Just like when couponing, watch the weekly sales circulars closely and pick the best buys that fit your family’s needs from each store. Many of the stores will advertise “loss leaders” or “door busters” to get you in the store, in hopes that you will purchase other items (non sale items) on your list at the same time. These stores will usually advertise different items on sale over the weeks heading into school. Be patient. Just pick up the items that are at rock bottom price each week. In other words, you don’t always have to check everything off of your (or their list) in one shopping trip. You are still the consumer and you get to choose what you pay and where you’ll pay it. So get those 10-cent crayons, and get out.

4. Price Match
This is one of my favorite tips to save time, sanity, and gas, no matter what you’re shopping for. Price match the best deals in the various ads at Walmart or Target, the two stores in So Cal that offer price matching. To price match, make sure that you have a current ad and make sure you get the exact items that are being featured. At Target, take the ad and item to customer service for a price match. At Walmart, take the ad and item to any cashier to get the match. The great thing about price matching, is that because that store isn’t running the promotion, they will most likely have a WAY better selection to choose from than the store the ad came from. Plus, you will avoid the frenzy of frantic back to school shoppers fighting over the last composition book (true story at Walgreens last year).

5. Know When to Buy Quality
Often, you can get away with buying cheap, off-brand supplies, however, be sure to buy quality stuff when necessary. Papers and pencils should be (and are) cheap, but you may want to spend a little more on a good backpack, as this is usually the first item on any school supply list, and I have found over the years, this is the item that the kids (at least my kids) are the roughest on. If it’s good quality, you won’t have to buy another one for a few years. The secret to a really great backpack is to get one that is sturdy with reliable zippers and straps. It is also important to get one that is large enough for your child’s needs. The backpacks I bought my kids in first grade were a lot smaller than the ones I bought for fourth grade. Have you seen the amount of books these kids bring home these days just for a night of homework? I think we’ll look at a rolling back pack for junior high (this is the next time we are purchasing packs for the kiddos).
As for trends (most of the more sturdy reliable backpacks aren’t the most trendy), I remember as a kid, I would get to go to the craft store at the beginning of the school year and pick out a few patches to sew onto my backpack. Now, my parents weren’t as frugal as I am, and we got a new backpack every year, however, I wanted those patches so that mine looked unique and reflected my personal style. I plan to keep this tradition alive with my kids, but for more frugal reasons of course. A patch can go a long way to cover up a little rip or tear in a pack.

Do you have a frugal ways to save on Back to School supplies? Stay tuned for even more tips to saving!

Kara lives in Southern California with her husband, 2 kids and 2 dogs. She loves coffee, decorating, gardening, and watching re-runs of Friends. She has been couponing for about 2 ½ years and loves to find new ways to save for her family. She also has a passion for teaching others about how to use coupons and cut their grocery budget in half. She has taught with Josie at the last two SCS Strategic Shopping Seminars, the first one was held at her husbands Conference Center in Menifee, CA in February.

  • Andrea says:

    Thank you for this, perfect timing! My son is starting Kindergarten on Monday (year round school)! I am so happy that the stores start the sales after the 4th or I would have been paying full price!! But I used to think why in the world do they need to have back to school sales in July!!

  • heidi says:

    I am totally cheap, whenever someone is handing out free pencil, pens or rulers (like at the fair), I asks for a few. they add up you know.

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