Back-to-school woes

By Mir
July 25, 2007

The incomparably beauteous Joshilyn sent me the following and then immediately got onto Instant Messenger and said “Hi! I sent you a question!” just in case I’d perhaps neglected to check my email for the past 2 seconds. Anyway, here’s what she wrote:

Okay, so — last year, my son went through THREE, count em THREE backpacks. Two from Target. One from Lands End. He absolutely DESTROYED them. Given that the Land’s End one lasted him about a month longer than a Target one, I don’t think STURDIER is the way to go…I need cheap backpacks because I think I need to start thinking of them as disposable items.

Also, any hints on making back to school shopping HURT less?

Joss and I discussed this at length, but some of it is worth sharing, I think (not the parts about how, for example, my daughter is still nursing an enormous crush on her son, but the parts about backpack).

There are two separate questions here. The first one is the Eternal Backpack Debate. I addressed this once before in this post. I have become a very firm believer in buying a sturdy backpack from either LL Bean or Lands’ End and utilizing their Unconditional Guarantee if necessary. (Joshilyn received their Lands’ End pack as a hand-me-down and didn’t realize the warranty still applied.)

I’ve already exchanged my kids’ Bean packs once and will do so again if necessary. The process was painless even though we’d already had them for several years. They were well worth the money I spent.

The catch here, of course, is that Bean frequently clearances out old patterns/colors of their backpacks for half price, but July and August are not when you’re going to see those sales. Which means that if you’re shopping now you’ll be hard pressed to find a deal.

This leads nicely into the second question, which is How in the world do you keep from ending up broke after all the back-to-school shopping?

Again—sadly—if you’re asking me this now, there’s not a lot I can do for you for this year. Sure, there’ll be specials here and there on certain school supplies, but on the whole, if you’re shopping now, the industry has you right where they want you: In need.

I’ll be posting deals as I find them (hey, if all your kid needed are crayons you should be all set), but in general what you want to be doing is buying a year ahead when all of the back-to-school displays turn into clearance. That won’t help you too much right now, but keep it in mind for next year. My kids’ old school always asked for whiteboard markers (I don’t know yet if they’ll need them here or not) and those suckers are pricey; I took to buying them during the September clearance for the following year.

Other tips:

  • Shop office supply stores rather than the Walmarts and Targets. Yeah, they might not have all the sparkles and glitter of the other places, but the prices will generally be better.
  • Pricematch. Keep an eye on the sales, and don’t be afraid to pricematch for even greater savings, particularly if you’re buying a more expensive item (like a graphing calculator or something).
  • Don’t forget the discount stores. I came from the land of Big Lots, and I know not everyone has those, but there are similar stores everywhere. These sorts of discount places won’t have a stunning array of choices but what they do have will be value-priced.
  • Shop online. Depending on what you need, you may find better deals online than in a store. Just keep an eye on shipping costs.
  • Negotiate with your child. You know your situation and your child best, of course. I generally let my kids splurge on one item only. Their tastes still run fairly simple and cheap (so I’m buying one sparkly folder for $2 instead of a $.10 one) so right now it’s not a big deal, though it does communicate to them that in general we’re looking to spend less. As the kids grow, so do their desires, and I know parents who split costs on certain items if they exceed what’s budgeted. For essentials, obviously, you can’t do this. But if you’re arguing over what’s “cool” it’s something to consider.

I also am not one to do a big back-to-school clothes shopping trip, as I try to pick up items throughout the year as I find them on sale. So I’m just assuming we’re talking school supplies like pencils, here, rather than clothes. The only clothing I’d suggest picking up during the back-to-school frenzy is socks and underwear—they seem to always be on special around now.

Anyone else have other tips to share?


  1. This was timely- I just found out we need a graphing calculator (kid changeds schools and would not have needed it for her current school)! She also loses things regularly so it is unlikely she can keep one for the whole year. aagggghhh.

  2. I have to come out with a HUGE recommendation for the LLBean backpack. I have two for my pre-K and toddler boys. They are both cute and durable. Many, (many – sigh!) years ago, I became a loyal addict to LLBean’s backpacks after my beloved LLBean backpack was the only bag to not break or rip or fall apart from the strain of an enormous load of books in my first year of law school. My classmates went through many a bag, but mine lasted all three years. And that’s a lot of book carrying. They may cost a little bit more – but they will also exchange it anytime without question for any reason.

    And thank you for your website. I love it. It’s another addiction of mine!

  3. Everything you need will be going on sale somewhere in the next month. The Sunday newspaper sale flyers are your best friend – look at every one, and comparison shop that way. You’d be surprised at the stores that have great deals – even grocery stores can sometimes give you the best price if they’ve got the right item on sale! Now take those flyers that have the best prices to one of the stores you need to visit anyway, and make sure it’s a store that will price match. (Target will price match – I don’t know about others). Keep in mind that most places will price match only the exact item, and will only match exact prices, not %off sales. Voila! Shopping done in one place, with the best prices from everywhere!

  4. Im just here to second the opinion on LL Bean backpacks. My first grader carried his all last year and it still looks brand new. In kindergarten, the Target backpack I had bought him fell apart before Christmas. They have great sales on the backpacks at LL Bean too. I think if you hit the sale right, they are less than twenty bucks and they are well worth it.

  5. I’ll third the opinion on L. L. Bean backpacks. My kids used them last year and the backpacks still look totally brand-new. We used to rip through a W*lmart one by Christmas. (Oh, crap, I am reading your comments more thoroughly now and see I am saying ALMOST VERBATIM what another commenter said! Well, I will leave mine, so people know it’s TWICE as true!)

    I do what you do, and buy clothes on sales/clearances throughout the year, so I never need to buy anything for back-to-school clothes.

  6. In the category of backpacks, Jansport also has lifetime guarantees. My son’s backpack carries quite a load because his braille books are heavy, heavy, heavy, and he ripped out one strap on his wheeled backpack. I shipped it to the plant, and we got it back repaired in just a few weeks. I’m with the gorgeous Mir; buy quality once, and you won’t have to replace it every year.

  7. This year I am going to try an Lands End backpack for my son. For the last three years he has used a kids GAP backpack and it is STILL in perfect condition, but I will let him get a new one this year and will keep the “spare” one for other things he might need one.

    I’m especially interested in the backpack that unzips around the top so that the contents don’t spill all over. My son is NOTORIOUS for not zipping up his backpack all the way or leaving them completely open. I’m really, really hoping that a bag that does not flip itself open and spew it’s contents everywhere is our answer. Has anyone used that bag?

    We tried a messenger bag for about a month last year. It started to fall apart almost immediately, was too heavy for his shoulder and was just a big PITB.

  8. Can’t say enough about buying quality backpacks. My son, now 20, has gone through all his years of school with only three Land’s End backpacks. There were three of them only because he outgrew them, not because he wore them out. My 18-year-old daughter is still on her second backpack since I learned from experience to start out with a bigger one. She had one L. L. Bean (replaced once with absolutely no hassle), and is still using a Jansport that we bought four years ago, simply because we were both sick of looking at the same light blue L. L. Bean. One $50.00 backpack ends up being way cheaper than a whole slew of $10.00 ones.

  9. The LLBean backbacks are GREAT. My son is going into 8th grade & has used his backpack for 3 1/2 years now. Before that, he went thru several backpacks, including a Lands End where the zipper wouldn’t stay zipped when the pack was filled with a heavy load. I don’t think we’ll ever by another one that isn’t LLBean!

  10. I bought my son the backpack destroyer two bags at The Children’s Place. He had a beach one that he used for a while, it still works, but I got him a sturdier one when he started to carry more books and stuff. We use the beach one for karate sparring gear.

    I got the bags at the TCP outlet (bricks and mortar store). $5 for the beach one, and a whopping $2 for the sturdy one. Which has taken much abuse and still looks new! Look for packs in the winter after the school rush is over. The sturdy one was $17.50 regular price.

  11. About the graphing calculators – right at the end of the college semesters, usually the second week in May and the second week in December, all the college students dump their graphing calculators on eBay. I’ve seen perfectly good TI-83s for $10. They get snapped up fairly quickly though, so grab one as soon as you know you need one. By the beginning of the next semester they’re gone.

  12. WOW. I promise not to send you an e-mail & then IM.

    I thought Land’s End had a guarantee on their backpacks??? I’ve had the same backpack (through college) for over 8 years now. And it’s great!!!!

  13. I know you’ll give us the heads up when you hear of the next backpack sale at LLBean, right? I’ll be waiting with bated breath!

  14. With the durability of the LLBean backpack and the guarantee of your satisfaction (not to mention repairs, if needed), it is by far the best value on the market.

  15. Believe it or not, I found good prices on school supplies at CVS last August. Much cheaper than Target on folders, binders, and composition books. If you have a store card at CVS, you get points and coupons every once in a while that can make it even less painful.

  16. How exactly do you exchange an LL Bean backpack, and what are the conditions? Also, are you allowed to change the color of the backpack when exchanging it for a newer one?

  17. Cassidy: Every time I’ve exchanged with them, I’ve just called up and explained why I wanted the exchange (for this last one, it was because the handles for the rolling backpacks were sticking) and they went ahead and ordered me the replacements and sent them along with a return label for the defective ones. I used the box from the new ones to send the old ones back.

    LL Bean’s policy is “Guaranteed. Period.” So pretty much they will take it back for any reasonable complaint.

    In both cases my original color was no longer available so I was allowed to select something else. I don’t know what they’d do if your original color was still being made, though.

    Hope that helps!

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