The lovely Bec writes:
My son starts Kindergarten OMG really soon (8/26). I just did an archive search on Want Not and discovered your post of July 25, 2007, which said this:
Againâ€”sadlyâ€”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 am dismayed because my sister, whose kids are 10 and 13 and who has taught elementary school herself for many years, told me–when I got the school supply list back in April–that I should WAIT until August to buy school supplies. Is this just like the whole Christmas thing when we just *think* everything is marked down?
Bec’s email made me wonder if I’d been hasty in my judgment, last year.
Upon further examination, I decided that I had been absolutely right and also completely wrong. That clears things up, right? Clear as mud?
So here’s my revised stance:
Back-to-school specials are awesome. Places like Target and Kmart and even some office supply places will run the sorts of specials where there are enormous bins of, say, Crayola crayons, for a dime a box. Or glue sticks 3-for-a-dollar. Those sorts of specials are obviously great. If something that you need is on a super-special like that, obviously it’s a score and maybe you should even get extras, either to put away for next year or to use for things like Operation Christmas Child in a few months. Most schools (at least around here) also accept donations of supplies for the kids who would otherwise go without. So, yes, obviously, snap up those cheap deals on the things all kids need, absolutely.
Back-to-school specials are designed to get you into the store. No one is going to argue about paying a dime for a box of crayons. That’s a great price, obviously, and it’s all good. Except that your child needs more than a box of crayons. Your child also needs notebooks and a lunch sack and binders and dry-erase markers (good Lord, those are the bane of my existence, the endless dry-erase markers we are asked to purchase) and everything else. Right? Now, you know that the store can’t possibly make any money by marking everything down, so what they do is mark down the already-cheap stuff, and put it in big barrels at the front, and then they quietly cackle with glee when you inevitably work your way to the back and pay and arm and a leg for the rest of your supplies. So in that case? Back-to-school sales are really not a great deal, if you still end up spending a lot on the stuff that wasn’t on sale.
As for how to save right now, the cost of gas makes this question even trickier. There was a time when I wouldn’t have hesitated to drive over to Target and pick up all of the cheapie specials and then driven across town to Big Lots to get the rest of our supplies. Nowadays, that’s not terribly practical; when all is said and done, I probably won’t save any money, doing that.
So what can you do? You can hedge your bets. Read the newspaper insert, try to pick the store that looks like it has the best deals, and go for it. Here’s a few things to keep in mind:
Do you have to buy everything right now? Last year I dropped an unholy amount of money on the kids’ school supplies before school started—we were in a new town, new district, and the last thing I wanted my kids to deal with was not having everything they needed as they started in a new environment. Well, it turns out that the “standard lists” are always given out, but each teacher has different requirements, and some even buy the kids’ supplies for them. I wasted a ton of money. (My daughter’s teacher supplied them with everything, my son’s teacher didn’t use half of what was on the list.) This year? I bought new lunchbags on clearance last year, and they’ll each have paper and pencils, but other than that, I will wait to hear from the teachers what they really need to have on hand before I shop.
Contribution items are needed all year. Most schools/teachers ask for thing like boxes of Kleenex and containers of soap and/or hand sanitizer. I would never suggest in a million years that you ignore these requests, reasoning that everyone else will buy them—please contribute communal items to the classroom if you’re at all able. But everyone knows that 99% of parents bring those items on the first day and then everything runs out halfway through the year. I no longer feel an obligation to pony up on the first day of school. I usually send something the first week if I can, but I also make a point of donating halfway through, and—even better—just check in with the teacher to see what’s needed, periodically. It will be appreciated, I promise, and maybe even cheaper. (Hint: Don’t buy those items where you’re buying school supplies; wait for them to go on special at the supermarket, or take a trip to the dollar store of your choice.)
Watch the clearance sales after the dust settles. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do, this year, to get the kids ready for school. But all of those school supplies are going to go on clearance after school resumes, and if you’re smart you’ll plan ahead and scoop up some deals for next year. Like those infernal dry-erase markers that cost so much.
Keep your eyes open for online deals. While you’ll have to do in-person shopping for most of this stuff, you never know when a great deal (with free shipping) might happen along, online. Just keep your eyes peeled. One year I got a Kleenex deal on Amazon that took us through the next two+ years of both home use and school donations, no lie.
And, Bec: Don’t sweat this year too much. This is a landmark event, and if you spend a little more this time, it’s okay. But you’ll be in good shape with your planning for next year, now!