Back-to-school, revisited

By Mir
August 4, 2008

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:

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 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!


  1. I discovered (too late) last year that CVS is a great place to buy school supplies. They discount all the basics around this time of year, and I usually have to run to CVS for SOMETHING else, so it’s not adding a trip.

  2. In NYC, school doesn’t start for another 4 weeks, yet every Sunday, there are inserts for Staples, Office Max, Office Depot, Target, etc, showing some sort of back-to-school specials. I scan them and stop by to score whatever is on sale (most items for 5, 10 or 25 cents!) when I’m out and about on other errands (or on my way to/from work). By the time school starts, I may only need a few more items and I won’t be too concerned about getting them on the cheap because I’ve saved so much on the basics.

  3. For the big-ticket back to school items like lunch bags and backpacks, it’s worth it to think outside the Big Box. After being sorely disappointed at the backpack offerings at Walmart (I was afraid they’d fall apart if I looked at them too hard) I took my son to Ross, where he picked out a very attractive Nike backpack that had been marked down to $7. (SO proud. He’s going into first grade, but shops for accessories on a graduate school level.) The place was packed with insulated lunch packs for $3 to $5, too. Those discount stores are vying for our back to school dollars… and they sell nice shoes. With gas prices so high, you’ve got to maximize your shopping, so you’d be a fool not to look at the shoes, right?

  4. This is also a good time to stock up if, like in our area, your school works on block schedule. Our high school is on block so it’s always good to see what you can find out from next semester’s teachers since there are no ‘new semester’ sales in January!

  5. Those dry erase markers have been killing me this year (along with WASHABLE markers). Everywhere has regular markers for less than a dollar…but washable ones are $2+!

    Anyways, back to the dry erase markers…Walgreens, this week 4-pack, $1.99. Also at Walgreens, binders, 2 for $3.99. I only need one binder, but the cheapest I can find for one is $3.00. Why not get a second to have one hard when this one falls apart (or for next year)?

    Once I run by Walgreens, I have all my school supplies! I’ve slowly been buying them when I see them on sale.

  6. I think it’s best to keep the list with you in your purse so you can get what you need as you find it on sale. For instance, I nabbed bunches of glue sticks and pink erasers when they were 2 for $.20. But I waited to buy the colored pencils and some other items until I found them on sale. I noticed in the Toys R Us add that they had some good deals on Crayola brand stuff. Only a good deal if you can get in, buy what you need, and get out!

    I am ever so thankful that my daughter’s school does not require the parents to buy much.

  7. Working at a school, a lot of parents grumble about purchasing kleenex, paper towels, etc. I am here to tell you, each kid uses AT LEAST a box of kleenex in half of the year.

    Another thing teachers need, but don’t ask for is, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, pencils, and crayons. Pencils is the big thing. Most people don’t replenish their child’s supply and the teachers end up giving them what they need. What most people don’t realize, that comes out of the teacher’s own pocket. So, if there are deals on pencils, crayons, pick them up!

    One more thing… every year I give my child’s classroom teacher a gift card to a teacher store. They can pick up what they want for their classroom. It seems to be a hit every year!

  8. I second the ‘wait and see’ approach when getting school supplies. Twice now I’ve been suckered into buying everything on the generic all-grade list, and then found out that specific teachers each had their own lists that varied widely froom what I already bought. (I’m a slow learner, what can I say.) Luckily, I’ve been able to shove the extra supplies into a closet and use them as needed, but it would save you a lot of pain (and money) if you just wait and see what your child’s teacher wants you to buy.

  9. Mir, bec here, thank you so much for responding so promptly to my query. I feel better…I may even wait (or keep my receipts) until the Open House when I actually meet the teacher.

    On this same subject, everyone should look for price reductions after they buy things online, because I happened to check on Lands End today and saw that the new (bright red!) lunchbox-thingie I bought for my son just recently with one of your free shipping coupons had gone down by $5. I hopped onto the online chat just to ask, and the woman practically handed me $5 through the computer, it was that easy.

  10. One thing I find I feel differently about than some of my friends is this: I don’t think kids need a new wardrobe in order to go to a new year of school. They need new clothes when they outgrow the old ones, but not “because it’s September.” And so when I see those articles that say families spend an average of $700 per child on back-to-school clothes, I can’t relate: it’s not just that I buy things year-round on clearances, it’s also that I don’t think back-to-school is a new-clothes occasion.

  11. Um, also, I do realize this article was NOT about clothes, but about supplies. But I got a little Caught Up!

  12. Wal-mart and Target always have school supply sales. You can also buy some things in bulk at Sam’s. check your local grocery store too!

    Last year we donated to the classroom, Clorox wipes from Sam’s Club (pack of 3), pack of 3 Puff’s large tissues, ziploc bags in gallon, quart and sandwich sizes, hand sanitizer. These were immensely appreciated.

  13. Don’t forget that you need to pick up an extra box of kleenex for YOURSELF when your little one heads off to kindergarten!

  14. Janet, you are absolutely right. We were just watching his baby videos the other night. I canNOT get my mind around this! -sniff-!

  15. I second your advice on reading the ads. I’ve found good deals at Target, Walgreen’s, and the office supply stores. I have a “Fill the bag and get 15% off” bag sitting on my kitchen table right now.
    I also ask my students to buy two of every folder and notebook now while they’re cheap instead of paying $1 for a replacement folder in January.

  16. you can also price match everything at Walmart. One stop shopping! They don’t honor b1/g1 though.

  17. I’m a teacher, and I end up buying supplies for the kids whose parents can’t/won’t buy stuff for them. Which this last year was 90% of them.

    So I have been watching the Sunday paper ads like a hawk, and then I make a few friends come with me and buy the limit of whatever things are on sale for a penny. The other week I got folders, pencil cap erasers, and rulers for a penny each, and this week was pencil sharpeners and pencil cases. I figure if things keep up this way, I can equip most of my class for under 10 bucks.

    If you’re just buying for your own kids, you’re probably a little more flexible on prices, but, since I’m buying for 20, I refuse to pay more than the bare minimum out of my own pocket.

  18. I’m late to the discussion, but keep in mind that kids do not stop using up their teachers’ supplies after elementary school. I teach high school and every year I have to supply my own tissues, hand sanitizer, hand soap (for the bathrooms/lab sinks), pencils, and paper for my students. I know it is a pain to send stuff to the middle school/high school teachers (since each child has multiple ones), but small donations are always welcome. Last year I handed out almost 300 pencils before I pulled the plug on the school supply cabinet.

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