Save Money on School Supplies

Save Money on School Supplies

If you find that back to school preparation throws your finances out of balance, try these tips to help bring back to school costs back within your budget.

I walked into WalMart today and saw her standing there: a mom. She had two children sitting in her shopping cart, one walking beside it and another clinging to her leg. She had the look of a battle weary soldier, with her feet dragging and her shoulders slumped. Child #1 was punching child #3. Child #2 was begging for a toy and child #4 was doing the “potty dance”.

As she approached the main aisle of the store she looked up and saw the display there. Her face lit up. She smiled and straightened her shoulders. There was joy and hope shining from her like I had never seen before.

You may ask “What was on that display that caused this mom to break forth in song singing, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning?” Was it spectacular jewelry or the latest in designer dresses? Oh, no no no! It was school supplies! For decades, moms everywhere have eagerly awaited the day when that first box of crayons and pack of notebook paper make their appearance.

For many, though, the first reaction of joy is quickly followed by a second reaction of pure dread. “How am I going to pay for all of this?” I sat last year and watched as a TV news reporter asked person after person at one store how much they had just spent for school supplies. I was shocked at the amounts people were spending. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. How could it cost $1000 for school supplies? Yes, you heard it right — $1000.

Basic supplies like crayons, pencils and notebook paper cost only about half the price of what they cost 20 years ago. In our school district, the basic items only costs around $15 and that includes an inexpensive backpack.

So what was the problem with the people on the news? Suddenly I noticed something interesting. Each person’s shopping cart wasn’t full of school supplies, it was full of clothes, shoes, and the latest in aerodynamic backpacks, some of which cost nearly as much as the first car my husband and I bought.

If you find that back to school preparation throws your finances out of balance, try these tips to help bring back to school costs back within your budget:

Make sure what you are buying is only what your children absolutely need and not simply what they want to make them “cool”. Expensive clothes, shoes, purses and lunch pails are not needs but wants. You don’t need to buy the best and most expensive backpacks in the world. One woman said that she paid $100 for her child’s backpack because she felt it would last longer. She was sure she got the better deal. She was proud that it lasted 3 years. Financially speaking, she could have bought two less expensive backpacks each year for three years and it still would have been cheaper than the one $100 backpack. More expensive isn’t always better.

If the school’s required supply list calls for a 24 count box of crayons, don’t buy a 96 count box. One teacher begged her parents to send only the 24 count box because the 24 box gives children some choice without overwhelming them. A five to eight year old can spend ages agonizing over what color to color something and too much choice slows things down in class.

Don’t buy everything at once. I have yet to understand how it could be that, the week before school starts, every child in the United States no longer has a stitch of clothing to wear and needs to have a whole new wardrobe. I think it is one of those traditions that we have followed for decades just because, as far as we can remember, it has always been done that way.

You have probably heard the story of the woman who always cut the ends off her ham before she baked it. When asked why she did that she said because her mom did it that way. When the mom was asked why she did it that way she said because her mom had done it that way, too. When grandma was asked the same question, she said “because I didn’t have a big enough pan and I had to cut it to make it fit”.

Years ago, most kids only had one or two outfits and those were generally work clothes. When they started school, they often got new school clothes because their clothes were actually worn out. They needed something a little better and something that wasn’t too small. Since they had gone barefoot all summer and winter was coming, many would get a new pair of shoes. So started a tradition. Most children now have reasonable clothes that they have been wearing all summer and can probably wear to school. If your children really need new jeans, get them one or two pairs now and then, in a month or so, buy them another pair.

So often we have an all or nothing mentality. I need gas, so instead of just putting in the $15 cash that I have in my pocket right now that would last a couple of days, I think I need to fill the tank and put it on my almost overloaded credit card. (Then later when I get the urge to buy a soda at a convenience store, I’ll rationalize “I’ve got the cash in my pocket, so I can afford it.”)

You don’t need to buy your children a year’s worth of clothes the week before school. I know there are a lot of good buys just before school, but if you have to charge them on a high interest credit card, they are no longer good buys.

Try to make do with what you already have. If the kids still have scissors from last year, reuse them. That goes for rulers, pencil boxes and other supplies, too. Go ahead and buy new crayons (they cost 20 cents a box here in back to school sales), folders and pencils. That way your children feel like they are getting something new.

If last year’s backpack is still good then reuse it. If your child wants something different, then use glue or fusible web and applique it with some fun trims and decorations. If they still insist that they need a new backpack, let them take their own money and buy one.

From A Reader

“Thank you for your article about back to school & buying school clothes. I had already purchased perfectly good clothes for my daughter this summer at garage sales, but like many others, was planning on buying “school clothes”. Why? I don’t know, because it’s just been one of those things people do without even considering why.”

“When I read that article, it was like a lightning bolt – of course, if the clothes she’s been wearing are in good condition, why go & buy more just because school is starting? You saved us a good deal of money, I’m sure, as well as many others who read that article. It’s all about changing the way we think about things – that’s the real key to saving money. Thanks again!” -Chantelle H.

The Author:

Jill Cooper and Tawra Kellam are frugal living experts and the authors of the Dining On A Dime Cookbook. Dining On A Dime will help you save money on groceries and get out of debt by cooking quick and simple homemade meals. For free tips & recipes visit

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