How to Buy School Supplies: 4 Tips for Conquering Your Back to School List

school supplies, kids smiling, back to school, hallway

It happens every June. The folder (orange striped, 3-pronged, 2-pocket, with reinforced grommets) that you searched for in four different stores last August gets returned, unused, at the end of the year. That is, if you are lucky enough to get it back at all because all the scissors (blunt tip, self-sharpening) have disappeared. And the worst part is that in less than two months you will have to start the process again.

You can face the questions of “which supplies to buy” and “what supplies your child really needs” with confidence. Here are some back to school tips and tricks to help start your student off to a successful year:

1. Buy all the items on your child’s school supply list

Yes, some school supplies get wasted, with your child using only three pages from an expensive notebook (sea green, 5-subject, 3-pocket, plastic cover). Some items on the school supply list may be nearly impossible to find. Personally, I just chalk up those monetary and time expenses to CODB (cost of doing business) and move on.

Still, the majority of the items on the list are needed and used in the classroom. It is frustrating for the teacher and embarrassing for the student when she comes to school on the first day without the right supplies. Organization is a skill that is taught in the classroom. Having a uniform language (as in, “Ok, class please put your homework papers in your red folder.”) streamlines and facilitates the process.

2. Label school supplies obsessively

Children lose things. The only hope for getting them back is if they are labeled. I print out return label stickers, the ones that come 80 to a page, with our last name. My children and I stick them on everything, down to individual markers (27 colors, thin, chisel tip). Supplies will still get lost, but at least some of them will get returned to your student. At least some usable items will come back to you at the end of the year. And you would not believe the crazy places around town where I have found pens (blue or black ink, erasable) labeled with our name.

3. Choose the higher end version of certain supplies

School supplies can be an expensive proposition, especially if you are buying for multiple children. For most supplies, I am extremely budget conscious because the items (index cards, 3×5, college ruled) are essentially disposable. But I’ve learned as a mother and a teacher that it may be worth it to pay more for certain things.

Plastic folders, for example, are a must. They will not disintegrate mid-year. Binders (1/2”, purple, clear view) have ratings on the spines from “economy” to “durable” to “heavy duty”. I have found that “durable” usually gets us through the year without the rings separating or the covers falling off.

4. Shop early for school supplies

When that school supply list arrives in July, no one in your house wants to think about school yet. The stores, on the other hand, have already put out their Back to School displays. If you can muster the drive to buy early you will be rewarded with low traffic aisles, clearly marked prices, and in-stock products in their proper bins. You will spend less money and less time tracking down even that impossible to find supply pouch (mauve, 6 x 8 inches, zippered, 3-hole punched).

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I do cheat on the number of pencils (#2, 3000 sharpened) I send in.  And, no, I do not sharpen each one. But I do buy all the tissue boxes, no matter how many. With the seasonal allergies in our family, I feel it’s the least I can do.

Esther is a teacher, writer and speaker with more than 20 years of experience educating all ages from preschool through adult. Esther is also the proud, but tired, mother of nine wonderful children and grandmother of two. In her spare time (!!) she likes to cook, read and is the CEO of a local non-profit food pantry.

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