The sun is setting earlier and the air is getting cooler, which means just one thing: It’s about time to be heading back to school. Have you made your shopping list yet?
These days, most teachers send a list of supplies that students need for the coming year. For frugal shoppers, these lists can seem lengthy — and sometimes pretty picky when you’re hoping to score some bargains on the basics.
Still, you can make the most of your back-to-school shopping budget if you make good choices while you’re out and about. Here’s what to look for in pens, paper and more.
Buy at the Big Box, Not at an Office Supply Store
First things first: Where you shop for school supplies is just as important as what you buy. In nearly every case, big box stores like Walmart and Target are the big winners when it comes to offering deals on school supplies. This is largely because they want to get you in the door with enticements like notebooks for 50 cents so you’ll stick around and splurge on some bigger ticket items that they also sell. To make the most of the savings, shop with a list and stick to the plan by staying firmly planted in the seasonal aisle.
Sure, a dedicated office supply store like Staples will also offer sales, but they usually don’t hold a candle to the big savings at Walmart. If you have very specific needs, you might want to check it out, but Staples is really geared toward adults who have money to blow on business expenses that they’ll either write off or be reimbursed for.
Buy Wooden Pencils, Not Mechanical Pencils
In general, wooden pencils are cheaper than mechanical ones, costing as little as 13 cents apiece compared to 22 cents apiece for mechanical ones. For kids who have trouble holding on to their supplies without losing them, you definitely want to get the cheapest possible solution here. A standard No. 2 pencil is also more environmentally friendly than a plastic model that will end up in a landfill sooner rather than later.
The trouble with mechanical pencils is that they need to be refilled with lead, which you have to buy separately. This may happen more often than you think, since young writers tend to apply a lot of pressure and will snap the lead easily and often. They can also be frustrating when the pencils jam, leaving your kid high and dry without an important tool.
Buy an Accordion Folder, Not Binders
An expandable accordion folder with dividers is a great out-of-the-box solution for organizing notes and handouts for multiple subjects. It stays flat when it’s empty so it fits easily into a backpack, and it helps your child stay organized by keeping all subjects in a single location — no worries about leaving the binder you needed at school by mistake. They can be had for about $6 or $7, whereas you could easily spend $10 or $20 on five binders.