Personal Finance Smart Spending

Buy This Not That For Back to School

Written by Beth Trach

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.

On the other hand, some teachers or school insist on binders and may even specify the size and color. In this case, get the cheapest. Binders usually take such a beating when used for homework (as opposed to sitting primly on an office shelf for reference) that you won’t be able to reuse them next year anyway.

Buy Loose Leaf Paper, Not Notebooks

In general, loose leaf paper will cost less per page than a spiral-bound notebook, and it works perfectly with the aformentioned accordion folder. The real savings come from the fact that you will not waste nearly as much paper by the end of the year. When you have a separate bound notebook for each subject, there’s usually plenty of leftover paper that goes to waste when kids either file or toss their stuff on locker clean-out day. With loose leaf, you can dole out paper when needed rather than investing in a bunch you won’t use.

If you’re forced to buy separate notebooks, consider getting one five-subject version instead of several individual ones, since you’ll likely spend less. You can also encourage your kids to tear out their notes and save what’s left for the next school year or as car-friendly doodle pads to make those summer road trips a little more bearable.

Buy Markers, Not Highlighters

A basic pack of Crayola markers usually costs a lot less than specialized highlighters, and they’ll serve you well for a variety of uses. Kids can use them for art projects and coloring, then grab the yellow one for highlighting when the need arises. With more and more work happening online these days, those highlighters aren’t likely to get a lot of use anyway.

If your child is the organized type who delights in having color-coded notes, you may want to comparison shop to see if colored pens for underlining will cost less that a pack of highlighters. If so, scoop them up, since they’ll be useful for editing papers and taking color-coded notes in addition to just highlighting.

The Bottom Line

About those school supply lists: They often get reused from year to year and may contain items that are no longer used in the classroom. It’s always a good idea to check with your child’s teacher to see what, if anything, can be eliminated. If you’re not able to get in touch, save your receipts and don’t let your kids put their names on anything until you can touch base with the teacher and make sure everything is actually being used. If not, take it back for a full refund!

You should also do some “shopping” in your house before hitting the store to make sure you don’t already have some office supplies that can be used as a close approximation of the items on your school shopping list. The more leftovers from last year that you can use for free, the lower your final bill will be.

Got any tips for keeping school costs down? Share them in the comments!

About the author

Beth Trach

Elizabeth Trach is a writer and editor living in Newburyport, MA. She also sings in a band, grows almost all her own food, and occasionally even cooks it. You can catch up on all her adventures in frugal living and extreme gardening at Port Potager.

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