How to back-to-school shop like a boss: tips for saving money and being kind

For some parents, school supply lists are a blight on an otherwise happy time: back-to-school season.

It's not easy to gather up all of those verrrryyyy specific supplies. But because there's an important reason your kiddo has been asked to bring these things, we're doing what we've gotta do.


At the top of everyone's supply list? A rubber band ball, of course. Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images.

It can get pricey to purchase those essentials, especially for families with more than one student.

Believe it or not, it is possible to find your back-to-school joy again ... by saving money on back-to-school necessities.

To make sure I'm only giving you the best-of-the-best tips, I asked parents and teachers for some cash-saving ideas, plus I threw in a few of my own, to help you feel like you're scoring your own personal victories by saving money while buying school supplies this year.

1. Check to see if your state offers tax-free shopping days on back-to-school items.

2. You can also check retailers' websites for back-to-school sales.

Save time by using a website that aggregates the sales for you! Nicole Johansen, a mom of two and teacher for 12 years, recommends the website Surviving a Teacher's Salary. While geared toward teachers, the "hot deals" section will be useful for anyone buying back-to-school supplies.


Photo by Mike Mozart/Flickr.

3. Use money-saving apps.

Target's Cartwheel is just one example, but apps can let you look for items on your supply list that are also earmarked for additional discounts. If I'd have known about it before I bought my kids' supplies, I'd have saved another $15.

4. If you have an Amazon Prime membership, this is an excellent time to use it.

You'll find great deals on back-to-school items, and even better, you can sign up for Amazon Smile (and still use get Prime benefits). With Amazon Smile, an organization you choose will earn 0.5% of all of your purchases. Signing up is free — and may I suggest you designate your school (or school's PTO) as the recipient?

5. Buy a few extra essentials while they're on sale.

Many parents suggest buying a few extra "essentials," like pencils and erasers, during the back-to-school sales — you can get many items for 50% off regular prices — and hanging onto them for later in the school year when your child runs out.

Image by Thinkstock.

6. Coordinate bulk shopping with other parents if you can.

One friend suggested going in on bulk-item purchases with some other parents. Buying in bulk is often cheaper, and teaming up with other parents whose kids are in class with yours is a great way to save a little cash.

7. Ask the teacher what items are needed most urgently.

If your budget is tight, ask the teacher what items the kids will need right now and what you can purchase midway through the year. For example, they'll need pencils now but might have enough boxes of tissues, which means you can buy those later.

8. Look for products you can use year after year.

Some stores offer lifetime guarantees — seriously, lifetime! — on products your kids can use for school. Staples, for examples, sells binders that are guaranteed for life.

Beyond getting the absolute necessities, there are a few ways to spread some back-to-school kindness to teachers and other students if your budget allows.

Not all parents can afford to fulfill their students' supply list. There is nothing wrong with or shameful about that. But it's hard for kids, regardless of how much we adults understand life circumstances.

If you have a little wiggle room in your budget, you can pick up some extra supplies on the list and just bring 'em in.

Alternatively, you can ask the teacher specifically what supplies he or she could really use, shortly after the year begins and once they're able to take stock of what the classroom really needs.

Gifts cards for supplies are another way to help a teacher out.

I asked Katie Sluiter, a mom of three and a teacher of 13 years, what's most helpful for her — general Visa gift cards, retail store gift cards, or online gift cards.

"For me, I would welcome anything," she said. But your best bet? Ask the teacher which would be most helpful.


Not the actual gift cards teachers usually ask for, unless of course they're integrating movies and fishing into their lessons. Photo by 401(K)2012/Flickr.

Johansen gets excited when she talks about teacher specialty stores, like Lakeshore Learning. She says the supplies are more expensive, but the quality is much higher — and these are "everyday" items.

"For elementary school teachers, just walk into a teaching store with them and watch their eyes light up — it's like Christmas in August. Pretty much anything in there is what we don't request but would love," she says.

If you're more comfortable purchasing supplies instead of gift cards, there are other items teachers need but are reluctant to request. For Sluiter, it's poster board and presentation notepads. For her kindergarten teacher friends, it's plastic baggies. Just ask your student's teacher what they need that didn't make the class supply list.

Image by Thinkstock.

A friend of mine who's a teacher says that it's helpful to have a bag of packaged snacks in her desk for those students who come to school on empty stomaches. Whether the students were running late or didn't have breakfast because of financial limitations, teachers know it's hard for kids to learn when they're hungry. Check in with the teacher for any classroom allergy restrictions, then pick up some packaged snacks and drop 'em off!

There are a lot of suggestions here, but we're each only capable of so much and everybody understands that, especially your child's teacher. So don't worry; no one is looking at you, wondering why you didn't go above and beyond to bring in even more supplies.

"Any help is appreciated by teachers!" Johansen says. "Heck, a word of affirmation or acknowledgement that they spend their own money to better the education of all students would boost spirits!"

Teachers are teachers because they believe in what they're doing, not because they want a large glue stick collection.

"My favorite part of teaching is the personal relationships," Johansen says. "I adore getting to know my students — they are a part of my life forever, whether they know it or not."

"I love that my job makes a difference in the world," she says, "even if it's one person that is changed or helped. I love the laughter and love that comes with my job."

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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