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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