How to Pay Nothing For School Supplies

school supplies

This doesn’t have to cost you anything!

Years ago I unwittingly stopped at Walmart the night before the start of school. It looked like the set of a B-list horror film. Hoards of red-eyed parents slogged through aisles of Hello Kitty notebooks and their cheaper neon graphic counterparts. I questioned whether I should even have children if this scene awaited me, but concluded Walmart was no place to make major life decisions.

This weekend is tax-free back-to-school shopping in our state. Buyers beware: don’t overspend just because you’re getting a 7% discount. If you received a 7% off store coupon would you consider it a great deal?

Thankfully, back-to-school does not have to be a frenzied hundred-dollar endeavor. Since my kids aren’t in school yet, I tracked down tips from a seasoned mother of three, my friend Kathryn from Entitlement Monster. Her children currently span elementary through high school so she’s shopped the gamut of school lists. And she so graciously shared how she pays nothing for school supplies by scoring great deals and then opening a Supply Store where her kids pay for their goods at the price she paid. She also detailed the invaluable financial and life lessons her kids absorbed through this approach. Many thanks, Kathryn, for taking the time to share your awesome ideas with us!

But first, let me share my supply savings strategies, a la my 10-year-old self. Coming from a family of five and having read enough Little House on the Prairie to appreciate the principle “waste not, want not,” I would:

  1. Dig through our communal bucket of crayons in search of the essential colors in decent shape. Repeat this exercise for folders, notebooks, scissors, and paper. Then repeat on behalf of the little sibs.
  2. If this proved fruitless, I’d opt for the 16-count box of crayons instead of 24. Who needs gray and pink? It’s a marketing scam. (Obviously I’m not artistic.)

When these two tips don’t cut it, as I’m sure they mostly won’t, Kathryn’s ideas should do nicely.

1. Build a stash of school supplies. Kathryn keeps them in a chest. After all, anything in a chest is automatically more fun. Get the supply lists and start watching for sales/clearance. But don’t rely solely on back to school sales or limit yourself to what’s on the list. Inevitably the kids will run out of something or you’ll get a letter calling for more supplies mid-year. Take a picture of the list with your smart phone and refer back to it later if needed. Avoid paying full retail prices later in the year by stocking supplies throughout the year as you find good prices through these avenues:

  • Clearance or deep sales. Check large grocery stores, Target, Office Max, discount stores, etc. Scan for these during your normal errands.
  • Garage sales. Great for binders, backpacks, and sometimes brand-new supplies like crayons.
  • Backpack sales. Take the kids to pick one when they’re 75% if you don’t find them at yard sales.
  • In late July/early August, places like Office Max have “penny deals” where if you spend $5, you can get things like pencil packs, erasers, pens, rulers, etc. for just a penny. Don’t go there just for the penny deals, but keep a list of office supplies to replenish (like printer paper), or save errands you need to run in that area for this time of year.
  • Dollar stores are great for some higher-priced items that are hard to find sales on, such as headphones and antibacterial wipes.

2. Open the store. Before school starts, let the kids “shop” your stash with their allowance money earned from chores. In Kathryn’s house, “chores” means much more than cleaning your room. Her kids earn cash by regularly doing jobs like cooking dinner, doing dishes, cleaning the bathroom, or mowing the lawn. But what kind of parent makes kids pay for their own school supplies? Parents that wish to:

  • Teach kids to manage their money and make good buying decisions.
  • Motivate kids to take care of their stuff. If they can reuse last year’s backpack or other items, that’s more money they can spend elsewhere.
  • Show kids they don’t need the nicest, shiniest, or hippest school items. For example, Kathryn’s oldest child rocked the same backpack for 3 years, “and last year it was held together by duct tape. In rags, it finally gave up the ghost in June,” Kathryn recalled.
  • Teach kids that money comes from hard work.
  • Convey that money is not mainly for recreation or saving, but for meeting needs.

Check out this picture of her youngest child’s school list. Normal retail price would have averaged $60 including the backpack. Her total cost was $10.65.

$10.65 for child. $0 for mom.

$10.65 for child.
$0 for mom.

What if you over-stock? Kathryn says they donate surplus supplies that sit unused for too long. Many homeless shelters and after school programs distribute supplies donations to children in need.

If this system sounds daunting, remember that you can stock your supply throughout the year. Just start keeping your eye out for good deals on school supplies during your normal shopping trips and Hyou stash as you go. Kathryn’s children love shopping the store and have learned valuable financial lessons in a fun milieu.

What are you back-to-school savings tips? Do you have a system for teaching your kids about money?

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14 Responses to “How to Pay Nothing For School Supplies”

  1. Luke Fitzgerald says :

    Great tips! I think it’s a great opportunity to teach them about money. There are some things they have to get. But they will also see things they want to get, but dont really need. Balancing those two things is the key to personal finance 🙂

  2. Holly says :

    I spent around $100 total this year for 1st grade and preschool. I wasn’t happy about the preschool part because I already pay tuition for the school – I didn’t think I should have to stock the place up too! =)

    • Kalie says :

      I never thought about having to pay for preschool supplies! We will be first-time preschool parents this fall but haven’t received a supply list. I agree though, if you’ve paid tuition you shouldn’t have to supply much more.

  3. Michelle says :

    This is a great idea! Love how it can teach children how to use their money as well.

  4. Abigail says :

    I don’t think I’d make our kid pay for school supplies, but it sounds like a great system overall.

    I agree that it’s important to jump on penny deals, though I usually only see those during back-to-school season.

    And thank you for mentioning donation as an option. Some parents can’t afford this stuff. Which means either the kid is humiliated or the teacher ends up spending his/her own money to get what their students can’t.

    • Kalie says :

      I used to volunteer at an inner-city after school program and they distributed donated supplies, including new backpacks. I know how much this meant to those kids and it’s stuck with me.

  5. Hannah says :

    This system is really creative, and I like having kids pay for their supplies even if you have to inflate their pay rate for a while to help them afford everything.

    Also, help your kids think creative before cool. My little brother (now in college) told me he was about to buy a $150 backpack (waterproof), so that he can carry his books on his motorcycle in the rain. Not only is that wildly unsafe, a few garbage bags could do the trick just as easily. I think I managed to convince him on both points.

  6. DC YAM says :

    I really like the tip of using a chest or something else to store products throughout the year. While I don’t have kids and therefore don’t need to buy school supplies, i think this can work as a good strategy for other things as well. It’s always better to buy off-season when things are on sale.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m also a fan of stocking up on things you normally buy when they are on sale. And have a good system of organization helps make this an option.

  7. M says :

    Am I the only one a bit offended by that supply list? It seems overwhelming.

    I remember when I was young, my parents gave us school supplies as Christmas presents. It was awesome — really. I loved learning.

    For those who are poor and not just pretending to be, though, please keep in mind that if a teacher mandates supplies in public schools in California, then the school (or teacher if the list is not approved by admin) must be willing to provide it. I provide 3-ring binders, pens, highlighters and paper in my high school classroom. Most students bring their own, but those who can’t or who lost a pen or just had their backpack stolen sure do appreciate the avaialability of what they need.

    I also provide tissues, lotion, hand sanitizer (no sinks in my room), and occasional bus money. Those are just my way of being welcoming.

    I teach in a high-poverty area and have several homeless students. School absolutely must be 100% free for them.

    • Kalie says :

      It does seem like some of the school lists are excessive. We often wait to replenish craft supplies as Christmas gifts. That’s wonderful that you help your students out so much with supplies. The approach I’m describing is designed for quite a different set of students. The woman I interviewed designed this approach as a way to fight entitlement in her kids and teach them responsibility and financial decision-making.

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