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:
- 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.
- 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.
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?