The last week of each month always finds me with my spreadsheet and calculator, fine-tuning our budget for the coming month. August seems to be one of the worst months for extra expenses, most of which come from outfitting our son for the next school year.
Although I am one of those weirdoes who loves office supplies, notebooks, paper, pens, and stationery, I don’t particularly relish the Rite of Late Summer that is shopping for school supplies. Invariably, it’s at least a two-stop ordeal, and since I am not really a shopper at heart the whole rigmarole gets old in a hurry.
Fortunately, I have a few tricks up my sleeve to make the process as painless and inexpensive as possible. There are deals to be had and bargains to be found everywhere when it comes to school supplies, but even so without utilizing a few tricks and strategies your purchases can quickly add up and infringe upon other earmarks in your back-to-school budget. In addition to watching the sales circulars and checking prices online before you go, here are a few tips from a seasoned veteran, followed by some advice for those of you who may not be able to afford some or all of the items on your child’s back-to-school list:
- Shop your stash. We begin each school-supply buying season by taking a quick inventory of what we already have and seeing if any of it is on the list. That awesome two-for-one deal you found on construction paper a few months back? This is when that second, as-yet-unopened package comes in very handy.
- Timing is everything. In a recent NPR story on the topic of school supplies, it was reported that the opening bell of school supply shopping season has already rung, even if most parents didn’t hear it. Even so, you have to be careful about when you shop. Go too early – before the sales begin – and you risk spending more than you truly have to spend. Go too late and every last package of white, ruled 4×6 index cards in your area code will have already been snapped up. The timing of sales will vary from region to region, but just like Christmas, retailers are starting earlier every year, so watch for local ads and announcements.
- Buy in bulk. As you already know, Jo and I are fans of keeping our pantries stocked through planned purchases in large quantities, but when it comes to school supplies the usual approach doesn’t work quite as well unless you can use the same items in your home or business. Supply lists may stay the same from year to year, but it has been my experience that with each grade level supply needs and requirements differ, between some years more than others; if you can, take a look at the needs for the next year while making this year’s buying plan. If you’re going to need to buy wide-ruled spiral notebooks for ever and ever amen, pick up as many as you need to get a price break – whether it’s buying in a package of 10 at the warehouse store or the special eight-for-a-dollar deal at the drugstore.
- Buy in bulk with friends. Compare lists with friends whose kids attend different schools as well as your own. Find out which discount clubs, warehouse stores, or special discounts the members of your group are eligible to use, and plan accordingly.
- Learn about school-sponsored offers. This is the first year that my son’s school is neither running a school supply co-op nor making bundled supplies available through an outside service. While I can’t remember either of these options from my own youth, they’re apparently very common, sometimes as buying-a-whole-tree-and-passing-the-savings-on-to-you setups but oftentimes as fundraisers. Which brings me to my next piece of advice:
- Beware school-sponsored offers. In some cases, supply packages sold by the PTO or PTA at a school are sold at a premium rather than a discount – you could save quite a bit of money by shopping for these items yourself, even if you didn’t find them on sale or buy them in bulk. I’m not knocking the efforts of these organizations; they’re shrewdly banking on parents either wanting the convenience of writing one check and being done with it, or parents leaving the supply purchasing until the last minute and running out of options, or both. We all know that schools are underfunded and that times are hard for the organizations trying to raise money for our schools. Just be aware that the bundled offers can include a de-facto donation.
What if you can’t afford school supplies?
For some families, keeping everyone fed is a challenge, never mind finding and buying the correct type of colored pencils. What can you do if you can’t afford school supplies for your children, or you can afford some supplies, but not every item on the list?
- Shop your stash – creatively. The same advice applies here, though perhaps you will need to interpret the list a little more freely. If the list calls for a box of a dozen standard #2 pencils that you can’t buy, but you can round up a dozen #2 pencils in different colors or of varying lengths, you’ve got a dozen #2 pencils and can check that item off your list.
- Watch for news about supply drives. In many communities, charitable organizations sponsor annual school supply drives for children and families in need. If you hear of a school supply drive, note the name of the organization, and contact them directly to find out how you can receive supplies for your child(ren). Well-organized charities try to spread the word about these drives far and wide, so watch for flyers on notice boards and ads in the newspaper, listen for announcements on the radio, and watch for announcements during television news broadcasts.
- Find out if some items are negotiable. While admitting that you need help to meet your child’s needs can be a humbling moment, chances are good that your child’s teacher or someone in the school’s administration will know if there are some items left over from last year that your child could use. It’s also possible that some items can wait until later – crayons may be used during the first week, but scissors won’t be necessary until a few weeks into the year.
- Harness the Power of the Interwebs! If there’s a Freecycle group, Craigslist community, or even email listserv for your city, neighborhood, or school, watch for the supplies (and other things for school) that you need.
- Check with social services. If you’re already receiving unemployment benefits, WIC, or food stamps, ask your caseworker if he or she knows of any resources for school supplies.
- Go easy on yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you need to ask for help. In a perfect world, you would send your child to school with everything she needed in sparkling, new condition, but there are times when that’s just not possible, and that’s okay. Do the best you can and your child will learn to be resourceful and resilient in the face of hardships.