Back-to-school expenses can challenge your wallet year-round; here's a guide to keeping costs low.
The cost of school supplies for your kids can add up fast, even though things like paper and pens and pencils don’t seem like they would be expensive. Maybe it’s because your son always wants to upgrade to the coolest pencil case, or because your daughter keeps losing stuff. Maybe it’s just because your children are likely taking six or seven different classes each semester once they reach high school.
However, buying school supplies isn’t only a one-time expense at the beginning of the school year — it’s a recurring one that comes up multiple times a year. Kids may run out of supplies as the year goes on, or they may want a fresh start with new notebooks after they complete finals and projects, and get ready for another semester ahead.
In order to deliver the best tips on budgeting school supplies, we talked to an expert — Emily Jakubisin, a middle school teacher in Florida who has taught at Title I schools across multiple districts.
Restock on Black Friday
Black Friday isn’t just for finding great deals on televisions and holiday gifts; it’s a good time to restock on items your kids may need for school.
“It’s about halfway through the semester, so you’ll have a better idea of what you’ll need for the rest of the year,” Jakubisin says. By this time of year, your kids have gotten a feel for the supply demands for each of their classes. Plus, Black Friday offers steep discounts for a lot of school-related items.
Ask your office manager for leftover supplies
If you work in an office, there are probably extra notebooks and writing utensils laying around. “To be clear, I’m not condoning stealing office supplies,” Jakubisin says, but did mention that sometimes offices are looking for ways to get rid of leftover or old supplies. Asking your office manager to tell you before throwing out perfectly good binders might help to snag a nice stock of extra supplies for your kids.
Another crafty idea for kids who like to scribble, or to save on note-taking paper, is to bring home leftover printer paper from the office that has only been used on one side and would otherwise get thrown out or recycled. This can also work for creating drafts of projects and papers before using up the nice, blank paper for the final assignment.
This tip is good for both your budget and the environment.
Shop by yourself
If your kid is telling you they need something for school, ask to see the assignment sheet or check in with the teacher to confirm it’s accurate. Then go to the store without the child to pick up the item.
“Kids are easily swayed by advertisements and markup,” Jakubisin says. At the same time, children might not accurately remember what they need, or they may think they need something because other kids have it. This will lead you to spending extra on a three-subject notebook when a one-subject will do just fine, or buying a too-expensive calculator.
When Jakubisin went went school supplies shopping with children she nannied, it was difficult to get them to stick to what they needed instead of going for all the fancy, expensive items. “Kids are usually fine if you just give them the item they need,” she says, “but they might get upset if you go to a store and you don’t buy them something they see and decide they want.”
Buy golf pencils
Those stubby little golf pencils are a better deal when buying pencils for children. “The majority of kids go through pencils like crazy,” Jakubisin says. Kids tend to lose the pencils before even using an inch of them, which is a waste when a pack of 12 pencils is $2 and a pack of 100 golf pencils is just $10. You can get almost twice as many for the cost.
Jakubisin says her students seem less likely to lose the golf pencils because they’re not as interested in playing with them or trying to break them. For kids who are a little dismayed to get a shorter pencil, Jakubisin recommends putting “washi tape on the top of some of them to make them fun.”
Reuse School Supplies
At the end of the school year, ask your kids to bring home any supplies they have left rather than throwing them away. Then check out what they have and see if it’s in usable condition.
“Nail polish remover will get sharpie off of binders,” Jakubisin says. “I do it to take off labels and reuse them.” You can also pull used pages out of a notebook and use the leftover pages. Writing utensils your children haven’t lost can be used again next year. Backpacks and pencil pouches can often be used for multiple years in a row, too, especially after throwing them in the washing machine.
Be sure to hold onto expensive items like calculators. Even if one child doesn’t need it again, you can give it to a younger child eventually or even sell them to someone who does.
Look to the school and local resources
This is a good tip for those who are really strapped for cash.
Families can go through difficult times financially, especially if they’re struggling to pay bills or personal loans, and educators understand that.
“A lot of times school districts generally tend to try to get supplies to low income families,” Jakubisin says. In her district, a back-to-school bash offers free haircuts and school supplies for families who are having a hard time fitting it in the budget. Churches also often collect school supplies, so it might be worth asking your local church if this is something they do.
If you don’t know what resources your district has available, ask. Your child’s teachers will know what resources are available to you; they are well-versed on the different types of troubles their student may be going through at home and are a nonjudgmental resource that just want to help your child learn; it’s safe to reach out to them if you need some help learning what resources are available.
School supplies can be pricey and difficult to acquire, especially as your kids enter high school and take more complex classes. Hopefully these tips will help you save money throughout the year so you can put more money towards retirement, paying off debt, or just paying your overall bills.
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