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10 tips for smart back-to-school shopping

The best strategy for back-to-school shopping? Get organized, stock up on the basics, and look for sales and promotions.

By GreatSchools Staff

Start your back-to-school shopping with a game plan. Even if your child's teacher hasn't provided a list of school supplies, you can't go wrong by sticking with the basics and taking advantage of back-to-school sales (many states offer “tax-free days” during this season). Here's how:

Make a list and get your child involved.

Use the recommended or required supplies from your child's school or teacher as a starting point. If you don't have a list yet, check with parents at your school who have older kids. They might have good advice about what is required in your child's grade. Or check our recommendations for elementary, middle, and high school. Sit down with your child and go over your list together. You'll be teaching her how to get organized, a skill that applies to more than shopping.

Separate wants from needs.

Most school supplies don't go out of style, and your child will happily use the unsharpened pencils his older sister didn't use. But as any parent with last year's superhero notebook knows, beware the power of trends. Rather than getting into an argument with your older child about whether a backpack with headphones is essential because "everybody is getting one," try setting a budget for supplies. It will help your child set priorities, learn how to manage money, and start saving his allowance for the items your budget won't allow.

A note from the teacher: You'll be doing your child's teacher a favor if you stick to supplies without gimmicks. Pencil sharpeners that light up are distractions in class, says Jane Ann Robertson, Arizona's 2004 Teacher of the Year and a GreatSchools consultant. "Keep supplies to the necessary and useful versus fancy and fun."

Take inventory.

Sort through last year's supplies to see what is left over or can be reused. (Having trouble finding last year's stuff? Resolve to set up a place to keep your school supplies together this year.)

Start early and look for bargains throughout the summer.

The best bargains are often available at back-to-school sales. Keeping your supply list in your car or purse or on your PDA will help you shop for supplies as you do your other errands.

Buy basics in bulk.

You know you'll need paper, pencils, glue sticks and notebooks. Dollar stores, warehouse stores and even eBay are sources for buying these and other basics in bulk. You and a group of other parents might be able to negotiate a group discount from an office supply store.

Then set up a supply shelf or storage container in your home that you can use all year long. You'll be able to avoid late-night shopping trips to buy notebook paper when you run out. And you'll know where to find unused notebooks and pencils when it comes time to shop for back-to-school supplies next year.

If you set up this storage area near the place your child will do homework, you'll be modeling good organizational skills and he'll have what he needs nearby.

Nikki Salvatico, Pennsylvania's 2005 Teacher of the Year and a GreatSchools consultant, advises parents to send to school only what is needed. If you buy four dozen pencils, send in three at a time. This will help your child manage her supplies and help the teacher who has scant storage space in the classroom.

Comments from readers

"This website and tips have really helped my kids through the years. I recommend this to any new people. This is a great site. "
"i am not say that it is right to have those light up sharpeners they do distrack my student and onther thing is cell phones i had a student in my class who once bought a cell phone to school and was showing it to everone so i call her and i ask her if her parent knew about it the ans was no i told not to bring back the phone to school unless it is for special needs . anyhow when her parents asked for the phone she rampaged the house just looking for the phone i was truly sorry for her she was grounded for four months in was v ery sorry for her luckly i begged her mom to give her less time so it was dropped to a month we did found the phone aother child found it and gave it to the police the child was never allowed to taked another phone to school "
"this is nice but i dont get why everyone wants a new bag or backpack,you just need to buy a good durable backpack.And keep it for middle and high,just take care of it and clean it every week on friday. im in middle and my backpack[from 4th]is still in good condition. And just tell your kid to keep it clean or he will pay the unorginized stuff and the consequenses. Simple. And you don't need all this stuff just the need. Thats it. "
"Very good suggestions "
"Great tips! Also found some other good tips regarding back-to-school shopping here: With 3 kids, I need all the help I can get! "
"going back to school 8/28/11 last year it was 9/9/10 i think they started week earlier :( "
"Great way to get organized!!!! :)"
"Cool site."
"Excellent article. Definitely going to start shopping earlier in the summer to watch out for deals. I sent my kids to the Sears Arrive Lounge Site to pick out clothes and help make shopping easier:"
"Great article! We're going to share with our clients."
"this time we are reusing many of the items from last year since they are in good contion and still have open space to be use. We just have to buy some minor items. The school district also had a back to school rally where the gave lots of the supplies she will need to use in class. "
"The school supply shelf is a really great tip! Recently my mom got out my younger brother's list (7th grade) and was going to go shopping for him. However, she had all of last year's supplies in a drawer, and she spen $0 on his supplies. It is a great time and money saver."
"My son struggles with organizational skills, and using a planner is impossible. It's lost, incomplete, in his locker, etc. It's just not very helpful. Does anyone have any practical suggestions?"
"When I worked at an elementary school in north Louisiana, I suggested that the teachers simply request the school fees plus a bit more to cover supplies. For example, parents paid $60 at the beginning of the year, and that covered any and all school supplies as well as workbook fees, Time for Kids magazines, and their recorders for Music class. Then the teachers did all the shopping! As a teacher, I might need more folders this year but have a surplus of something else. (I know I had more glue and Kleenex once year than I knew what to do with!) The teacher could use the money then to purchase as needed crayons, uniform-color and size folders, generic pencils, loose leaf, or whatever was a need for his or her classroom. This alleviated the distraction of students losing or damaging supplies that belonged to another, too. If the crayons needed replacing, the parents weren't asked to send more. The teacher just budgeted to cover any costs that arose during the year. The parents! were very excited to let us do the shopping for making trips all over town and listening to the children whining about needing every item in the store! I can only imagine the ordeal if I had to take more than one child shopping for school supplies! It worked for us. Why not suggest this strategy at your school? "
"These tips are great to read . . . and recap. It's good to also sit and show these to my 4th grader who loves to be involved in her school. Thank you!"
"my daughter started school in a new country. they only gave us the list by e-mail late on saturday night. we only had sunday to by evrything and we wern't able to get evrything in the amount of time. if your child has got into a new school in a different country i think as soon as you know if they have got in ask for the list immediatley. it saves that last minue rush for things! "
"Staples sometimes has sales on different supplies: highlighters, pens, pencils, notebooks, and binders! If you ever have a chance to stop by your local Staples pick up what is on sale and keep it in a designated area, like the school supply shelf. Chances are, next year you will have most of your supplies!"
"Here are some general tips for school supplies- Must have supplies are: pens pencils looseleaf highlighters calculator pencil case 1 notebook per class a binder w/ dividers or a folder for every class graph paper or graph paper notebook for math"
"This is way too confusing the stuff you need is here: Book Bag/ Backpack Planner/Agenda (if your school doesn't provide ask them) 3 ring binder 1/2' minimum Subject Dividers (at least 3) Standard Notebook Paper ( 3 holed; no spiral tear-outs) Pencils and Pens (blue, black, and red ink must have available in class everyday.) Zippered Pen/Pencil Pouch that can fit into backpack Ruler (optional) Colored Pencils (optional) No markers or white-out (depends on grade and school) This List is for 6-8 grade ^_^"
"It also helps to shop different stores of the same chain. I live in St. Louis and if I drive an additional 10 minutes to a different Wal-Mart or Target the savings can be substantial. I purchased notebook paper at $.10 versus $.30. It may not sound like much. But I bought 2 cases of 20 packs. Also once school has begun many stores seek to get rid of the excess school supplies and they may go even cheaper. It is a good time to get extra to cover the broken crayons and the supplies teachers say they need come January. "
"I used this concept with my son when we first moved to the area at Meadeowview Elementary in Bossier City, LA and it works great. No hassel and congestion of shopping. Kudos to PTO. Great job and we appreicate you all."