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Best and worst back-to-school purchases

GreatSchools readers list the best and worst back-to-school purchases they've ever made.

By GreatSchools Staff

What do a thermos, a dictionary, and a quality backpack have in common? They topped your lists of most valuable back-to-school buys. What's on the "do not buy" list? Cheap pencil sharpeners and binders too bulky to fit in a backpack.

Thanks to the readers who shared their ideas to help the rest of us with back-to-school shopping!

Best back-to-school buys

A thermos

Mom Christine Lates writes: "The most valuable thing I bought last year for my daughter was a thermos. My daughter was tired of eating sandwiches everyday, and she would sneak out to buy lunch. I asked what meals she liked when she bought lunch, and all of them were better than a sandwich. Out I went to buy a thermos, and the whole world of lunch was revived — I made macaroni and cheese, pasta with spaghetti sauce, pizza, hot dogs, and soup!"

A dictionary

"The best school supply we purchased was a dictionary that we taught our children how to use," writes HJ Wellington, a Florida mother of a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old. The next most useful? "A synonyms books (easier to use than a thesaurus)."

High-quality backpack

"A Land's End backpack! It held up the whole year. I washed it in the machine, and the kids can use it again next year. I let the kids pick out the colors and even get initials if they want — it is actually my son's third year with his. I got tired of buying 2-3 bags every year!"

Another parent agrees that spending a little more money pays off: "A good backpack that he doesn't love as much but should last longer than the cheap ones we had been buying."

"Last year we bought my high school freshman son a Vans backpack ($50)," another parent writes. "He had a heavy course load with massive text books. He is taking it again this sophomore year in perfect condition — great buy."

Another parent sends a reminder that a good backpack is a health issue: "Most valuable school item: proper-fitting backpack."

Pencil box

"The best and one of the most valuable purchases I made for school last year was a sectioned pencil box," one parent writes. "I bought the regular plastic crayon and pencil box, plus a sectioned pencil box. I believe I'll have my girls use it again this year if I can't find a new one. It's almost a must have."

Just for kindergarten

"The most used item was the NapMat. I would definitely buy two mats if you find a good deal at the beginning of the year. At the end of last year we had to replace the scraggly, dog-eared original with a sleeping bag for the last few weeks. It would have been wise to just replace it with a fresh clean one for our child to sleep with direct contact everyday."

A trumpet

"Used, in great shape, and he can have it for the rest of his life," a parent writes.

Twist-up crayons

"My children are going into kindergarten and second grade and are still required to bring in crayons," writes Susan, a New York mother of two daughters, 5 and 6. "I find that the twist-up crayons (editor's note: This is the kind of crayon that can be advanced as needed by just twisting the cap at the base of the pen barrel). The traditional crayons are a broken pile of flat-ended nubs by the middle of the year. Also, I always buy them plastic folders, as opposed to the paper ones or even the plastic-coated paper ones, because the flexible plastic ones stand up to a beating for the whole school year."

Secondhand buys

From Carrie: "Our school wants a paint shirt, so I went to a secondhand store and got a T-shirt because at the end of the year you are going to throw it away. And you can find nice shirts for hardly anything."

"Face it, we all received hand-me-downs at a point in time from a relative, a friend, or even a sibling to give to our child," writes Massachusetts dad James H. Carter III, who advises shopping at second-hand stores like Savers in his area. He said he and his wife were able to able to get 9 pairs of jeans, 3 pairs of slacks, 5 pairs of shorts, 11 long-sleeved shirts, 5 short-sleeved shirts, 3 pairs of sneakers,and 2 pairs boots for $236.79. "The great thing is all are name-brand fashions," he says. "Great deals do come cheap. So my advice to all parents looking to shop for the school season is, shop wise and budget."

One mom recommends shopping on the eBay online auction site and also in resale shops, where she can take her son's used clothes in and get a store credit. That gives her "a place to shop when the cash flow is low and he is in dire need of something. Where I live, there are several places that take stuff, and you can get cash or store credit. Usually if you take store credit, you get 25% or so more back. Lots of items I can buy for him are still new with tags and are as good as buying at the store."

A good-quality electric pencil sharpener

"I tried to be economical and bought several inexpensive versions and regretted every one, " writes Michelle Levine, a mother of two boys, 7 and 11. "Invest $20+/- at an office supply store for a decent, electric, plug-in sharpener. You'll wonder how you lived without it."

Most valuable shopping tip

"The best idea I've heard of to save on school supplies is a 'closet swap,'" Florida mom HJ Wellington writes. "Everybody brings usable school uniforms to a swap and exchanges the clothing. Big savings!"

Shopping advice for your parent group for next year

From Alice P.: "The best back-to-school purchase we made last year was the supply pack sold by the PTA. All of the teachers for each grade agree on a list of supplies required for each child to bring to class. Everything from pencils and paper to tissues and hand sanitizer. They have it all packaged up and sell it for about $45. It saves us a lot of money and the hassle of that trip to the discount store with kids that have the "gimmes." It also puts all the kids on a level playing field in terms of the "haves" and the "have nots." (When everybody has the same scissors, crayons, folders etc, the kids get to know each other for who they are, not what they have.)"

Worst back-to-school buys

"A hand pencil sharpener for a kindergartner" — just too hard to use.

"The mandated agenda [planner] from their school. It did not last and was bulky."

"By far, I would say the two-inch binders," writes Sandra B. of New Jersey. "My daughter will be an eighth-grader, and last year as seventh-graders, the students were required to have a couple of 2-inch binders coupled with 1.5-inch binders. ... It was unrealistic in the expectation that these binders and books would fit into a backpack. My daughter had to devise a system of taking some out and leaving them in the wall locker. This too presented a problem, since the children were not allowed to go to their lockers in between classes. My solution to the situation was to repurchase 1-inch binders for all the classes."

Bonus shopping advice

Remember they're still growing

Carmen Rose, "mom of the fastest-growing weed in the West," writes: "Last year my one and only son was about to start kindergarten. I was so so excited and remembering how hard it was for my dad to afford school clothes for my sisters and me when we were in school, I went nuts! My son hadn't grown or gained much weight for a while, so I figured it was safe to buy lots of pants and jeans to get him through the year. And much to my wallet's dismay, and mine, he has grown out of ALL that after only one month of school.

"My advice: Buy a bit at a time, because you never know when they're gonna shoot up like a weed, or out, for that matter! I learned my lesson! Also, if you buy jeans to fit, buy the ones with the elastic waistband on the back side of the jeans. (You can find 'cool' ones with the elastic. Those will last a bit longer, especially if you are stretched for money. Also, if buying lots of nice school shorts, buy a size larger. They'll be longer but if you have your child change out of nice school clothes when he gets home, they'll last so much longer than if you buy them to fit. They may be a bit long for a while, but my son has informed me that longer is cooler!

"Also, giving away the old clothes have been a HUGE learning experience for my son. He loves to go through them and talk about the children that will be able to use them, and how excited he is to take them to the shelters or Salvation Army. Once we get into giving the clothes away he remembers that he has toys he would like to give away, too. It makes him proud of himself and teaches him to be giving and selfless, all at the same time I'm making room in the closet for his new, bigger clothes!"

Trendy clothes aren't always practical

"My second-grade daughter gets very excited about the new 'fashions' in the fall," writes Blythe's mom, Deb. "She wants dresses, skirts, dress pants, tops with different pieces, etc. However, after about November she ends up wearing the yoga pants, jeans, sneakers, T-shirts (both long and short sleeve). So now when we go school shopping she 'plays' in her new clothes in the store. Bending, jumping skipping, even cartwheels, yes, cartwheels. If it doesn't pass the play test, it's not leaving the store with us."

Don't buy it all at once

"I am a mom in Northern California with two boys in middle school this year - a 13-year-old son entering eighth grade, and an 11-year-old son entering sixth grade," writes Tracy. "At the middle school level, I recommend pre-school shopping on the 'basic' items only - pencils, lined paper, glue sticks, pens, etc., as teachers have specific requirements for report folders and binders. Even a backpack purchase is best done once you see how many books your child has to cart back and forth. I just found a flexible three-ring binder (Five Star Hybrid Notebinder) that acts like a flexible notebook and works like a binder but doesn't take up as much room in the backpack as a regular three-ring binder."

But don't wait too long to start shopping, either

"Watch the sales in the Sunday newspaper flyers and stock up for the year!" advises Shirley Brown from Florida. "Our local office supply stores will run special sales in July and early August for 24-pack crayons, folders, rulers and pencils from 1 to 25 cents each! Don't wait for school to start to get the list of supplies. The week that school starts the sales are gone, supplies are limited and the school-supply aisles are crowded."

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

08/2/2010:
"I just read a statement below and it was about 2 sets of books 1 set @ home and 1 set at school. How can we get a school started on this smart ideal my new 6th grader is very forgetful?"
07/28/2010:
"Be mindful of those plastics you are buying and please avoid anything made of vinyl. PVC"
07/21/2010:
"For that two inch binder thing, I'm going to be a freshman in High School this year and for Middle School, I found it was much easier just to get a one-inch binder (good quality too! the cheaper ones rip easily) and then about four plastic( the paper ones tear quicker) folders. There was more space and everything fit(:."
07/19/2010:
"I agree with the buying two inch binders. I will be an 8th grader this year and at my school, we were required to have two inch binders in each class. In the middle of the year, i started finding it hard to fit all my notes & papers i needed for my classes in one binder. I did buy a bigger binder but the teachers didn't like that. I don't recommend buying a flash drive because you will always end up losing it or it might get a virus. "
08/18/2009:
"I have to agree with not purchasing the cheap but pretty backpacks. I had to replace my daughters 'pretty' backpack 3 weeks into the school year last year because the zipper came undone, so I had her use her Childrens Place backpack from the year before, and its still in great shape, even after 2 years of taking a beating on the school bus."
08/13/2009:
"My 6 year old son wears husky sizes and I found that buying one size larger with adjustable waistbands gives the shorts/pants a longer lifespan and gives him less of a hassle since he doesn't have to fidget with buttons or zippers; he just pulls them on and off."
03/5/2008:
"The best buy I ever made was a Better Binder from Staples. They are reinforced with rubber on the spine and edges. They don't break and are wonderful! They come in a variety of colors and sizes. I bought one for school and then for my family's vacation in July. I also bought PLASTIC folders for the inside. The paper folders rip and don't last very long."
08/20/2007:
"My dad bought me an LLBean backpack when I was in the 7th grade. I'm 37 years old now and still have it! If that's not a best buy, I'm not sure what is!!!"
08/19/2007:
"I would have to add to buying a good backpack that will last. I'm a sophmore in college and I have been using the same backpack since junior year of high school. My parents invested and bought me a Jansport. It comes with a lifetime warantee and has servived through washings and typical school abuse, plus it still looks brand new! Awesome buy! "
08/19/2007:
"I teach Kindergarten. I ask for very specific items because they are shared in our classroom. The twist-up crayons, fancy folders, etc. are a waste of money and are often not useful for shared supplies. Also, be sure that your child's backpack is large enough for folders and library books! There are some things you cannot fold into the little backpacks. "
08/19/2007:
"Along the same lines as the PTA supply pack, in my 3rd grade son's school, most of the teachers charge a $10-$15 supply fee per student and will go out and buy the supplies the children need, that way there is no better child, and at the end of the year, the teacher splits up the supplies for the students to bring home."
08/19/2007:
"I also learned the hard way and I NEVER buy jeans until it is cold enough to wear them. My oldest would have a growth spurt every year around September/October. We live in Northern California where it ususally very warm until mid September, this goes for jackets too and then a size too big to get through the winter. Nothing worse thatn trying to find a jacket in February because he outgrew it and there are none to be found in the store. This system got me through Elementary as a single parent and in to High School. Now he is in College and has stopped growing taller but still keeps the same schedule."
08/19/2007:
"I agree with the Lands End backpack. I am just now replacing my 2nd graders that she has had since she was 3 (mainly because she wants another color!). Also, Lands End carries jeans, khaki's and camo pants with a reinforced knee, perfect for my son who is always wearing holes into his pants."
08/19/2007:
"My best piece of advice would be from the world of homeschoolers:) I am a single homeschooling mom to four, grades 1,3,5 and 7-homeschool parents are frugal and have tried it all-find one-or look into an elist at this time of the year for GREAT savings tips-we all stick together and post constant info about the penny sales, used items and more-we pay for ALL of our needs, which makes us really resourceful!!!!!"
08/19/2007:
"Suggestion: Try to get your school to 'require' a wheeled backpack ... the kids think it's 'so uncool', but so are constant visits to the chiropractor for a child ... also - in California, each classroom has a set of books that stay in the classroom, thus elminating the 'i left my book at school, so i couldn't study' excuse, as well as the 'i can't study in class, i left my book at home' excuse. the kids are issued a set of books to take home and leave there till the school year is over, thus eliminating the 'i can't do my homework because i left my book at school' excuse. this also eliminates backpacks, trips to lockers, and metal detectors ... our schools would be safer if all schools did this. think of it: no lockers to hide guns, drugs, booze, bombs in. no heavy books to lug to and from school. ... children shouldn't be afraid to go to school. parents shouldn't be afraid to let them go. Suggestion: buy the 'bargains' when they come out: 10 pocket folders for $1; 5 glue sticks for $1, etc. don't worry - they'll get used. and if not, consider donating your unused supplies to children whose families may not have the money to buy their supplies. our local malls have 'angel trees' set up just before school starts: just like at xmas, you take a name card off the tree, and buy what's on the list and return it, with the name card, to the mall, and they send it to that child. another thing: our state has tax-free weekend just before school starts ... a great time to save money for 'back to school.' "
08/19/2007:
"In southern California the weather is summer until late October. we never buy much in August because they are still in summer clothes, but wait until October when the weather changes and they need warmer clothing."
08/19/2007:
"Watch out for those trendy character (Disney, Sponge Bob, etc.) items. Trends change quickly and what is 'in' today can be 'out' tomorrow. We stick to simple designs for the larger items, and let the kids have folders and notebooks with their favorite characters. Much more affordable and just a 'cool'!"
08/10/2007:
"im a junior & ive discovered that the somewhat trendy, & cool mesh backpacks by JanSport really hold up well, ive had mine since i was a freshman & ive used it for everything, from school trips to toting large school books, it holds up great! all my friends use a JanSport backpack & with every type of study load, from all honors classes, to basic classes, it really does hold up! the bags very generic looking, come in all colors, mesh & solid, i found mine at academy sports, & lots of students have these bags so its not a huge 'haves' & 'not haves' ordeal. i would recommend buying a black colored bag as the other colors do get grungy looking though, but a wash gets most spots out. im looking to use mine through the rest of my highschool years."
08/10/2007:
"A trumpet? I'm sure I'm not the only one who found that entry to be highly out of place and ridiculously unnecessary!"
08/10/2007:
"Backpack stuff: From a traveling artist and student. If the backpack has an unprotected seam running through the bottom of the pack, where the books will rest, it won't hold up. Good packs add an additional layer to cover the bottom. If the top of the shoulder straps set into the pack with a single row of stitching, they will pull out. Don't buy too big, especially for small students, it will be too heavy to carry when full. Small ring binders in different colors are easier to organize for classes than larger, multi-class binders. Use Sharpie pens to decorate the binders and they are recognizable in an instant for each class."
08/10/2007:
"I agree with the Lands' End backpack. My son has been using his since 4th grade and is now entering 10th grade. "
08/10/2007:
"I am a mom of three ages 2, 4 and 7. I find that buying in bulk on many things like kleenex's, paper, and pencils during the 'sale' season helps. Set aside a tote for the 'at home projects.' But leave everything in its original packages. The next year look in that tote to see what is on the supply list. Also check out your local saver stores like walmart and target. They put all the left over supplies on clearence and add those to yuor tote. Sometimes you can find rulers, folders, and erasers for as little as a few pennies. "
08/10/2007:
"'I'm going to be a sophmore in college this fall and I just wanted to let you know Jansport is a good backpack brand as well, not the plastic kind, it's made of what looks to be the same kind of material as a seatbelt only thinner and has a leather bottom. I've been using it since it was given to me by my cousin, who had already had it for three years, as a hand me down when I entered 8th grade. It isn't in perfect condition cosidering how many doodles and patches have been added to it and later removed but it is still in good enough condition that my little sister will be using it when she becomes a high school freshman this year. She thinks all its 'tattoos' look cool;). "
08/10/2007:
"I can understand teachers needing certain items for their classes. As a parent, I'm more than happy to buy what my children need for class. But, how about limiting the school supply list to the items that are actually being used? With 2 kids and over $200 of 'required' supplies bought last year, it was upsetting to see 1/2 those supplies never used."
08/10/2007:
"I recommend LL Bean for everything from lunch bags to book bags. My parents bought my LL Bean backpack when I was in 6th grade and I used it every year and even through college - I've been out of college for 4 years now. Still have the back pack - hate the color, but it still looks brand new. Pretty good for 9 years of use."
08/10/2007:
" I have signed up for Staples emails and I receive atleast 3 coupons every other month for something free. I also shop, discount department store rather than dollar stores who may be slightly higher than the discount department. Buy in bulk, especially if your children are in Elementary or Middle School the supplies do not change too much. High School changes a little more."
08/10/2007:
"Realize that teachers often want a notebook for their class so the notebook can be turned in for grading. Otherwise they hear the excuse that homework/notes from another class are in it. "
08/10/2007:
"We just moved from Florida to Tennessee. The schools here offer the supply packs for $45.oo. Best investment I ever made. No arguing with my son or daughter on which supplies they need and no lines. Highly recommend it."
08/10/2007:
"I'm in my 5th year of college (yeah i kept switching majors) but i still have the same back from high school! it's a Jansport backpack with 2 big pockets, then 2 medium pockets with a small pocket for pencils at the front. it also has space to hold water bottles on both sides -- i love it! For soda or water, or both! Also, I think students develop their own habits but when i was in high school i always forgot things in my locker when i had too many notebooks or binders. I just buy the fivestar notebook for how many courses im taking - 3 classes, i will buy a 3 subject notebook. It's perfect for notetaking, you won't lose it or misplace it if you only have 1 to carry!"
08/8/2007:
"When our son was entering kindergarten we bought him an LL Bean backpack. He is still using it, it's in excellent shape.He is now entering 8th,that's right,8th grade. I have washed it at least 4 times each year.That's what I call value! We bought one for our daughter two years ago,I hope she likes the color because she'll be using it for a very long time!"
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