Ten 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.

Get your kids into the recycling habit.

Now that environmentally friendly living is a hot topic, it's easier than it used to be to convince trend-savvy kids that reusing an item is cooler than buying a new one. Help them add pizzazz to last year's plain notebook with stickers or photos. Set up a scrap paper bin so that paper with writing on just one side can be reused. Check out garage sales, which can be a source of good-quality used items.

Watch for promotions.

Some discount office supply stores offer free shipping on online orders. Local health departments in some areas offer free basic school supplies to parents who bring their children in for immunizations. Hang on to flyers and ads that advertise supplies at a particular price. If the store where you're shopping charges more, ask the sales clerks to match its competitor. Some stores that don't offer price matching will still do it.

Figure out when quality counts.

Leaky pens will cost you more in ruined clothes than some more expensive varieties. In the event that a strap or zipper breaks, a backpack with a warranty might be a good investment, even if it costs more.

"When buying crayons, colored pencils, markers and water color paints, I would definitely stick to a name brand," says Robertson. "Name brands seem to last longer."

Not every costly item will last as long as you'd like. Take calculators, for example. Math teachers advise that you not purchase one with more functions than your child will use so that she learns and uses those functions. But as she advances in math, your middle school or high school student will likely need to replace her scientific calculator with a graphing one, and these are costly.

Some schools have graphing calculators that students can check out, like library books. And some parent organizations raise funds to help defray the cost of calculators for needy students. Check with your parent group to find out more about similar programs at your school.

Help your school while you shop.

If your school participates in a program like eScrip or OneCause, you can shop for supplies from a participating merchant who donates a percentage to your school.

Plan now for next year.

Some schools send a back-to-school list home with kids on the last day of school so that parents can shop for the best bargains. If your school doesn't do this, get together with other parents or your parent organization and talk to administrators about how you can help your school put together a list earlier next year.

At some schools, parent organizations negotiate with a supplier and buy supplies for the whole school at a discount. They often add a small extra charge that goes to support the parent group.

Susan Furr, a parent at the University Laboratory School in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, says her school parent group has purchased supplies this way for a number of years and virtually all of the families participate.

Here's how it works: The teachers deliver their lists to the school office, which delivers it to the parent group. The group negotiates a price for each grade with the vendor and adds $5, which goes back to the parent organization. The supplies are delivered directly to individual teachers, so there's no shopping hassle for parents.

"People are always saying, 'Don't you need help?' I feel guilty. It's really easy," notes Furr.