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."