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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."

Comments from readers

"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?"
"Be mindful of those plastics you are buying and please avoid anything made of vinyl. PVC"
"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(:."
"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. "
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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!!!"
"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! "
"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. "
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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!!!!!"
"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.' "
"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."
"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'!"
"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."
"A trumpet? I'm sure I'm not the only one who found that entry to be highly out of place and ridiculously unnecessary!"
"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."
"I agree with the Lands' End backpack. My son has been using his since 4th grade and is now entering 10th grade. "
"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. "
"'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;). "
"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."
"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."
" 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."
"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. "
"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."
"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!"
"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!"