How to Spend Those Back to School Dollars

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Independence Day is long gone. By at least a week. Which means the sales for back to school on are the horizon. Life as MOM contributor JessieLeigh has some great tips on how to spend those back to school dollars.

Oh, I hate to say the words but, well, it’s not going to be long before Back-to-School sales start popping up all over the place. I always cringe a bit when the July sales papers are all emblazoned with bold “Back to School” banners but, alas, it is what it is. And, despite my reluctance, I am forced to admit that it will indeed be here before we know it.

As we send our kids off to school each year, one of the key questions we need to ask ourselves is: What do they really need? Another important one is: What items merit the spending of our hard-earned dollars?

Well, let’s consider those things a little bit here, through three categories:

Items You Can Expect to Get For Free or Nearly Free

Every year, Target, CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Staples, and the like offer staggeringly good deals on some back-to-school supplies. Some are free after rewards, others cost mere pennies. This is a fantastic time to stock up on these products so that, as far as I’m concerned, you’ll never have to pay full price for them. Some items frequently found in these sales include:

  • pencils
  • pens
  • notebooks
  • folders
  • crayons
  • glue sticks
  • glue
  • scissors
  • filler paper
  • … and more!
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Items On Which You Might Be Willing to Spend More

There are some things that take hard use throughout the school year. These are items or articles that might be worth some extra dollars to ensure great quality. You can absolutely find these things on sale, but, in my opinion, it makes sense to allocate some back-to-school funding on these items:

  • sturdy backpack
  • quality, comfortable sneakers/gym shoes
  • decent, weather-appropriate outerware
  • sturdy, reusable water bottle (I love the stainless steel ones, personally.)
  • leak-proof lunch packing materials that your child can operate independently

Items You Can Probably Skip Altogether

There are certain things that seem to be advertised every single back-to-school season, but, really, it’s unlikely that you’ll need them. Unless specifically listed by your particular school, you can probably skip buying:

  • sweaters, wool skirts, tights, corduroy pants, etc.– this will not typically be the time of year when you’ll score the best deals and, honestly, who’s wearing wool at the start of school?
  • cutesy patterned folders– these will set you back far more than the freebies mentioned above. For fun, your child can always decorate them with markers or stickers.
  • backless, high-heeled, or flip-flop style shoes (especially for the young set)– they’re not typically permitted at school +/or recess
  • paints, markers, glitter glue, etc.– feel free to stock up for your home, but they’re unlikely to be required school materials

Back-to-school flyers will be arriving before you can blink! Now is a great time to start looking at the budget and making a game-plan for how you’ll divvy up your dollars.

What items do you feel are worth your hard-earned cash?

— A mother of three, including a 24 week preemie, JessieLeigh is a determined advocate for even the tiniest of babies. She can be found celebrating life’s (sometimes unexpected) miracles and blessings at Parenting Miracles.

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  1. You mentioned spending some money on a good backpack. The last couple years I have been able to buy my kids a very sturdy expensive bag at staples for very little. One year after rewards it was free. Last year I think I paid the cost of a cheap one at Walmart. These are bags that can cost $60-$100, but I am getting them for free-$15ish. I have found that I am only buying one bag a year as opposed to when they were getting the character ones (we needed 2 and should have gotten a 3rd, but I refused to buy 3 in one year).

    1. Sounds like you found some great deals, Kathy! My two school-aged children both have LL Bean backpacks and, so far, they’ve lasted beautifully through 2+ years. I remember having my own LL Bean backpack as a kid and I’ve always been impressed with their quality.

      1. What size do you have for your kids? I was debating the Junior Original (Smallest) for my 6 y/o but I’m not sure it will hold enough for the years to come.

        Really, I should start calling other Moms at school to find out how much stuff the older kids are carrying home. They don’t have traditional text books in some of the lower grades so the smaller size could go pretty far.

          1. Yes, it does! My older son had a regular sized back pack for K3-K5 and it was ridiculously large for him. Since he never used it to carry anything heavier than his lunch box and a few folders it wasn’t a problem. But now it’s falling apart because it was a $10 Target special and needs to be replaced. I was pleasantly surprised it lasted this long!

  2. Here’s something to keep in mind for next school year….late fall/early winter (around December), online retailers like Land’s End and LLBean deeply discount their backpacks and lunch bags. I picked up backpacks last year for around $7 and matching lunch bags for $3. My kids were thrilled and I had a friend embroider names on them and they made great Christmas gifts for the nieces and nephews too!

    1. Wow, that’s a steal of a deal for good quality, Julie! LL Bean has some outlets, too, that often offer good deals on backpacks and what-not. They might be discontinued colors, but that’s not a problem in my book. 🙂

  3. As a public-school elementary teacher, I can’t suggest enough that you buy good quality backpacks….seen so many of the cheaply made ones falling apart before Christmas break. But I also suggest stocking up on the “high mileage” items that will get used daily/weekly…pencils, extra erasers (because the ones on the pencils always give out before the pencil does), glue sticks, crayon/marker/colored pencils (whichever is preferred) because they will run out/dry up before school does! Having some extra notebooks or loose leaf paper is also helpful. And if you are able, consider giving some extra items to your child’s classroom…we teachers can always find a way to use them! My class always seems to run out of tissues and hand sanitizer so I love for my students to bring in extras of those as well.

    1. We love to donate extra items to our kids’ classrooms… I am well-aware how much of their own money many our teachers spend to keep everyone supplied. I hope we’re able to help ease that at least a little bit!

  4. Maybe our school is weird (Public Montessori) but things like markers, colored pencils, and water color pencils have been on our supply lists every year. Watercolor paints are listed for the 3rd graders in my older son’s classroom. These are also items that skyrocket in price after back to school sales are over (as we learned the year the art teacher sent out a supply list the second week in September!).

    1. Watercolor pencils– wow! They sound super cool, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them on a supply list around here. Come to think of it, though, all those items (paints, markers, colored pencils) are just supplied in the art room at our school. Of course, I’m well aware we’re still paying for them… I guess we just do it through our taxes. 😉

      1. Those stumped me too. But at least I know where to find them ($5 at Joann’s) when my younger son needs them.

        I live in Milwaukee, WI. We’ve got some major funding issues with the schools. Our school doesn’t have adequate money to buy copy paper so it’s on everyone’s supply lists. And stuff like hand soap, paper towels, napkins, and baby wipes. It’s really sad. Even so, the teachers keep the supply lists reasonable so it’s not a major expense.

  5. We always have markers on our supply lists and that’s the first thing I look for in the flyers/sale ads because they use so many of them during the year and someone always leaves the lids off! If you are able, and get extra freebies or super cheap supplies, you might also want to check with your school’s family resource center (if they have one). These centers work on next to no budget to make sure that all children in the classrooms have all of the supplies they need throughout the school year (yes, including clothing and our FRC even works with local businesses and other charities to provide bags of groceries to very underprivileged families..they get a bag of essentials for good meals every Friday to last them the weekend when they won’t receive school meals.) I always buy extra when I am able and send it in with my kids’ regular supplies!

    1. I think it’s wonderful to buy extra to send in with your kids! We try to do that, too, and I do believe it makes a difference. Thanks for bringing that up!

  6. Markers and paints are always on our public school lists too (Canada). And good luck finding them for pennies here!! Lol 🙂

  7. Don’t forget to shop at home first. I saw the ad this weekend and saw a few things I thought we might we need. I looked in the supplies and found I didn’t need some of them. My kids have always had markers, etc. on their school lists. My kids are older now, so if they want the more expensive items we share the expense.

    1. Definitely check your supplies. I stocked up every year for about five years on things. When I finally organized it all together I found I didn’t have to buy binder paper for like three years. Finally, it’s time to restock.

  8. Our school requires markers, too – usually several different sets of them per child. And not just in the elementary grades, either – my sons are in junior high and they need sharpies, highlighters, and colored pens.

    1. The more I think about it, I’m betting we WILL be required to send in Sharpies once my kiddos hit the slightly higher grades. They don’t tend to want those with the kindergarten/1st grade set. 😉

    2. Curious what they use the sharpies for. When I was in school, sharpies were banned due to grafitti.

      1. We used Sharpies only in art class– we had these giant manilla folders that held our ongoing work and we would decorate them with our names at the start of each school year. The Sharpie got put to good use for that project. (They were probably banned outside of that art room at my school, too, but I don’t really know. I was such a goody-two-shoes, it never would have occurred to me to be doing anything bad with it. ;))

  9. I don’t know if “quality” backpacks have changed over the years, but when I was in high school, my mom invested in a Jansport backpack for about $50 and it lastest me through high school AND college. It was definitely used, but there were no tears or holes in all those years.

    I also think shoes could be a give/take depending on the growth of your kid. It may not be wise to spend too much on shoes if they’re in midst of a growth spurt.

    If bought one-size up, outerwear could last a couple seasons. Water bottles and lunch packing materials could also last multiple seasons.

    1. I think Jansport has always been a very high quality brand, Tiffany! You could substitute “LL Bean” for Jansport in my case and it was the same story– I used that thing for 8+ years. It was dirty, but totally sturdy! 🙂

    2. I have had my first Jansport pack since 1995. Recently, I sent it back to Jansport to have it refurbished. For just the cost of shipping, Jansport repaired/replaced my zippers and straps, which were all pretty worn after 17ish years. In addition, I returned to school in 2011 to pursue a nursing degree – I bought another (larger, wheeled) Jansport. I can’t say enough about their quality and the way the company stands behind its products! (LL Bean has my vote, too. I have picked them up inexpensively in November as Christmas gifts. Great quality!)

    3. Wow, you brought back a memory. I think my high school backpack lasted me through college, too.

  10. My son is going into first grade this year. One of the things on his supply list is 20 glue sticks! How much are they planning on gluing? Also ten packages of pencils, but I am not sure how many pencils are in a “package”. Maybe 12. That’s 120 pencils (12 each month of school, or three a week)–do they really use that many? I know they will break and the kids sharpen them too much, but three a week?
    You will sometimes see school supply items on clearance in September after school has started. I will try to pick them up sometimes to round out my son’s list or get extras for his class. I have gotten folders, glue, markers, colored pencils in the past on clearance for about the same as their on sale prices.

    1. I never have luck with clearance items after school has started, but I’m sure you can get some great deals that way if you’re in the right place at the right time! I’ll try harder to keep my eyes open this year. 🙂 (That seems like a TON of glue sticks to me… and this is coming from a mom of three who sometimes swears my kids EAT glue sticks. ;))

    2. Wow, that’s crazy! Maybe it’s a misprint and it’s supposed to be 2 glue sticks and 10 pencils?

    3. I believe they would ask for that much. At our schools we are told it’s to help the children who can’t afford to get what they need. Our kids have to put everything except their notebooks into a “community” box to share instead of everyone keeping their own things. I wouldn’t mind helping a child in need, but I really don’t approve of this method.

      1. My daughter is going into kindergarten and we have to bring 20 glue sticks too.

  11. We homeschool, so there’s no set school list, but we do use the sales and coupons to stock up for our coming adventures. I love new office supplies! 🙂 I find I only have to shop once every other year, though… if I can get paper at 10c a pack, I’ll buy $5 worth, and be set for quite awhile. It’s also fun to gather supplies to donate to local family and youth shelters.

    1. Your school list is likely a different type– lots more texts, I’m guessing, but no specific “20 glue stick” requirements. 🙂 I, too, like to stock up on paper and what-not to keep our home stocked for the year!

  12. Don’t forget, too, while “school” supplies — which are also office supplies — are on sale to stock up on things like address labels and envelopes for your home use — Christmas cards, etc.

    1. Oh, I am totally going to keep my eyes open for address label sales this year– I’ve never even thought to look for that!

    2. I do a lot of Christmas stocking up at BTS, too. 25 cent crayolas are great stocking stuffers and go well in the shoebox donations, too.

  13. Supply lists really do vary from area to area. My sister just got her K list which was filled front and back with needed items. The last item was a mandatory monetary donation to the classroom. Is this common?

    1. Mandatory monetary “donation”?! That’s crazy. Free public schooling isn’t free anymore, apparently.