Don’t Pay Twice! How To Shop For Back To School Supplies

by Stacey Doyle on October 10, 2008

Put more money in your online savings account by saving money when you shop. Here’s how to shop for “back to school” supplies the right way so you won’t have to pay twice for them.

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Photo by ladybugbkt

It seems that there are always school supplies that fall apart, break or get lost by the end of the first month of school. As I stood by the school bus stop this morning, I got to talking with other parents waiting for their kids’ pick up. Our discussions drifted to the subject of school materials: one of the moms admitted that her daughter had already broken the budget backpack she’d picked up at Walmart in August. Unfortunately, my child’s budget backpack which I’d bought at K-mart had also suffered the same fate.

This got me to thinking about how to best shop for school supplies: how should we budget our money for the “back to school” season? When should we pay for quality and when should we go for the cheaper stuff?

Which School Supplies Should We Spend Money On?


Let’s face it, your children will be carrying backpacks for a while. Even if they use a messenger bag in the higher grades, backpacks will remain handy for sports, camp trips, sleepovers and trips to the library. So why not buy a top quality backpack you know will stand the test of time? Look for durable zippers that zip up and down easily, and check that the seams are double-stitched and secure. I’d choose a waterproof backpack that will keep books and papers dry.

Tip: Check out or Lands’ End for higher quality backpacks; you’ll see the difference in these bags versus the bargain ones that can be purchased elsewhere.

Water Bottles

I’d ditch the juice boxes and the disposable water bottles. Not only are they expensive, they are also not environmentally friendly. Instead, invest in quality water bottles with internal ice packs so that drinks stay cold until snack time and lunch, plus they’re reusable! I believe I’ve found the perfect ones at 🙂


Much like backpacks, cheap sneakers tend to fall apart after one or two months of school. Your children participate in many sports activities in gym and during recess so why not get them sneakers that keep up with all that action? It’s a good idea to invest in a quality pair with good soles, inner support and a proper fit to your child’s foot. Trendy does not necessarily mean quality, so try to strike a balance between price, appearance and practicality. I found some great options at Nike and Payless. I actually like the Champion sneakers which are now offered at Payless — they’re durable, attractive and quite affordable.


Thin plastic clipboards break within the first couple of weeks of school. A thick plastic clipboard or an old-fashioned wooden clipboard is more durable.

What Should We Buy Cheap and In Bulk?


In my book (pun intended), mechanical pencils, designer pencils and trendy pencils are a waste of money. Usually the designs on pencils peel off and leave them weak and vulnerable to breakage. Unless your children are in high school, mechanical pencils aren’t a good choice as they’ll probably break often. Instead, I’d recommend that you purchase packages of standard, old-fashioned, yellow pencils when they go on sale in August and September. I always get at least a dozen 10-packs so they last throughout the year.


On a similar note, I don’t think that mechanical pens and fancy designer writing apparatus are practical choices for the younger kids. Speaking from experience, I know that young students lose pens all the time. I’d stick to regular ballpoint pens and I recommend that you purchase them in bulk at the beginning of the school year when they are cheapest. A good place to buy pens and pencils under their own brand name is Office Depot.


Your children will definitely end up using one or two notebooks during the school year. Rather than paying top dollar for them in March, it’s a better move to buy a few in September when they are at their cheapest. This year, I actually found great deals at Rite Aid, which usually maintains a good inventory for school supplies.


I’ve already mentioned that September is a great time to buy supplies as you can buy many things in bulk for pennies, such as folders (and notebooks). If you visit, you’ll find dozens for the taking.

What “Extras” We Should Have On Hand

Lunch Box

It’s easy to lose a lunch box — your kid will most likely lose one at some point. I keep an extra, generic lunch box in storage so I don’t have the pressure to pay top dollar for a replacement during the school year. I’d also avoid disposable lunch bags, which are costly and not eco-friendly.

Ruler, Glue, Scissors, Markers and Crayons

Have extras of all these art supplies available so that your children have them readily available for school projects.

Construction Paper

Keep a package of construction papers on hand for those school projects and report covers.

Permanent Marker

You’ll need to mark those items your children bring to school — their jackets, lunch boxes, backpacks and hats should be labeled so that you’ll easily recover them if they’re ever lost or misplaced. You don’t want to have to buy replacement items. Keep those markers around, but keep them out of reach of curious toddlers!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matsuo Kinsaki October 13, 2008 at 6:54 am

I just wanted to point out that in your pencil selection, mechanical pencils will “break often, unnecessarily exposing your children to lead.” Pencils don’t contain lead. They contain something called graphite, which is made of carbon. You can see this easily because the pencil tips are very light, whereas lead is heavy and a dull, soft metal. Lead’s softness means it will bend instead of break.

2 SVB October 13, 2008 at 7:16 am

Thanks for pointing this out Matsuo. We’ll make the appropriate change to the article.

3 Mary@SimplyForties November 3, 2008 at 4:28 pm

I agree with all of your points. Now that my son is in college I’m not making the annual school supply trek any longer but I always invested in good, sturdy backpacks and never in designer anything!

4 Chick June 19, 2010 at 5:58 pm

I’ll definitely make sure to bookmark this for later since I am always trying to save money, and back to school expenses are always the most expensive thing that I have to pay for. D:

I definitely do like to reuse my supplies from last semester if I always can. I hate having to buy brand new supplies that can be used in the next semester and so on.

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