This summer, I have to do something I’ve never had to do before. I need to go back to school shopping. Because my daughter, my little baby, is starting kindergarten.
I knew this would happen. I am prepared for it from a practical, financial standpoint (emotionally, well, that’s a different story). I have money set aside, and I plan to do my shopping soon to avoid the massive crowds in the stores the week before school starts (late August). I know that I should wait until all the crazy sales start but crowds ramp up my anxiety and that’s never fun. So, spending a few extra dollars to save my sanity is totally worth it.
But around where I live, there is something that happens that I have yet to fully understand. Every year, around back to school time, people start freaking out about having to buy school supplies, the cost of school supplies, how many items they need to buy and wow, how is it time for school already? But mainly they just freak out about having to buy supplies. Because, you know. School doesn’t start around the same time every year.
People like to talk about how “gift-oriented” events like birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries should never come as a surprise because they happen at roughly the same time every year. I feel the same way about back to school. It never ceases to amaze me how people are taken aback by the start of school (and, as a result, the number of people clamoring to take part in the free backpack program, run by a local church). If you have school aged children, you should know that every year they start a new school year. With that comes—gasp—supplies! So why not start preparing ahead of time?
Some people would read that and think “there’s no possible way I can start planning ahead of time. I just don’t have that kind of money” or “school supplies are just so expensive. There’s no way I can make my money stretch” or a variety of other excuses.
To those people, I say nonsense. It is possible to be prepared for back to school time and maximize your dollars. Here are a few suggestions as to how:
- Buy items throughout the year. Sometimes crayons, glue sticks, and other basic supplies for the elementary school set go on sale. Why not take advantage of sales on items you know you’ll need and create a small stockpile? Find a few extra dollars and hit the sale. Not only will you stock up for the next year, it will also help when you need to replenish your child’s supplies during the school year (especially at the last minute). If you’re not sure of what you need, check your district’s website; a lot of them publish the supply lists.
- Start a “back to school” fund. Just like you have an emergency fund, a vacation fund, a new car fund and a whatever else fund, have an account where you add a few dollars every week or two. Let’s say you add $10 a month, starting from January. By the time you would need to purchase supplies in August, you’ll have $80. Now, this amount might need to change based on the number of children you have and their grade level, but the basic concept remains the same. If it’s hard for you to find extra money within your income, try to get creative. For instance: examine your budget, determine if you can to cut back anywhere and use the difference. Perform an odd job every now and then or have a yard sale, designating that money towards your back to school fund.
- Shop at dollar stores. Or other discount places. They sell most of the same supplies as office stores or big box stores, and they are often much cheaper. These types of stores will allow your dollars to stretch farther, allowing you to be able to pick up more of the items your kids will need. Yes, it might not be Crayola crayons but really, how much does it matter? Red is red. Green is green. A scissor is a scissor. And most kids aren’t going to know the difference in brands nor does anyone need to know where you purchased them. The goal is to have your child prepared for school, including having all the necessary supplies. The purchase location is irrelevant.
- Reuse the previous year’s supplies. Items such as backpacks, lunch boxes, pencil cases and binders—if kept in good condition—can be used for multiple years, especially if you purchase a higher quality, sturdier items. These are often some of the most expensive items to purchase, so why not get your money’s worth by using them from year to year? When I was in high school, those monogrammed LL Bean backpacks were all the rage and most of my friends who had them used them for all 4 years. Not only did no one care, no one said anything. To save money on backpacks, look on sites like eBay. You can probably score some pretty good deals.
Some words on this advice: while these tips can be applied to all age groups, it is primarily intended for the elementary school set. Middle and high schoolers come with their own set of school supply issues that I am not yet qualified to discuss. Also, I understand that in some circumstances, it is simply not possible to plan ahead. That’s fine, and I get that. But for most of us, we possess the ability to stop being surprised by the start of school and avoid the financial pressure that comes with purchasing supplies.
Parents of school aged kids, how do you plan for back to school shopping?