School Shopping on a Shoestring
As a kid, there’s nothing more exciting than school shopping – as an adult with a tight budget, school shopping is often a time of dread. The National Retail Foundation found that parents of children in grades K-12 spent an average of $669.28 on back-to-school supplies in 2014 – a figure high enough to make you weak in the knees.
Back to school shopping needn’t cost as much as your rent as long as you’re careful. Seeking out the best bargains and knowing when to splurge can go a long way in making sure your children are well equipped for this school year.
Budgeting for Consumable Items
The one place you can’t ignore is necessary consumable items like pencils, pens, paper, art supplies and erasers. Your kids need these things to do their schoolwork, but that doesn’t mean you need to break the bank to get them.
Search local ads for bargains leading up to the school year – a pack of crayons that normally runs $1 might be half that during back-to-school sales. If you can afford to do so, buy multiples of consumable items while they’re on sale – you’ll probably have to replenish some of these items during the year.
Quality matters on some things – cheaper crayons don’t contain pigment that sticks to paper and some pens quickly gum up. Some bargain bin pencils break if you look at them funny and cheap markers dry out after just a few uses.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that cheap supplies are frugal. If an item doesn’t have a long life span and you’re replacing it frequently, you can actually spend more in the long run.
That’s not to say all generic items aren’t as good as or better than brand-name items. Do some research and figure out which generic items will work. When in doubt, buy a test package before stocking up for the school year.
Certain homemade items are more creative and certainly less expensive. For example, book covers are easy, especially when made out of brown paper shopping bags or colorful, heavy-duty wrapping paper. Fabric book covers are popular, so if you’re handy with a sewing machine, now is a great time to use that leftover fabric.
Backpacks and Lunchboxes
Your child’s backpack isn’t just a cool accessory – it ferries supplies and books to and from school, it bears a lot of weight and it’s subject to all sorts of abuses. A well-made backpack also distributes weight evenly across your child’s back, preventing pain and possible injury.
Lunchboxes are only slightly less important. Using a sturdy container for your child’s lunch also saves money in the long run. By packing a lunch from home, you’re sparing your budget the high costs of cafeteria food or machine cuisine while ensuring your child eats a nutritious meal.
Look for sturdy metal or thick plastic lunch boxes and steer clear of anything too flimsy or trendy. A well-made lunch box can last years, while a cheap, trendy one might not even see the end of a semester. You can often find quality lunch boxes in thrift stores for a fraction of what they would cost new. Inspect the hinges and handle for wear and make sure the interior is clean and in good condition.
Walking into school on the first day wearing a brand new outfit is an annual rite of passage, but isn’t strictly necessary. This is one area where you can save by shopping second-hand, making clothes yourself or being vigilant about finding those back-to-school sales.
When shopping for secondhand clothing, inspect all seams and closures (buttons, zippers, snaps, etc.) for wear and damage. If you’re handy with a needle and thread and the item is of good quality, it might be worth getting even if you have to perform some minor repairs. If not, pass on it.
If you sew, knit, crochet or embroider, back-to-school is the perfect excuse to create something special for your child. If you have a large stash of fabric or yarn, it will only cost time – if not, you can upcycle old items. Even if you aren’t a professional tailor, you can go shopping in your child’s closet or at the thrift store to find items that are useable with a little tweaking.
Classroom Supply Lists
Tough times and budget cuts have forced many schools to send home a supply list for the classroom. If your child needs to bring in items to share with the class, such as tissues, hand wipes, snacks or pencils, don’t refuse unless you’re under extreme financial hardship.
If you have access to a bulk warehouse membership, gather a few parents and chip in to split the cost of a case of tissues or other items on your children’s classroom list.
Don’t discount the dollar store for items, either. Not everything is of the best quality, but most are cheaper and just as good if you know what you’re looking for.