How to Save on School Supplies Without Going Crazy

If I had unlimited time and gas was cheap, I could get almost everything on my kid's school supply list for 25 cents per item or less.

But here in the real world, there are still ways to avoid spending a fortune on that long list the teachers provide. In fact, I have already gathered about half the items on my second-grader's list — without spending any money at all. I will have to spend a few dollars before I'm done, but my outlay will be nothing like the $200 some parents report spending. (See also: How to Get Into a Good School District for Less)

I get these savings using techniques and tips like these:

1. This time of year, most stores offer a few weekly loss leaders.

You'll find popular school supply items for a quarter, a penny, or even free at the major office stores, drug stores, and discount stores. Each Sunday, take a few minutes to look through the ads for the stores near you. Then, pick one store that has a great deal on several items you need. Try to stop there early in the week before supplies are out.

2. Check fliers for "basket" coupons, like $5 off a $25 purchase.

I've seen many of them so far this year. A quick web search for printable coupons would also be a good idea.

3. Now is a good time to cash in office supply store rewards.

I have been using the MaxPerks program at Office Max for about a year, and I love that you can spend your Perks online. Spend $50, and your order ships free. You could finish school supply shopping without even leaving the house!

4. Many of the best deals I've found this year have been at Walgreens.

They just happen to be piloting a new web pickup program right now in some areas. They're offering a $5 off $20 discount with the coupon code PICKUP20 — enter it when you place your order with a participating store through the website. Then you drive to your store and either wait in the car or go to the photo desk (depending on whether the store has pickup), and — voila! — discounted school supplies with minimal to no time in the store.

5. Take advantage of drugstore rewards programs.

This is how I've gotten some of my supplies free so far. Walgreens offered the ubiquitous 24-pack of crayons for free after Register Rewards. Then I took advantage of a moneymaking deal on another product where I received more back in Register Rewards than I had originally paid. The overage covered the purchase of a 29-cent pair of scissors and some highlighters.

6. Use manufacturer's coupons.

This time of year, school-supply makers publish coupons. I printed a manufacturer's coupon from Facebook to get the requested 12 dry-erase markers for free. The coupon was for $2 off 2 packs of markers, which were on sale for 99 cents apiece at Walgreens. (The cashier reduced the coupon to $1.98.)

7. Use what you already have.

Luckily, my 7-year-old is fond of the sturdy Crocodile Creek backpack that we got her for kindergarten — probably because her dad embroidered her name on it. We will be re-using her backpack and lunch pack, and I was able to locate a clip board and bottle of hand sanitizer we had lying around the house.

8. Stockpile supplies.

When you hit a store that is offering up to five notebooks for a penny each, buy the maximum, even if you only need two this year. You can always put them away for next year — or donate them to needy kids.

9. Work as a team.

Another way to take advantage of the seasonal bounty without accumulating too much excess is to team up with other parents from your kid's school. When those Sunday ads come out, you can hit Office Max while one neighbor hits Office Depot and another goes to Target. This way, you can scoop up multiples of all the loss leaders — or at least buy a large multipack and save by buying in bulk.

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Guest's picture

A lot of times the stores are close enough together that you can get all the lost leaders in the same trip. I also found Walgreens had some good buys. My children are grown so I go get all the supplies on sale and donate them to the neighborhood school. I get to buy things for a penny or two and also help someone out. Love when you can go into a store a buy a bad full of things for 27 cents...

Andrea Karim's picture

How do dollar stores stack up against office supply stores for school supplies? I haven't shopped for school stuff since I was a kid, so I don't really know where one goes for these things, but it always SEEMS like dollar stores have a decent selection of, like, wrapping paper.

Andrea Karim's picture

Not that wrapping paper is a school supply, just that it's one of those basic necessities that I always overpay for because I never think to go to the dollar store.

Guest's picture

Wrapping paper works really well as book covers! You can also try paper bags and newspaper for wrapping and books.

Guest's picture

I love going after the loss leader products on sale! That's when i stockpile those i need regularly but in smaller quantities. Will only stockpile for up to 6 mths though - trying to break my habit of being a hoarder. ;p It can get a little crazy if I'm trying to get something in particular cos it's not always on sale at the right time.. but the thrill of an amazing deal is too good to pass up on

Guest's picture

For elementary and middle-school kids:

1. At the end of the school year, clean out the backpack, file or toss all of those papers which come home at the end of the year, and use the backpack to store the school supplies for next fall. If the supplies are in the backpack, you don't have to hunt for them later.

2. Pay your kids for stuff that they re-use. One of my daughters took excellent care of her things, and for several years used the same backpack, pencil box, ruler, math compass set, colored pencils, erasers, and sturdy folders. She also re-used many spiral notebooks (she just ripped out the few pages which were written on). I gave her $20 every fall. And when I bought her anything new which she needed, I was comfortable with an occasional "splurge" for cuter stuff because I knew she would take good care of it.

The daughter who was hard on everything (scribbled on ruler with magic marker, broke pencil box, accidentally ripped folders or left them on playground and they got rained on, tore seams of backpack, and lost almost all her art supplies), she didn't get any money because she didn't re-use very much. After a few years of seeing her younger sister get the cash, she started taking better care of her stuff, and she earned some cash back too.

Guest's picture

I do something similar. I give my kids around $80-$100 each to cover their supplies. If they have money left over after they buy their supplies they can use it for clothes. So if they re-use things from last year, it gives them more money to spend on clothes. Or if they fall in love with some special backpack that is $60 then they know they won't have anything left for clothes. I don't think they like this system very well, because some of their friends get nice supplies AND lots of clothes, but I think it is teaching them life-long lessons about budgeting. Money is a limited resource - and each person can spend it on what makes sense to them and then see if they are happy with that choice later and then if not, learn from it and make a better choice next time.