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Back to School on a Budget

by Tiffany in Children

Teacher and Sudents

July/August is when we start to see back to school sales and we typically start to make our supply lists if we have kids attending school outside the home. Even if you homeschool you will still likely take advantage of this time of year to get good deals on supplies. How much do you typically spend for back to school supplies?

Well, according to the National Retail Foundation, the average family with students in grades Kindergarten through 12 is expected to spend $548.72 on school merchandise.

Here is the breakdown:

Electronics or computer-related equipment: $167.84
Clothing and accessories: $204.67
Shoes $93.59
School supplies $82.62

Is this more or less than what you spend each year? Will it cost more or less to use greener and more eco friendly school supplies? How can we avoid falling into the consumer traps designed to get parents to spend a ton of money this time of the year?

Here are some of the ways we are tackling the back to school supplies scene this year.

School Clothes – We are buying nothing new except underwear and socks. Every other item will be second hand from thrift stores and I started shopping for items in early June. I made a list of what I think they will need and worked from that… I didn’t rely on guesswork that would ensure I buy more than they need. I kept in mind that there is only two months of shorts weather here after school begins so I made sure to think Fall/Winter. I think clothes for most of the school year for both of my older kids will be less than $75.

Shoes – School shoes I usually don’t buy second hand, it just depends. I tend to buy each child one pair of good quality shoes that are pricier initially but last the whole year. The cheap $20 shoes at WalMart… they don’t last more than a few months for my active kids so we don’t buy them. Since instituting a policy that my son reserve a pair of shoes for school ONLY I have been buying fewer new pairs. He can use worn or used shoes for play until they fall apart and the school ones stay nice. The $93.59 price estimation for shoes sounds realistic to me. You can buy “green” shoes for two kids for less than that.

Lunch – School is in session for around 180 days. Buying a school lunch is about $2 per day on average and that is without extra drinks or snacks from vending machines. You can expect to pay around $360 for a year’s worth of lunches. They are also not the most nutritious in my estimation and I can think of several other things I would rather put that $360 towards, including nifty lunchboxes. Check out my Bento Lunchbox site for some lunch inspiration! This year I plan on packing lunches for the most part but also allowing them to eat the school lunch when they want to. Because we invested in some good quality lunchboxes last year and the year before I have no need to buy more. We have 5 Laptop Lunchbox systems in various colors, a couple Tiffins, and various other bento boxes. They make packing a low cost, nutritious meal a snap, and the stylish boxes help with the “cool” factor.

Supplies – These can get pricey IMO. I remember two years ago I worked straight off the list the school sent to me and spent around $50. Plus I had to pay a supplies fee to the school of $150 so I wasn’t too happy. Most schools have a supplies sale about a week or so before school starts and you can usually get everything they need for their grade for around $20. Call and ask your school about this. Homeschoolers can also shop these sales. There are some really not-so green items that the schools request like petroleum, crayons, anti-bacterial soaps, and plastic bags. I have a sample letter you can send to the school with your supplies to explain why you didn’t follow their list to the letter if you made some changes. We stick to their list for some things and others we don’t.

I like to shop for school supplies ALONE. If I take my kids with me I will inevitable get pressured into buying a Hello Kitty folder instead of a plain one or the glitter glue instead of the regular glue. I can make savvier decisions when they are not around. ;)

Also make sure to scope of thrift stores for supplies. They often have folders and backpacks as well as clothes and household stuff.

Backpacks – These are relatively cheap at a place like Walmart where you can get one for $10-25 dollars. But I find that they are also CHEAPLY constructed most times and you may end up having to buy another one mid year. The zippers always go first in my experience. That is no savings. I would rather buy a handmade one on Etsy or make my own. Here is an awesome tutorial for making your own. Girls especially won’t mind a simple but pretty sack style backpack. Washable and no zippers!

Electronics – At 5 and 9 I don’t think any electronics are required for them to function in school although it would be nice for them to have their own computer! That is on our budgetary wish list.

What are you doing to keep the back to school season and cheaper and greener? I would love to hear!

  • EcoLabel Fundraising

    Great breakdown of the way to shop “smart” for back to school. We feature many lunch systems in our fundraising program. I am just amazed by how much people spend on “baggies” and “juice boxes” all year long. They can really save by just investing in reusable lunch containers.

  • Great tips! I’ve been jonesing for that laptop lunch system as well ever since I saw one in a magazine and haven’t had a reason to buy one yet. And you were reading my mind about the backpack thing- I’ve been meaning to look up a tutorial for a while so I can make my DD a backpack for preschool.

    What green shoes do you like for kids? The options for kids, or at least that I have found, are so limited that it’s hard to find anything acceptable, especially since my kids are still really little.

  • BTW… the second backpack link isn’t working.

  • nevermind, tried it again and it worked.

  • Kimberly

    One thing when it comes to the actual reading and writing school supplies, please get what is asked for. I don’t care what brand of crayons you get – as long a) they don’t have lead b) you don’t get the huge box that won’t fit in the desk when the list says 24 count.

    Another example if the list says 5 single subject notebooks, please don’t get one large 5 subject notebook. If you get the 5 subject notebook – how is your student going to do their math in their math notebook, and write in their reading log – when their science teacher has taken up their notebook to grade.

    When writing letters to change the supply list – find out who sets it before complaining to the teacher. I field complaints every year and I pass them up to the district level. I suspect that if the parents would complain to the district we would see change.

  • Wow. Seriously? Over $90 on shoes? Over $200 on clothes? Wow, those are some big numbers. I don’t ever recall having that kind of money spent on my back to school needs as a kid, and I’m certainly not about to spend it on my kids. The supplies number is crazy too. We just bought a bucket full of binders, notebooks, pencils, ect… and spent around $20.

  • Our school this year partnered with an online company to pre-order all their school supplies, and based on what I spent last year I’ve already saved around $30 on those for 2 kids.

    We just went through their clothes and bagged up too small clothes & shoes for an upcoming trip to the consignment shop. We have done this for 2 years now, and last year I paid NOTHING for back-to-school clothes. They traded in their clothes and picked out new outfits & shoes. My husband did buy them each 1 outfit while out on a “Daddy Date” and spent around $40.

    For shoes this year we will save even more than normal – both girls now wear the same size shoes as me! Yep, they are stealing my shoes constantly, but it means that I don’t have to buy anything besides good running shoes for them.

    For backpacks, we bought them both hiking backpacks @ REI 3 years ago, and both still look brand new. I remember going through backpacks MUCH more frequently than that as a kid, so I’m very pleased with these. If push comes to shove, well, I make bags, so I can always make them a different bag if they need it – and I already have the fabric to do it with.

  • Memarie Lane

    We homeschool, and I have NEVER spent nearly that much! Year round I glean clothes from Freecycle and buying end-of-season off the clearance racks. I never spend more than $5 on any article of clothing or shoes. This time of year I load up on crayons and glue sticks and things like that, while they’re ridiculously cheap. Target has some great materials in their dollar section; workbooks and map puzzles and flashcards and such. Walmart has some good manipulatives for early reading and basic math, but not quite as cheap as Target.

    Anyway, if parents keep their eyes peeled year round for the things they know they will need down the road, they will save a lot more money.

  • Bev

    Wow! I used to think homeschool was more expensive than public school but I guess not. I spent about $460 total on curriculum for 3 kids by using amazon and ebay and buying used. With homeschooling we don’t have to worry so much about baggies and such but geez, there certainly are a lot more dishes when the kids are home! We use storage containers for snacks if we are going out during lunchtime and try to be as green as possible.No paper napkins and we use our picnic basket as much as possible and bring everything home to wash. All of our homeschool supplies are recycled paper and when done we use the back side of papers for scrap paper and then into the recycle bin. Lots of ways to stay green.

  • Kate E.

    We bought backpacks on sale from Lands’ End last year and they still look brand new…I hoping to use them through elementary school at least. We are hitting garage sales to stock up on clothes – it’s hard to beat 50 cents for a pair of jeans! It’s hard for me to imagine spending anywhere near $80 for school supplies – although we aren’t at the age where they need a computer yet. Most of the office supply stores near us run sales where I can get everything on the list for 2 kids for under $20 (I do reuse what I can from the previous year, though).

  • Kim

    I know people who homeschool one child and the other goes to public school. They actually spend more on the one in school. I homeschool and buy little supplies yr to yr. Using same crayons year to year. No need in using a brand new box like schools require. Reusing notebooks etc. We also dont use/waste alot of paper. We dont lose pencils either. No need in backpacks.

  • What a great article. I won’t link it here, but I went off on an insanely priced back-to-school kit over the weekend at our site. Stuff like that makes me crazy.

    You *can* green your kids’ back-to-school experience without blowing out a credit card. Everything here is solid.

    Thanks for the good read.

  • Jenn

    Very ‘Story of Stuff’ (google it if you haven’t seen it yet) to buy a quality back pack that will last your kids over the years, as opposed to buying new every year, same goes for binders, etc…

  • Also check out Hero Bags line of organic cotton American made lunch bags. They are currently having a sale and worth the investment. Their lunch bags are incredibly well made with quality zippers and machine washable.

  • Angela

    Back-to-school clothes – just another reason that I love sending my kids to the Catholic schools. It’s all about the uniform – 2 skirts and 5 shirts for the year. The skirts we bought two years ago still fit. We need to get new polos this year, but that will cost me about $25 (for all 5 shirts). My Kindergartner is out of uniform (makes the youngest ones easy to identify in a crowd of other students). She’ll be wearing hand-me-downs, though I may buy her one special outfit for her first day of school.

    Supplies – I shopped the sales and got everything I needed for two kids for just over $40.

    As for backpacks, I’ll be ordering from LL Bean. When my 11 year old was in Kindergarten we got one from them. It’s in perfect condition still, but too small for her. Unfortunately for my 5 year old, the backpack is monogrammed with her older sister’s name and now she (my 5 YO) won’t use it. TO put it out there, the LL Bean prices are quite competitive ($28 for the Original size which is perfect for elementary school – $40 for the Deluxe for the junior high kids) with the big box stores and they are offering free shipping through January.

    I am looking into reusuable “baggies” for use in their lunchbags. Perhaps I can talk them into the Bentos, but I don’t know. These kids are picky and want their lunchboxes to match their backpacks. LOL.

    Again, Tiffany, thank you for all of the inspiration!

  • I am the mother of a 10 yo girl and 13 yo boy. He’s heading into 8th grade and clothing is becoming important. He actually does care how he looks.

    I started a ‘campaign’ called Used is Cool 4 Back 2 School. Mostly I was thinking of school supplies – buying five new single subject notebooks when only 1/4-1/2 of last years’ was ever used drives me NUTS!! I tried to talk my son into using the last half of his science book to start the new year but he said, “what if I use it up, have to buy a new one and have a cumulative test at the end of the year? I’ll have to study from two books, and if it’s open notes, I’ll have to carry both!!” His backpack already weighs about 25#. He got me.

    I still want to promote Used is Cool 4 Back 2 School, I don’t have a website, nor have I trademarked the name… but I have a Facebook Group. Please join and spread the word. And yes, talking to the administration about the excessive supply list is probably a very good idea… and what’s up with giving the kids fancy pencils, then turning around and saying they can’ t USE them at school… that need to stop.

    Now, the other thing is, it is very difficult to find used boys clothes. They are usually trashed I think, so they don’t make it to the consignment stores, and the thrift stores where I live are, well, gross. It’s hard to take my son to pick stuff out. He doesn’t have the patience to turn every hanger like you have to in a thrift store. So, we’ve been shopping Target and T.J. Maxx. The latter has very nice branded clothing for a lot cheaper. But I’m trying to decide what’s a fair budget. If you live where they have Shopko, they have a wear policy that you can replace items (same size) if they wear them out before they outgrow them. I believe Sears does also, but they’re expensive.

    We deprive our kids – based on our finances AND our morals – of so much, e.g. we can’t keep up with the Joneses. So I will admit that my green, re-use nature is more difficult to enforce when clothes are in question. And used shoes are simply out of the question.

    I am hoping to start a back-to-school swap in my area. No money changes hands between participants. Just drop what you don’t need, pick up what you do.

    I have Lands End backpacks and agree that NOT monogramming is a good choice, because when they do outgrow them their younger siblings can use them, or the kid who picks them up at the swap or thriftstore won’t feel funny. Maybe, at a swap, you could alphabetize them. LOL. We bought my son a store backpack one year and it didn’t last the year. Buying from a reputable (REI, Lands End, LL Bean) outdoor wear company will save you oodles over time. And while the cloth bag is darling, have you ever watched how the kids handle their bags? That would last maybe a week with the girls at our bus stop!!

    Am going to look into the Bento systems. But dang, peer pressure sucks, doubt my son will use one!

    Tiffany, thanks for your ideas, and encouragement.