Julie Poppen is an editor and writer for Education News Colorado and the mother of a soon-to-be fifth grader.
Usually I take the easy way out, coughing up a check for school supplies that come neatly packaged in a box on the first day of school, and, apparently, serve as a fundraiser for my daughter’s school. No waiting in lines, no tense negotiations with your child, no unreasonable demands for the folder that costs five times as much as a plain one because of all the glitter and peace signs, no confusion about what exactly you need (is a “red marking pen” supposed to be felt tip or ball point?), no failing to get everything on that increasingly long grade-level supply list.
Well, this year my daughter was heck bent on shopping for school supplies. Since she’s heading into the big-time of fifth grade, I complied. So we hit Target with our list. Believe it or not, school in Boulder Valley starts in three weeks and we’re going to be gone for one of them.
We ended up spending more than we would have on the school fundraising deal. Dare I admit I think we spent $80 on classroom supplies alone? Not only that, I have to shell out $15.50 for a kids’ magazine subscription, computer supplies and an assignment notebook. I also bought the optional flash drive ($9), so I could be the ever-so-modern school mom, and the big green calculator with pi and square root buttons before realizing we already had one.
There are certainly ways to save money during this process. Did we really need to buy another ruler? No. There’s one in every room of our house. Curses to the company that created a ruler that doubles as a bracelet when you slap it on your wrist.
My daughter loved the experience, however, and it seemed to get her pumped about school – but also fueled some anxiety.
Anyway, I know I’m not the only parent undergoing this annual ritual in store aisles across the country. The National Retail Federation last week reported that the average American family will spend a record $688.62 on back-to-school spending, up from $603.63 last year and up 33 percent from the $450.76 in 2003. The average person with children in grades K-12 will spend $95.44 on school supplies such as notebooks, pencils and backpacks.
Hey, now I’m not feeling too bad. Although I failed to mention that I also spent $45 on a new backpack for my daughter. The old one is still in working order but small. The new L.L. Bean model offers a special compartment for stinky shoes. Now I’m well over the national average.
The big money issue? Clothes. And I’m going to do my best to minimize spending there.
Back-to-school shopping tips
A scan of blog posts about limiting spending on school supplies revealed these tips:
• “Shop” at home first
• Watch for special deals and coupons
• Wait until school starts for real sales
• Stick to the list! (easier said than done)
• Shop early but not too early
• Give kids a budget
• Buy in bulk for the whole year
• Save your receipts in case you bought the wrong thing
• Reuse last year’s supplies when possible
We didn’t confront much of a crowd but a girl going into fourth grade approached me in the aisle to find out where to get her school supply list. Some stores (smart ones) will have lists available. If you didn’t hang on to the list handed out at the end of last year or you lost it, check your school’s website.
Helping those in need
While it can be somewhat of a pain – and expensive – to get prepped for a school year, remember those parents who are struggling financially more than you are, and consider buying a few school supplies for those families too. Keep your eye out for stores that may be taking collections.
Walgreens, for instance, has partnered with the Kids in Need Foundation this year to collect supplies for kids from July 29 through Aug. 18. Walgreens customers can donate new school supplies and classroom needs at any in-store collection bin. Needed items include paper, crayons, scissors, pencils, glue, markers, folders and erasers.
Your own community may also be holding back-to-school supply drives. The non-profit Crayons to Calculators program serves needy students in St. Vrain and the Boulder Valley.
Share your own back-to-school strategies and stories by making a comment on this post.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.