Unusual Ways To Save On Back-To-School

Ahh, kids: nature’s little moneypits. The back-to-school season is a particularly appalling time, when parents everywhere struggle to stock up on all the goods they’ll need in the coming months. At Bankrate.com, professional parent and advice-giver Peter J. Sander suggests that you make saving money on back-to-school purchases a family project, by giving your kids budgets, helping them figure out how to save for big ticket items by scrimping on less important ones, and — our personal favorite — “deprogramming” them before you leave your house:

How will you get your child the name-brand items he wants while staying under budget? You won’t. Sander says that to avoid having your child fall into a I-can’t-possibly-wear-this-if-it-isn’t-Nike meltdown at the store, you need to de-program him from commercials. “We teach our kids the ‘disvalue’ of brands. We point out commercials and say, ‘They are trying to get you to buy that. You can either buy it or think for yourself,'” he says.

Victoria Jacobson of The Foundation for Credit Education suggests (in the same article) that you re-use as many leftover supplies and hand-me-down clothes as possible, but that you frame it as “recycling” to avoid the used-goods stigma. Her argument? Being environmentally conscious is a popular topic these days, so maybe your kids will find it easier to get behind that than the “let’s all save money” meme. (And if they refuse, you can try to scare them into compliance by telling them stories of the “Inconvenient Man,” then putting on an Al Gore mask and jumping out of their closets at one in the morning. And no, we don’t have any kids.)

By now, everyone knows that you can make out like a bandit on super-cheap supplies if you catch the right sale at some nationwide office supply stores and discount retailers. There’s also a few remaining tax holidays coming up (Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Florida, Massachusetts, and Texas, as of August 6th). But Deborah Ng at SimplyThrifty suggests the following unconventional sources: your local Freecycle group, those ubiquitous dollar stores, and garage sales. All three have their drawbacks–Freecycle lives and dies on location and random availability, dollar stores aren’t known for quality anything, and hitting 10 garage sales on a Saturday morning arguably wastes more money in gas than it saves in scoring that gently used backpack. But depending on your location, budget, and lifestyle (maybe you live in one of those neighborhoods where there are a dozen garage sales every weekend in a six block radius), they might be worthwhile strategies.

5 tips for saving on back-to-school gear [Bankrate.com]

(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Toof_75_75 says:

    Or, you could tell your child that if they “Just have to have that brand name item,” that they are more then welcome to get a job and pay for it. Or if they are too young for that, they should already be on an allowance which teaches them to spend and save wisely.

  2. letoofdune says:

    I stopped reading here: Bargain with the kids.

    Much like the US Government, we don’t bargain with terrorists.

  3. evanchsa says:

    The latest back to school advertisement here is for a Verizon Wireless Phone and Data plan for $99.99 / month for those “back to school kids!”

    What a bunch of crap.

  4. castlecraver says:

    Oh yeah, appeal to a kids natural desire to stand out from the crowd and be a hip environmentalist. Thaaaaat’s gonna work.

  5. superlayne says:

    Ah, back to school. The one time of the year when the color of my mechanical pencils matters.

  6. kellyhelene says:

    It’s actually not a bad idea to splurge on backpacks. I had an Eastpack all through school. After a couple years one of the straps ripped. My dad pulled out the receipt and tags, sent them back in with the bag, and a new one was on the doorstep before September.
    Kids are rough on bags, it’s cheaper to buy one high quality item and take advantage of a lifetime guarantee than to replace a cheaper one a couple times a year.

  7. beyond says:

    Not when they want a brand new high quality bag every year.

  8. Madd_Matt says:

    My mountain equipment Co-op backpack lasted me for at least 7 years in elementary/highschool and now into university. I also use it for camping/backpacking, so it has had its fair share of wear. I think it is well worth the few extra bucks over a $10 walmart bag that might last two months.

  9. MissMissy says:

    Here’s something: don’t let kids buy trendy items.

    This is a squishy area, to be sure, but get your kids to imagine whether they’re still going to like a hot-pink cartoon backpack when they’re 2 years older, or when the cartoon is no longer popular. That will avoid SOME of the having-to-get-new-stuff because the kids refuse to wear/carry it.

    Neutral colored backpacks all around, and binders without character pictures/weird designs.

  10. welsey says:

    I agree about the quality backpack. They can also get so heavy, and some of the more expensive ones are better at dealing with tons and tons of books than ultra-cheapo ones. Both for your back and the backpack itself. Of course there’s no need to go overboard, I had friends with like $100 backpacks and that’s just insane.

    My mom hates school supply shopping time and I usually ended up with 2 folders and a notebook because she felt every other item was extra and my attempt at tricking her into getting the new coolest stuff.

  11. welsey says:

    @beyond: Just tell them no and to take what they get. Kids would rather have a year old backpack than have to carry their shit in their arms every day. Whining kids can influence purchases, but you can also just tell them to fuck off (in so many words).

  12. Buran says:

    sheesh. Back to school shopping for me consisted of … school supplies. Clothes? What’s wrong with jeans and a T-shirt? I’ve got lots of T-shirts I picked up while visiting places (today’s: Zip National Park), or that reflect interests (someone in a store noticed my Cassini To Saturn shirt the other week). I don’t care what’s “in” or what brand something is as long as it’s well made and looks decent. You don’t have to spend a ton of money on name-brand items.

    My only real brand loyalties are my cars (VW, I’m a VW enthusiast), cameras (Nikon, SLR gear is compatible only with that brand) and my computers (I love my macs). The rules otherwise are simple: if it’s Sony or some other company whose business practices I dest or whose products are always junk, forget it, otherwise if it’s sold at a good price without requiring a rebate scam, and is of decent quality, I’ll buy it.

    No need to spend tons of money on crap to be happy.

  13. Buran says:

    @Buran: puh. Zip should say “Zion”.

    I’m glad I work a job now that’s casual (at a university). Good thing I still can get by on inexpensive (as in not costing $100 an item) clothes. If I ever change jobs, that may change. I like my job though.

  14. mermaidshoes says:

    backpacks? notebooks? clothes? c’mon. what about waxing, spray-on tans, straightening irons, makeup, and all the other REAL back-to-school necessities for today’s pre-teens?


  15. megscole64 says:

    Funny. I still remember the fun of back to school shopping. It was one of my favorite times! I was (okay, still am!) a total geek. I could care less about name brand clothing. I was all about the name brand school supplies like Crayola, Mead, etc. :) Oh…and the fruity foofy folders with cute kittens. Loved those!

    Scaring kids with AlGore is just cruel and unusual punishment. CPS worthy! And if my mom had tried to appeal to my environmental consciousness I would have laughed and found aluminum cans to throw in the garbage just out of spite. While I was a geek I still didn’t want to do anything my mom wanted me to! Must do the Opposite! :)

  16. lilyHaze says:

    A quality backpack (Eastpack, Jansport, Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, etc) lasts FOREVER. I think I ended up only buying 2 my entire school life (K-4 yrs of college). My last one still works after 10 years of use. Never buy those crappy plastic backpacks with stupid characters on it.

    A decent notebook (think 5-star) is good too. The plastic cover holds up well.

    For anyone planning on doing advanced mathematics (think Calculus eventually), I would buy a TI-89 calculator. I think it’s good for AP tests and I needed one in college too.

    As for anything else, is it really necessary? Besides the usual school supplies (notebooks, pencils, etc), we got a new outfit or two. That was it.

  17. megscole64 says:

    mermaidshoes…too funny!!! I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup until high school – clear nail polish only. I still don’t wear much makeup so I definitely save money there. And I don’t think they had spray on tans when I went to school. I spent the summer laying on the back porch in the sun. The old fashion tan!

  18. megscole64 says:


    too funny!!! I wasn’t even allowed to wear makeup until high school – and clear nail polish only. They didn’t have spray on tans…I had to do it the old fashion way – sweating it out on the back porch each summer.

  19. North of 49 says:

    as a parent, I’m required to provide food, clothing and shelter. School supplies, while not mandatory, are a nessesity for school. I had a twenty minute fight with Sonof49 over his first backpack – yes, he goes to kindergarten in 4 weeks. *breaks into song – its the most wonderful time of the year*
    I digress..
    I saw the 10$ backpack with a lunch kit, pencil case and wallet with no identifying stuff as far cheaper and more generic than the 20$ one with (insert movie marketting here) that had nothing extra. I told him that we are getting the one I picked and he can then add anything he wants to it to make it his. I had to remind him that if he wanted the logo’d pack, he could buy it himself. At 4, he still doesn’t even have an allowance.
    That’s the plan when they each go to school – if they want name brand superdooper stuff, they can buy it themselves. If they want us to pay for it, they get what they get and they are happy for it.
    For clothes, clothing exchanges and freecycle are wonderfull. Once again, its “you get what you get and be happy you have it.” That shuts up arguments. If they want something better, they can earn it themselves.
    Then there’s this one woman we know who hopped on freecycle and sobstoried about not being able to afford school supplies. Then, didn’t bother to rescind her request when her inlaws decided to buy the stuff for their grandchild. What a racket.
    Some of the stores around here, and possibly elsewhere, are holding a “buy one for the kids” campaign. Buy an extra school supply and it’ll be given to the kids in need, I bought a set for the woman on freecycle and when I found out about her inlaws, I decided I’m going to just give it to Sonof49’s school instead. There’s bound to be at least one kid who needs something.

  20. bohemian says:

    I found that not taking the kids with me back to school shopping solves most of this. For the actual supplies I went without them. No whining, no arguments. I got what was on their lists via the school and looked for the best prices at a couple of stores.

    I do something similar for clothes. I take the daughter window shopping earlier on. The deal is that we are browsing to figure out what’s new this season but not buying. Then I either go back when its on sale or otherwise buy things along the lines of what they wanted on my terms.
    I frequently have my daughter point out items she likes at Limited Too and then find an almost identical item at Target for 1/4 the price. Limited Too’s quality is not that much better than Target, sometimes worse.

    Maybe I am lucky. Our teenager finds recycling and repurposing to be counter culture and thinks it is part of his anti-establishment stick it to the man punk rock style. The daughter is a willing bargain hunter most of the time if we go somewhere that actually has a real sale like JcPenney.
    I give in on brand name shoes though. The deal is that we have to either find them on sale or get a good deal at an outlet type store.

  21. smakdphat says:

    We just made my seven year old daughter by her own keens. She really really wanted a pair, but I don’t drop $50 on my own shoes, let alone ones that a 7 year old will outgrow in a couple of months.
    She shopped around, though. Found a good deal she was happy with and got the shoes she just couldn’t live without all on her own dime (500).

  22. bohemian says:


    A local charity around here gathers school supplies and new backpacks and makes kits for kids in need. They make sure the backpack is loaded with the required items for their school and grade.

    BTW, people asking repeatedly for crazy things on Freecycle get a reputation fast.

  23. North of 49 says:

    @bohemian: The funniest bit about the woman on freecycle? She’s one of the mods!

  24. lyndyn says:

    @letoofdune: I realize this is tongue-in-cheek, of course. But really, why the hell not bargain with the kids? I remember middle school, and I’m well aware that I’m not the one who has to actually show up every day and deal with other people’s spoiled brats. There’s not letting overmarketed whinging rule your life, and there’s keeping kids on a short leash for your convenience with little regard for their feelings or experience, and there is a great vast swath of negotiating territory in between.

    I also really have never seen a reason to spend three-quarters of the year’s clothing budget in the week before school, and thereby get trapped into buying what the marketing people decide put on the shelf during that all-important week. We do clothing shopping throughout the spring and summer, and our back-to-school spending is limited to neccessary supplies and ONE frivolous item entirely of the child’s choice – my son usually picks a shirt, my daughter a journal, jewelry or jeans. Since we don’t make a lot of drama about it, they don’t either.

  25. Joe_Bagadonuts says:


  26. acambras says:


    Don’t forget the implants!

  27. DeeJayQueue says:

    Oh I am so with the people who don’t take their kids school shopping! My Job #2 is at an office supply store, and let me tell you how much easier and friendlier the people with no kids are in general. We joke about how expensive this stuff is, we laugh about how the kids think they’re getting all these brand name items but most of it ends up being store brand. Then we look over at the father who’s daughter is having a melt down over Erasermates and just cluck and shake our heads.

    Calculators are a scam. They haven’t changed in 10 years and they’re still $100. Get the cheapest one that will meet the requirements of the course.

    Other than that, I’m also with the arguments for quality over trendiness. It’s hard to tell a kid that they can’t have the Dora bag that everyone else has/wants, but if you can trick them, say by showing them how many extra pockets and stuff the other bag has, maybe offering to get something small to put in those pockets, they’ll go along easier. Or just take the “you get what you get and you be grateful” hard line.

  28. obbie says:

    part of the problem is that ppl buy too much of the same item.. u buy two bottles of glue when u really only need one. buying multiple packages of pens and pencils is just a waste of time. and as some other people have pointed out… get yourself a northface backpack or something similar. it may seem like overkill…. but its not. example: i can pack the bag with as much stuff as possible… books, notebooks, binders, pencils, everything. and then grab it by anypart of the bag and it can hold the weight… even the smallest zipper. try that with your budget bag from zombie-mart USA

  29. Anitra says:

    I don’t understand all the parents saying they never go clothes-shopping in the back-to-school season. Do your kids wear the same things to school that they wore all summer? And do they grow in regular, predictable patterns? My school had a dress code, so my mom would take me shopping a few weeks before school started up again, frantically looking for skirts & dresses that would fit me after a summer growth spurt. She’d usually have to modify them in the winter, too, adding extra hem material to keep the skirt long enough to fit the dress code as I grew taller.

    Overall though, I think back-to-school is probably a great time to start teaching kids the value of their money. I convinced my mother to buy more expensive supplies a few times by doing research to see what would actually last the longest and take the most beating. And sometimes she would let me go “shopping” in her home office for supplies that were new to me. :)

  30. etinterrapax says:

    I can’t decide what I feel about having worn a uniform to school until eighth grade. I hated it the whole time, but by the middle of ninth, when I went to public school, I was sick to death of having to decide what to wear every morning. I still wear essentially the same thing every day just to keep from having to spend more time than necessary on clothes that will just be toddlered in the first half hour of the day.

    About this, I’m more of the not-bargaining ilk myself, but I think what bothers me the most about this and other parenting articles is that they give the idea that you can just change how things are after years of focusing on placating the child with stuff. Once the genie’s out of the bottle re: giving in to their every whim and spending too much on birthdays and Christmas and back-to-school, the bottom line is that you’re not going to impose limits or retrenchments without a fight. It’s about your values and your household attitude, not about this pair of jeans or that graphing calculator. I’m not saying it’s not worth changing, but these articles about negotiation are just softening the ultimate need to set limits and stick to them, and stand firmly by the family’s values where money is concerned, and they sound to me like they’re really placating the parents who are out of control with this stuff, while not really discouraging them from buying anything.

  31. Gloria says:

    I just get paper and pens (usually Bic medium), two things that actually need replenishing for back-to-school. Then again, I’m in university now, so my back-to-school budget includes over several thousand dollars for tuition fees and textbooks.

    Ah, the days when I actually cared about getting the right kind of erasers and pencils. Remember gel pens? All the cool girls had the smooth quality brand, while I was stuck trying to catch up with dollar store ripoffs.

  32. kenposan says:

    It’s not my kid’s wants I worry about, it is the “list” from the school dictating I supply x# crayon boxes, x# of kleenex boxes, etc. That is what gets me.

  33. SaraAB87 says:

    I like to be a unique person and other people were doing it at the time so I jumped on the bandwagon and bought a kids backpack for college use. This was your standard, kmart purchased for about 12$ pokemon backpack. It was made of canvas and it made it through about 6 full semesters of college carrying heavy books. I think thats amazing for a backpack that I purchased for 12$ and sure beats spending 100$ on that north face backpack. When the first one went I did the same thing and purchased another pokemon backpack this time on sale for 9$, it was the same kind but different color. So I spent around 22$ for backpacks for college. Eastpacks were the worst as I had one in high school and the zippers would never stay shut they would always pop open no matter what, and it was not just me it was all the other people that owned Eastpacks as well, plus they were expensive. No one ever said anything to me about the pokemon backpack if anything they complimented it. Kids backpacks are strong, they will most likely last more than one year.

    I love freecycle people who beg about not being able to afford a PS2 game system for their son and how their son wants a certain Game Boy game that is impossible to find in stores and how they expect the rest of the group to just hand them stuff..

    Clothes are the worst because mostly all clothes for kids at this time are extremely overpriced, I would buy just enough to get by if you have not already put away clothing for this time or if your kid is in an unpredictable growth pattern then wait a few weeks until right after the mad back to school rush and then start hunting for deals to build the kid a wardrobe. Stores charge more this time of year for clothes because they know tons of parents are going to go out and buy a whole fall/winter wardrobe for their whole family of kids in the week before school starts.

    Also over here its pretty hot still even in the early weeks of September so I would imagine you could still get by on your kid’s summer clothes/shoes for 2-3 weeks of the school year provided the school allows summer clothes so that you could wait for the mad back to school rush to be over and then buy the clothes you need then after they go on sale. Over here if you do the entire “I am buying my whole kids fall/winter wardrobe in one week thing” chances are they won’t even start wearing the clothes you bought until October or November and by that time the same items that you bought in that week of mad rushing to get the whole wardobe done will be 50% off and they probably will have not even worn it yet…

  34. hoo_foot says:

    This article rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not sure what’s worse: teaching your kid to be a smug environmentalist or the fact that parents feel the need to have a justification for not buying brand names.

  35. SOhp101 says:

    @letoofdune: LOL 100% there with you, dune. Don’t negotiate with your kids, set a limit and stick with it. That doesn’t mean you have to buy them only the absolute necessities… go ahead and let them get one item relatively cheap item that they always wanted, assuming that your budget allows for it.

    Certain things though, are worth paying for name brand items. If children need crayons, buy Crayola ones, not the RoseArt. I can still remember now how crappy by friend’s RoseArts were while my Crayola lasted throughout the entire school year.

    Like shopping at the grocery store, DO NOT TAKE YOUR CHILDREN WITH YOU when shopping for the supplies. Ask for a list from the teacher/school or ask them (if they are older) to write a list so you can use your own discretion as to what is absolutely necessary and what is frivolous without hearing whines and objections.

    When it comes to clothes, it becomes much more difficult. When I was a child I never really had a choice when it came to my clothes/shoes so I didn’t start choosing until high school. Be careful how much freedom of choice you give them as children and you’ll save a lot of headache when they’re older (I still get a crack out of every time I see some mom asking her four year old son what shirt he wants to wear).

    Children aren’t dumb and they will watch how you shop even at a very young age. If they see you always comparing prices and spending on a budget, chances are they will follow suit.

  36. Indecision says:

    @lilyHaze: “A quality backpack (Eastpack, Jansport, Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, etc) lasts FOREVER.”

    Amen to this. I got an LL Bean backpack at the start of high school, which was actually 8th grade in my school. This weekend, 11 years later, I’ll be using it as a daypack for a weekend trip. It’s still in near perfect condition.

  37. synergy says:

    I remember my mother refusing to buy a box of facial tissue that was on the school list. The teacher tried to keep me from participating or something until I brought one. I was painfully embarassed at the time, but now I see what my mother meant. We were rarely sick when we were kids and if we were, we were sent to school with a packet of tissues or a roll of t.p. to wipe our own noses. Then at the end of the year there were always these leftover boxes of tissues. Why pay for an item that I’m rarely or never going to use?? (was her thought)

  38. Indecision says:

    @SaraAB87: “I like to be a unique person and other people were doing it at the time so I jumped on the bandwagon…”


  39. bohemian says:

    I don’t buy school clothes until about the end of September. It is always too hot for fall clothes until then anyway. I got burned buying school clothes in August. I even bought them a bit too big. My daughter had a major growth spurt in September and outgrew all of them.

  40. wring says:

    My child completely understands when I say “I don’t have enough money for that, sweety.” Why is it so hard for everyone to tell their kids that?

  41. North of 49 says:

    my mountain equiptment coop backpack has lasted 16 years so far. I’d give it to Sonof49 for his school and see how long it would last him, but it isn’t quite big enough for some of the binders they now have. Kindergarten he gets the cheap 10$ bag. When that one bites the biscuit, he’ll get a MEC one. Or when he starts high school and it’ll be his for the rest of his life because of how well they are made.

  42. Optimistic Prime says:

    Some good ideas, but sometimes schools require certain items. The list for elementary usually states “Crayola.” As far as calculators, wait until the first day of class. I bought a TI-85 in high school thinking it would last me through college. Well I was surprised when I went to college the professor teaching calc required a TI-92. I didn’t mid so much except the classroom was teaching us how to use the calculator, but we couldn’t use it on homework or on exams. What a friggin’ scam. And I totally agree with the good backpack thing. I bought a $50 one and it was still going strong until some turkey stole it out of my car. At least I can be sure some little asshole will get years of carrying dope and stolen merchandise out of my backpack.

  43. Bunnymuffin says:

    Some school lists are getting ridiculous. I have an extra teenager this summer and thought I’d help his mom out by sending school supplies home with him. I went to the school district list for this population of 2,000 podunk town and all of the middle school kids are required to have a USB/flash drive. Huh? I asked him what he did last year knowing full well his family’s economic situation and he told me that he would use his friend’s drive.

  44. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    Around here (Houston), the stores all have shelves full of white boxes, labeled with school and grade, that contain the exact items on the supply list. Shopping for the basics takes one second, and you don’t have to waste your breath arguing about what color prismatic foil the pencils should be or what cartoon character should be on the folders. Most of the schools have uniform policies, too, and you can buy perfectly serviceable uniforms for any price, from the dollar store to the sticker shock level.

    Of course, Houston schools are fascist little prisonyard simulations, and nearby Katy and New Caney schools are even worse than that, but I’m just saying.

    We’ll keep the nevvy in Montessori until his doctoral thesis is accepted, if that’s what it takes.

  45. acambras says:


    FYI, this past weekend, I picked up a 2GB USB flash drive at WalMart for $20 (the 2GB ones are usually $30). There are also 512MB and 1GB ones available.

    And nobody lecture me about WalMart, please. I know they’re evil. Moment of weakness.

  46. North of 49 says:

    usb drives for that cheap? Sweet. I should pick up another one or three.

  47. Optimistic Prime says:

    @North of 49: Like all electronics, they’re dropping. It seems every week they’re on sale somewhere for about $10 a Gig. $40 for a 4Gb is the best I’ve seen so far. I found a 1Gb for $10, and I jumped right on it so I can carry OpenOffice and Gimp with me.

  48. acambras says:

    @Optimistic Prime:

    Yeah, I think WalMart had the 4GB ones for about $40.

  49. paco says:

    @kenposan: I’m trying to remember where I put that list right now.

    @wring: That’s my response sometimes too. My daughter gets it. She also gets the word “budget.”