Every year parents face the tasks involved with the start of school. Kids need to be registered. You have to prepare your family to get out of summer mode and back into the school schedule. And then there is the shopping; new clothes, new backpacks, and school supplies. It can really add up and take a toll on your bank account. Parents report spending anywhere from $100 to $1,000 in one year on items requested by schools to aid the education of their children. According to the National Retail Federation, total spending on back to school and college will reach $68 billion dollars in 2015. The high price tag of back to school seems to be getting higher, and more and more parents are getting frustrated.


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The rising cost of school supplies is a concern for many parents. Of course, inflation causes the costs to rise just like anything else in life, but the lists are getting longer and containing more expensive items as well. For example, high school lists include expensive graphing calculators that can cost over $100. A lot of school supply lists now include thumb drives for children saving their work completed on school computers.

An average elementary school list requests different kinds of folders and paper, pencils, glue, crayons, notebooks, erasers and scissors. One expensive item we saw on an elementary list was batteries. An average middle school list also requests folders and paper, pencils, notebooks and erasers. Your middle schooler may also need graph paper and a calculator.  For high school, it gets more expensive. The basics are again requested but you need more stuff because each course has its own necessary supplies. High school is when you see the graphing calculators show up on the list and in high school, items needed for extracurricular activities like instruments or uniforms can greatly increase the cost.

What we see across all the lists for all the grade levels are more items requested that are not technically used for teaching but instead part of classroom life and maintenance. In years past, your school supply list didn’t include cleaning items but now you may find a request for clorox wipes or paper towels on your child’s list. Items used mainly by the teacher like dry erase markers are also on the list. That stuff can run up the bill quickly.


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Budget woes in the school systems often result in teachers starting the year in an empty or near empty classroom. Low teacher salaries are not news to anyone. We talked to teachers in different parts of the country, teaching different grade levels and subjects and they all said they struggled with school supplies and spent too much of their own money on classroom needs. In fact, several teachers reported spending $500 in one school year. The teacher may have a dry erase board in her room but no markers. We all know kids get snotty noses, but there are no tissues and no hand sanitizer to stop the spread of germs. Teachers often have to choose to not give out helpful handouts or worksheets because there isn’t enough paper available for printing. Making curriculum decisions based on basic supply needs can really impact their effectiveness in the classroom.

Here’s the thing, teachers should not be buying pencils, markers and paper out of their salaries. Unless you work from home or for yourself, you probably don’t bring your own paper to the office to print things you need to complete your work. Your boss doesn’t spend his salary on items his subordinates need to complete daily tasks. It actually sounds kind of crazy in most situations, so why do we expect this of the men and women who have committed their lives to help us teach and guide our children to become productive, intelligent adults? We can debate over the cause of this problem and how it should be solved, but that isn’t going to get us anywhere this school year.

Read 12 Things Teachers Want Parents to Know to learn more about what you can do to make the most out of your child’s school year.


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Too many kids in the United States live in poverty and their parents simply cannot afford supplies. In a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, according to the US Census, in 2013 “10.9 million school-age children 5 to 17 years old were in families living in poverty.” That equals out to about 21 percent of all school aged children. Let that number sink in. In your child’s class, 21 percent of the children are living in poverty. In a class of 30 kids, about 6 of them are living in poverty. We also know that living in poverty results in much lower rates of academic achievement, including graduating from high school. So while a box of crayons or even a $100 calculator may be well within reach for a lot of us, so many can’t even imagine having extra cash to spend on school supplies. Believe it or not, children show up to start the school year without even a backpack, let alone all the supplies on the list. This puts that child at a severe disadvantage and it actually has a negative effect on the entire class.

You might think that this is not your problem. You will buy for your child and move on. However, according to teachers, children who don’t have basic supplies can’t focus on class work. When children aren’t prepared for class, they are distracted and distract from the class as a whole. So while your child has a new binder with dividers to make it easy to find his worksheet, the girl next to him doesn’t, so the teacher has to stop and help her look for hers. Class time is lost. Another boy has one old pencil that is constantly breaking so he is always interrupting class by going to the pencil sharpener. If he had a pack of mechanical pencils like your child, he would just click up the lead and move on.


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Do a little homework before you shop to save money. If you have an idea of what things cost before you hit the stores, you can set a budget for each child. If your child is shopping with you, make sure she knows what the budget is for this years list. This is a great opportunity to teach her about budgeting and being responsible with money. She may be more likely to take care of her supplies when she understands what went into purchasing them. She may really want the “cooler” looking binder that is $3 more than the plain binder but if that isn’t in the budget, she’ll have to leave the “cooler” binder behind. Make buying the plain supplies fun by encouraging her to decorate them. If you get the plain binder with the clear cover, she can fill the cover with pictures, magazine clippings or stickers and she will have something she designed.

Many states have a weekend before school starts where you can shop tax free up to a set dollar amount. This shopping includes clothes, not just school supplies. Check out this chart to see if your state has a tax free period for shopping and what the limitations are for that period.

For more expensive items like calculators, check for used ones on Facebook trading pages, Craigslist or Ebay. For example, we found a TI-83 Graphic calculator on ebay for $60 and one on our local craigslist for $35! Backpacks can also be found on sale. Toys R Us is giving a free lunchbox with a lot of their backpacks. To save money in the long run, consider investing in a nice back pack that will last for more than one year. L.L. Bean backpacks are classic and really hold up. Pottery Barn makes some really cute bags and if you are worried about your little one carrying too heavy of a load, you can get a backpack with wheels for pulling.


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You’ve finished your shopping and you shopped smart. Be honest with yourself and your budget. If you really can afford to donate, please do! There are always school supply drives to donate to or you can just buy doubles of some items on your child’s list and take them straight to the teacher. One high school teacher we talked to said that every student having a binder for each class and mechanical pencils would make a huge difference. So why not pick up some Target brand binders and mechanical pencils to donate?

Kids In Need Foundation exists “to ensure that every child is prepared to learn and succeed by providing free school supplies nationally to students most in need.” If you don’t have time to do any extra shopping, consider donating online to this non-profit so they can supply to kids in need.
  • When your kid has a snotty nose, send him to class with a box of tissues and a bottle of hand sanitizer for everyone to use.
  • Ask your teacher what he or she needs when you go in for an open house or conference.
  • If your budget is maxed out at the beginning of the year, donate later in the year. Make it a habit to bring something to contribute to your child’s classroom when you visit the school for a special event or meeting. Take a roll of paper towels when you stop by to eat lunch with your son. Bring in a pack of paper for the copy machine when you visit the Halloween party. Surprise your teacher with some fresh dry erase markers when the school year is half-way over.
  • Get your kids involved and have them pick out what they think their classroom needs.
  • Tell your child to let you know if he sees a kid going without something in class. You can buy it for that kid and give it to the teacher so the child in need isn’t embarrassed.

 The scoop on school supplies is that they are getting more expensive and the lists are getting longer, but if we shop smart, we can take the burden off our amazing teachers by donating some extra supplies and teach our children about responsibility and generosity, a lesson more valuable than anything they will get from a textbook all year!

Have fun with your kids going back to school and try one of these Cute Ways to Commemorate the Start of the School Year.

Photo Credits: DGlodowska, Kristen

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Kristen Douglas
Kristen Douglas
Kristen lives in Alabama with her handsome hubby and sweet son, along with her cat who thinks he’s a dog. Happily, she left behind the life of a Washington D.C. attorney to be a stay at home mama in the south.
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