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9 Ways to Save Money on School Supplies

Get your kids' school supplies but don't blow their college fund on them!

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When back-to-school time rolls round and you start shopping for school supplies, does it feel like you open your wallet and hemorrhage money? It does to me, but I have three sets of back-to-school supplies to buy. The school supply lists seem to get longer every year. Over the years, though, I've developed a few tricks for saving money on school supplies.

1. Shop early for school supplies…but not too early.

Young mother and child in bookstore
Michael H/Digital Vision/Getty Images
My kids always want to shop for school supplies the first day of summer. But, of course, I don't want school supplies sitting around the house all summer (and potentially being lost or used up before school). More than that, I know this stuff will all go on sale in July and August.

If you have your child's list of school supplies over the summer, begin shopping as soon as you see school supplies go on sale (usually right after July 4th). If you wait too long, the best bargains sell out. Though at first, I only buy sale items, unless an particular supply seems like it might be hard to find later.

2. Shop around for school uniforms.

Buying at the official school uniform store can be expensive. But often the same item can be found elsewhere for less. So shop around for school uniforms. In particular, you can find items like shoes and blouses that still fit school uniform guidelines but cost a lot less online and in other stores.

3. Anticipate school supply needs, when necessary.

School Notebook
SXC/brainloc
Don't miss out on the back to school sales if you don't have your children's school supplies lists over the summer. Purchase back-to-school sale items that you know they will need or that will eventually be used by the household, i.e. lunchbox, pencils, paper, glue. Just remember to save your receipt, so if turns out your child absolutely must have wide-ruled paper and you bought college-ruled, you can exchange it.

4. Buy in bulk for the whole year.

The school supplies listed by teachers are usually only meant to start kids out. They will need refills on pencils, notebooks, paper, etc. all year long. But a few months into the school year, you'll find that the glue sticks you spent a quarter on in August are now $1.99 for a two-pack. So stock up for the whole year, but put away what's not needed in a place you can find it later in the school year.

5. Read your child's school supplies list carefully (and save your receipts).

School Supply List
Getty/Tim Boyle
Teachers can ask for very specific items on school supplies lists, and when they do, they usually mean it. From an adult point of view, it might seem like another item is close enough to the requested supply. But school is a much more regimented place than the adult world. Teachers often have organizational reasons for the specific requests.

So if you don't want to spend money on the wrong item, take the school supply list very literally. And if you must get something that's not exactly what was requested, save your receipts.

6. Reuse last year's school supplies when possible.

School Mornings
Janis Christie/Getty

Many parents buy new water bottles, book bags or lunchboxes every year. But if you prefer to make these things last from year to year, buy high quality and nothing too trendy. My 3rd grader is still happily using a floral backpack from pre-K. After a spin in the washer, most book bags and lunchboxes come out ready for more use.

Other supplies, like rulers, USB drives and protractors, also can be reused. The trick is to collect them at the end of the school year, so they aren't lost. As the kids empty their backpacks at the school year's end, salvage any reusable school supplies. You may not want to send them back to school with a half-used notebook or chewed-on pencils. But the leftovers of these school supplies that you buy every year come in handy later when you need replacements on short notice.

7. Give kids a budget.

Money
Getty/Joe Raedle

Kids can be resistant to reusing last year's backpack or lunchbox or wearing older clothes. Maybe they are hankering for a fancy new binder that everyone has this year. If this attitude is hampering your efforts to save money on school supplies, give kids a budget. Tell them that you will spend a certain amount on an item, if they want an upgrade they'll need to chip in (either with money they've saved or by doing extra chores.) Or perhaps let kids choose which items to reuse and which to buy new.

8. Buy second hand.

Thrift Store
Getty/Justin Sullivan

If your child doesn't wear a uniform (and you don’t want to do laundry every few days), then a good supply of back-to school clothes are necessary. But clothing doesn't have to be new to be cute. Check out consignment shops and thrift stores for kids clothes. Kids can grow so fast that used children's clothing often has barely been worn. If you're shopping for common items like uniform blouses, shop early in the summer.

Also the classic novels that are often assigned to middle school and high school students can be found in used books stores.

9. Start a school uniform exchange.

Getty/Rebecca Emery

If your child wears a school uniform, join or start a uniform exchange. It can be a formal program through the school or a casual swap with other parents you know. Some schools are supportive of uniform exchanges, but others are pressured by uniform suppliers not to participate in them. Uniforms can also be found at thrift stores, but it's more efficient to find the right style by asking a friend whose children have outgrown theirs before they donate them to a thrift store.

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