The Definitive Back to School Supplies List

I’ve said it before, but back-to-school season is getting a little out of hand.

Every day my inbox is stuffed full of helpful hints, tips and tricks, ways to beat the crowds, and more.

All throughout, I’ve said there’s one simple way to get everything you need for back-to-school, and it’s this: plan ahead, learn what you need, and order online from a reliable source. That’s it. End of story, as far as I’m concerned.

However, there are always going to be be people who thrill to the idea of shouldering their way through a crowded store, or need to have their hands on the item they’re going to purchase, and I can respect that.

Here, then, with some help from (serving my home state of Michigan), is a list of helpful hints for back-to-school season.

1. Check consignment shops

The biggest expense, hands-down, is clothing. Young ones outgrow their clothes quickly and teenagers, who might still fit into some of their existing wardrobe, may have strong opinions about returning to school in last year’s garb — not to mention their typical fascination with expensive designer labels.

One solution is consignment shops. Many sell used clothing for adults and children. And for those picky teens, a few of them even cater specifically to those who crave designer labels and the latest fashion.

Amy Baird, 37, owner of 360 Degrees [a consignment shop in Kalamazoo, MI], said high school kids are beginning to appreciate the chance to buy many more items through consignment than they can if they buy them new.

“Because of the economy, I see parents setting specific dollar limits for the kids,” Baird said. “Our clothes cost about a third what they would cost new. Used items average $12 each at 360 compared to about $30 for new ones at the mall.”

2. Plan ahead

Many kids walk in the door after their first day of school with a checklist of supplies they say they need “tonight.” That spurs an impromptu trip by many parents to grab it all with no time to compare prices or explore discount stores.

Instead, call your child’s school in advance to see if someone can get you a list of what’s needed.

With that, there’s time to start knocking off items gradually — pencils here, binders there.

3. Recycle

Before taking that list anywhere, search every junk drawer in the house, purge little-used office supplies from the desks of home offices as well as those of older kids who needed the same supplies years before.

A protractor and a compass that one youngster needs may turn up somewhere in the house — if you make time to find it.

4. Network with other parents
This advice, from veteran bargain shopper Amy Swager, 42, of Climax, MI, is most helpful when it comes to expensive items.

“If you know other parents with kids older than yours, talk with them,” she suggests. “That $80 graphing calculator that their kid may never use again might be on your child’s list. And they may be happy to donate it.”

5. Be realistic

Swager, the mother of seven with six still at home, said her family has never done the “whole new wardrobe” back-to-school trip before the first day of school.

“We wait a couple of weeks because the weather is still warm so they’re all wearing summer clothes to school for a while anyway,” she said. “By the time we go, everyone else is done shopping, everything goes on sale, and each kid gets just what he needs, nothing more. One might need shirts. One might need pants. Another a couple of each.

“We are very, very realistic when it comes to shopping for the new school year,” she said.

6. Accept change

Just because your daughter has gotten a new backpack every year since school started doesn’t mean that last year’s Hannah Montana model has to go in favor of a Jonas Brothers backpack this year.

If the old one works, it works. Swager said that if a new one really is needed, be creative.

“A $5 backpack and some fabric paint means that it will be both unique and economical,” she said. “Have fun with it.”

7. Layaway is back

Take advantage of this old standby, which has been resurrected at many stores, including Kmart.

Eight weeks in advance, you can bring everything you need to the layaway counter, including clothing and school supplies for all of your children.

A $5 layaway fee allows eight weeks to pay for the loot in bi-weekly payments.

For more details on Kmart’s layaway program, visit

8. Rethink school options

Is taking lunch packed from home cheaper than buying hot lunch at school?

Cindy Turner, kitchen manager at Galesburg-Augusta Primary School, doesn’t think so.

“I think it is more economical to buy lunches at school,” Turner said. “They have to be nutritionally balanced due to government guidelines. An example of a lunch we provide is milk, slice of pizza, green beans, applesauce and a brownie.”

The 20-year veteran lunch lady compared the meal with a nutritionally balanced lunch sent from home.

“If a parent sends a juice box, a sandwich or wrap, piece of fruit or veggie and a snack it would cost more than the $1.70 we charge for lunch for grades K-3 and that includes a half-pint of milk,” she said.

“This is partially because of waste expense at home … you may buy an item in quantity but have to throw it away before it is used,” Turner said. “There’s also the cost of baggies, brown bags or containers to consider.”

9. Do you qualify for help?

Has there been a parental job loss or pay cut since last school year? Families hit hard by the recession may qualify, for the first time ever, for free or reduced-price lunches for their kids.

The income verification forms are typically sent home during the first week of school, but if there is an immediate food need that can’t wait, there’s respite, said Shauna Collison, administrative assistant to the superintendent in the Parchment School District in Michigan.

“Any principal in any district has the authority to put a child on the free or reduced lunch program immediately for 10 days pending income verification,” Collison said. “If you need free or reduced meals starting on the first day of school, contact your child’s building principal before school begins for help.”

10. Get back on the bus

Teenagers who drive to school should be coaxed to park the car at home during the day and get back on the school bus that is a free ride for them and a green move to boot.

This one might be a tough sell. But it’s worth a try.

Thanks again to for their content.

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