Shop Smart for Back-to-School Supplies

Julie Wilkins helps her grandson Griffin Brady, 3, put a box of crayons in a shopping cart while shopping for school supplies with their family at a Target store in Memphis, Tenn. Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Tennessee's annual sales tax holiday on school supplies is from August 1-3.  (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Brandon Dill)

Julie Wilkins helps her grandson Griffin Brady, 3, put a box of crayons in a shopping cart while shopping for school supplies with their family at a Target store in Memphis, Tenn. Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Tennessee's annual sales tax holiday on school supplies is from August 1-3. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Brandon Dill)

Anyone who has been to their local Target or Wal-Mart lately knows that back-to-school shopping season has begun. Just as with the holiday shopping season, the $75 billion industry that is back-to-school and college has crept up on the calendar. Promotions from some retailers were announced before Independence Day.

According to a National Retail Federation survey, 23 percent of consumers with children in grades K-12 said they began shopping for school supplies at least two months before school started. With the majority of shoppers saying they are still affected by the state of the economy, plans to save money on school supplies include using coupons, shopping the sales, buying store or generic brands, borrowing or making do with items from last year.

No one is more accustomed to stocking up on supplies for less than teachers, and this year, I consulted some local educators to find out what is really necessary when it comes to school supplies.

Budget cuts mean that schools increasingly rely on parents to provide supplies for their children and sometimes make donations for the entire class. But teachers noted that much care goes into creating the supply lists. “I go down to the bare minimum,” says Elise Kreitner, a fourth-grade teacher at Ocee Elementary in Johns Creek, Ga. “We have been really aware (of the expense) and are so appreciative of parents who make so many donations to all the kids.”

While teachers like to have supplies ready to go when school starts, there are some things you can wait to buy. Items like scissors or highlighters may be on hand for students who don’t have them at the start of school. Kreitner says binders and folders — tools for keeping papers organized — fall on and off the list of required supplies at her school. This may be something you can individualize and save money on, as long as you provide a system for organization.

Here are some other tips to help you save on school supplies:

∎  Harness the power of group buying. Things like glue sticks and pencils are hard for teachers to keep on hand. Jennifer Kraften, a gifted and talented teacher at Fred Armon Toomer Elementary School in Atlanta, says some families pool funds to purchase items like glue sticks and wipes in bulk from office supply stores. Using coupons or loyalty cards at those stores can help you save even more.

∎  Buy in advance. One year in advance, that is. Kreitner shops whenever back-to-school items go on clearance. She takes her husband and her brother-in-law along to help her get as much as they can carry. “I am a hoarder of that stuff because I know I am going to need it for my kids or my students,” says Kreitner, a parent of four, who posts any sales she hears about on Facebook.

Kraften appreciates when families bring in their supplies early (such as during open house). That way she has items on hand for the first day. “I also love it when they put (community supplies) in a labeled garbage bag so I can go through it when I have time, rather than a child handing me a bunch of items from his or her backpack,” she says.

∎  Communicate with the teacher/school. Teachers say they will always work with parents to make sure a child has necessary supplies. Ask the teacher if there are some items you can wait to buy. Also, ask if your school might consider participating in programs where you buy a prepackaged set of supplies at a discount through a third-party vendor and get free delivery to the school.

∎  Shop at home and trade. Before you go to the store, round up forgotten items in your home that kids can use for the coming year. Check with other parents to arrange a swap. You may have a huge stash of pencils, while someone else may have scored a deal on paper. Trade what you can, and buy the rest.

∎  Watch where you shop. Target and Wal-Mart are big resources, particularly for one-stop back-to-school shopping. Dollar stores are tempting, but at this time of year, most office supply, department and discount stores are running promotional specials that may offer some items for a lot less than $1 (15-cent folders, 50-cent composition books or 48-cent index card packs, for example). Staples offers a 110 percent price match guarantee for back-to-school items. If you find an identical item for less, you get the price difference plus 10 percent when you buy it at Staples. This includes items sold on Amazon.com. Also consider shopping for school supplies (particularly art materials) at fall consignment sales.

∎  Beware of backpacks. This is one of the largest expenses under school supplies, and every child needs one. While you may automatically reach for the least expensive backpack you can find, pay attention to quality. Kraften, a veteran kindergarten teacher, notes the bad habit many of them have of chewing on their backpack straps. Find the best quality backpack you can afford to make it through the year, if not a few years.

∎  Label everything. “The lost and found at most schools is overflowing with unclaimed, unlabeled items that can be costly for parents to replace,” Kraften says. That goes for school supplies as well. The pencil shortage got so bad at Ocee Elementary, they talked about labeling pencils, Kreitner says. That may be extreme, but don’t underestimate the expense of having to constantly replace even the smallest items.