What School Supplies Do You Really Need?


 Many schools publish a list of school supplies every late summer. Often local retail stores will have copies of the lists available for shoppers before the school year starts.  I know of many parents (myself included) who bought the supplies on the list at back-to-school sales and thought they were done with back-to-school shopping.  Then, surprise!  On the first day of school, the classroom teacher sent home another list - the list of supplies that particular teacher needed children to have.

 Many of these second list items had been on sale before school began, but are now back to full price.  To make matters worse, some of the items on the original school list will remain untouched for the rest of the school year. 

I have been through this.  I have used the school supply list.  I shopped the best back-to-school sales.  I had been happy that I had spent just over $200 on back-to-school, about one-third of what the average American family spends on back-to-school shopping.  I followed all of the popular advice to save money and get what I thought my child needed for school.  Then the second supply lists came home.  I felt defeated.

Since then, I have picked up a few strategies and ideas to get closer to buying what we actually need for school while being thrifty.

Before I get into the details of how you can be frugal and get the supplies your child needs, I want to explain how most school supply lists are created.

 Typically, the school administrators, such as the school principal or assistant principal, will survey the grade level departments in elementary or subject departments in secondary schools to come up with supplies that most students will need for that school year.  Then, the items that are needed for any student are added to the list.

 So the list will then include items like two composition notebooks, three different colored highlighters, a pack of 10 sharpened pencils, a backpack, and one zippered notebook.  This list is hopefully designed so that most students will have the basic items required for school  What is not included are specific teachers class materials list.  

How The List Problem Happens So, how does the school list become so different than what you actually need?  Here is an example to illustrate how it can happen: One middle or high school teacher may require their students to each have two composition notebooks for their class alone.  Then two teachers in other subjects also require a composition notebook. This adds up to four composition notebooks.  The list only asked for two.  You are now short two composition books.  But, you also have highlighters that will remain untouched. Why?  The highlighters were added to the school list because the local school district curriculum asks that all students in your child's grade learn to point out and separate important pieces of text reading.  The suggested teaching method is to have students use a highlighter on certain types of reading information.

 Then, the teacher your child was assigned noticed that the students would use their highlighters to color pictures and would not have them when needed for highlighting, so the teacher then decided to just have students underline the key reading points with a pen.

The end results of these situations is that the school supply list is often the best guess made by well-meaning schools to help parents shop before school begins.  Creating a one-size fits all list for each school often does not work because teachers may need to change away from the list or what other teachers do in order to meet the needs of their own classrooms.

 While you may not be able to anticipate every single school supply need before the school year begins, here are some things you can do:

Take Advantage of Known Teacher Assignments:  If you are lucky enough to know which teachers your child will be assigned to before the school year begins, try to find out what your child's teacher will want for their class.  If you have a copy of the school supply list, show it to the teacher and see what the teacher will require or not use in their class.  If your child has more than one teacher try to ask each teacher what they expect their students to have.

Talk To Parents Of Children One Grade Ahead Ask parents of children one grade ahead of your child what school supply surprises they encountered when their child was in your grade.  This can be especially useful to find out about supplies that were used up and needed to e replaced quite often.  This can happen if a teacher is a heavy user of a particular supply in their classroom.  If highlighters or composition books are used daily, you may want to pick up extras when the price is super low so you have extras on hand when your child uses up their initial supply - and the price has dramatically increased.

Buy Extra Doorbuster Consumables  If one of your local stores is offering a fantastic special for a school supply that will get used up, go ahead and purchase extra items just in case.  Items like looseleaf paper packs, pens, glue sticks, ad composition notebooks are all items that may get used up at school.  If you purchase too many for school you can use them at home or trade them with other parents for needed items.

Attend Or Organize A Post Back-To-School Supply Swap  Freecycle and other groups across the country have been hosting back-to-school supply swaps.  Parents bring new or good condition school supplies to these events and trade with other parents for items they need.  Attending a  second swap held after school begins would allow families to get missing items for the extra items they still have.  

No event in your community?  Talk with your PTA or recycle/reuse groups about organizing such an event.  

Let The School Know of List vs Actual Need Differences  Letting your child's school know about the differences between the real school supplies needed versus the ones listed in the school supplies list can help the school troubleshoot the supply list.  Some schools may be able to create lists for each teacher with enough time for back to school shopping.  This can be difficult for many schools as they may not know what students will be in what class until a few days before the school year begins.  Still, politely and briefly mentioning to school staff what differences you ran into will let the school know where parents could use some school supply list improvement. Then the school can make the changes that will be helpful to parents and the school.  

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