Monday, July 13

Bargain-shopping for school supplies

Photo by c.a.muller

It's that time of year again: School supplies season! (Which is weird, since it's only mid-June, but that's a subject for another day.)

I actually kind of enjoy this period because it's another chance to get deals you feel triumphant about -- especially since we're not actually keeping most of the items.

In fact, it's important for everyone to remember that you don't have to have kids to take advantage of school supplies sales. There are plenty of families who can't afford their children's supplies, especially as the lists of items get longer and longer every year.

It should be a no-brainer to check your circulars, since different stores will have different loss-leaders. And those of you with kids are probably old pros at finding the most expedient route.

So let's look at the less obvious things:

Don't shop alone.

Most of the cheapest items have very low maximum purchases. Usually it's right around two per customer. So the more people you have with you, the easier it is to stock up. (Though some folks simply do a revolving-door strategy: Buy, put items in car, go back in, buy more.)

If you can't get a friend to go along with you, use your kids. (Besides tax deductions, that's what they're there for, right?) Give each one enough cash to get the items and have them each get in line. There is no minimum age for being a customer. Although I recommend using only kids who are verbal/no longer in diapers.

Don't be lured away from your list.

You should know better, but sometimes it's tempting. You're tired or the price seems reasonable enough to just buy it and be done. But this early in the game, there's no need to get everything at once. (Unless you are going on an extended vacation.)

In school supplies, as in everything frugal, it's worthwhile to wait to see how things play out. Keep an eye on prices and whatever you need will probably go on sale in the coming weeks.

Know what goes on sale

I suppose this is part and parcel with the one above, but it bear mentioning. Staples and Office Depot routinely have backpacks for 25-50% off. Usually the themed ones are only 25% and don't last long enough to go to half off. But there are plenty of basic backpacks that can be found for under $10 when on sale.

Wide-ruled paper, crayons and pencils are usually offered for a penny, at least once before school starts. Usually pencils can be found that cheaply throughout the supply-buying season.

You should be able to find 3 notebooks and/or composition books for $1 several times before September. Basic binders should never cost you more than $1 each. If they are more, wait for a better sale.

Scissors aren't discounted as often, nor are glue and rulers. That said, stores are always Though stores are always changing the rules, so keep your eyes open.

If money is an issue, get blander stuff

Yeah, your daughter wants that Jonas Brothers backpack, and your son is begging for that GI Joe bag. (Apologies for stereotyping genders, but sometimes cliches exist for a reason.) And they'll be kind when "all the other kids" get what they don't.

But if you're even partially concerned about money in the future, you probably want to err on the side of caution. Like most boy bands, Jonas Brothers will soon be a thing of the past. (And your daughter will be mortified she ever liked them. Which does give some value to a themed backpack as blackmail, but still...)

Get backpacks made from hardy material, in colors they'll continue to like. (Hint: Not pink.) Get binders that are dark so that marks won't show as well. Depending on your kids' personalities, consider one or two nicer pens. Some people lose fewer writing utensils when they feel the utensils are special. Of course, if your kids would lose the socks while still on their feet, just wait for a sale on those bulk pen packs.

Know your rewards programs

Walgreen's Register Rewards are pretty easy to get and could help you afford a few extra items. Just be sure that you don't get too high of a reward. This week, for example, you can get a $10 Register Reward when you buy two sunscreens. But the RR has to be used on a single item, and neither Tim nor I buy anything there that is $10 or more.

Staples and Office Max/Depot rewards are really awesome for free supplies. You get a percentage back based on what you spend, as well as credit for recycled ink cartridges. Most of the stores only reward these monthly or quarterly, so you have to think ahead.

Don't use much ink at home? Ask friends and family for theirs. Most people throw them out anyway. Also, look around at work and see if there's a bin for them. If you feel awkward, go ahead and ask the boss or IT people if it's kosher to grab them. Most places really don't care. My mom picks them up at the University of Washington computer labs. They're just going to be recycled anyway, so the school doesn't care.

You can turn in plenty of ink cartridges at the supplies stores, so you can get a relatively hefty reward. Mom already had two $30 checks waiting for her. And with that Tim and I were able to afford a bunch of school supplies for a friend with a kid.

Know about carnivals

The friends we were buying for usually go to school supply carnivals. This way, lower income families can pick up donated items and cut down on what they have to buy. Usually, I'm told, you have to go to several to get a whole list done. Still, if you're having trouble making ends meet, this could save some vital dollars

How we did

Tim and I got permission from Mom to use one of her Rewards checks, which gave us a $30 credit. I also grabbed a $5 off of $20 coupon from Staple's Sunday ad.

As a result, we came away with:

For the kids:

1 GI Joe backpack ($14.99 on sale)
1 Lightning McQueen backpack ($14.99 on sale)
1 ruler
1 two-pack of scissors
1 bottle of glue
2 boxes of crayons
4 sets of 8 pencils

For my mom:

1 box of Sweet 'N Low (400 packets)
4 reams of copy paper

The copy paper has a rebate and will end up being one cent. That means, in total, we will have spent about $11 of our own money to help out some friends. (And to help out my mom who keeps us in copy paper all the time.)

Have any other tips for thrifty school supplies?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I don't have any other frugal ideas. I think you covered them all I will say I like to have extras of this stuff in my house because I have nieces and nephews much younger then my own kids so I keep this stuff in a kitchen cabinet and they know where it is and how to get it so they aren't bored while hanging over aunties. They actually think I am pretty cool because I do have it.

July 15, 2009 at 4:00 PM

Blogger Abby said...

I forgot to mention just how many cool coloring books you can get at the Dollar Tree. There are plenty of Disney items and school supplies, there. Though I think overall, you're better off sticking just to coloring books and perhaps some crayons/colored pencils.

July 15, 2009 at 4:03 PM


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