Summer is ending and school is about to start!  I don’t know about you, but the first day of school has snuck up on me (less than 2 weeks away!).  I really could’ve done a much better job of preparing a budget for the school supplies my daughter will need…oops!  If you’re like me, you may have little to no money left in your budget for these essentials.  No worries!  We’ll get through this together!

How to Budget for Back to School Supplies

What You’ll Need

  • Budget – Get your budget out and see if you’ve got any wiggle room at all for the supplies. Don’t look at that supply list and freak out if it seems you don’t have enough!  I’m going to provide you with information on how to get everything you need, no matter how little (or non-existent) your budget may seem – I PROMISE!
  • School supplies list – This is our shopping list. You will only be focusing on the things on the list, nothing more, no matter how much your children beg!
  • Internet access/ads/catalogs – These are our tools for finding the best deals and resources.
  • Transportation – Don’t forget to factor into your budget the cost of traveling to get the supplies!

What You Need to Do

  1. Before buying anything, we need to look over our budget and find money to use for the supplies. If you need help figuring that out, check out Life Skills: Budgeting – The Baby Step Budget and scroll down to “Prioritizing” There you will find tips on how to make some wiggle room in your budget.  If you really have no wiggle room at all, stick with me and follow along (this stuff will be essential to any kind of shopping on a budget and good for future reference) until we get to that part.
  2. Now it’s time to look at the supply list. If you have more than one child you probably have a few supply lists.  In that case, make one master list that includes the quantity of each item needed.  Once we have a master list of the supplies, we need to make sure we have room on the supply list to write out the expense of each item on the list.
  3. Estimate the cost of each item. I’m going to help you out with this.  Since we’re on a budget, we need to be careful about how much we spend.  So we’re going to need to do some research on how to save as much as we can.  To do this we’re going to look up each item and see where we can find it for the least amount of money using the internet, ads in the newspaper, and/or catalogs.  When we’ve found the best price, we’re going to write the amount down next to the item on our supply list, add it all up and be sure it’s within our means.

That’s pretty much it for the budgeting part.  We know how much money we’re working with, now we need to figure out how to get all the supplies on the list without going over the budget!

**Tip: If you do a search engine check on any of the text in bold you’ll have a plethora of resources to research.  Add your location to find what’s nearby.

How to Save on Back to School Supplies

  1.  Clean Sweep

Before you even think about spending a dime, look around your house!  You’d be surprised how much stuff you probably already have.  Check closets, desks, drawers, the basement, garage…EVERYWHERE!  Whatever you can mend, clean, reuse or find – this includes backpacks, lunchboxes, pencil boxes/pouches, etc.

I can tell you right now I’m going to find 5 million crayons, 2 thousand pencils, at least 1 binder, 2 lunchboxes, and 10 backpacks around my house.  All of these things have been accumulated through gifts, last year’s supplies, and I can only assume friends forgotten items.  And that’s just off the top of my head, as I’ve been made aware of their existence having seen them within the last few months.  But for every item on the list that I do find, I get to put $0 as it’s estimated cost!

2.  Stationary

If you haven’t crossed everything off your list by rummaging through your house, it’s time to break out the most recent ads and catalogs and use your computer/device to do some research on price comparisons for what’s left on the list.  Getting the kids involved can help this task seem less tedious, as well as a good way to teach them about money management (2 birds, 1 stone).

This step is mostly revolved around stationary, but you may luck out in finding really good deals on other supplies too.  Now, my first go-to is the Dollar Store.  When I say dollar store, I MEAN dollar store, where everything is actually $1.  You can find lots of paper, writing utensils, binders, folders, composition books, etc.  BUT, before I head out, I check to see if places like Staples and OfficeMax have any special deals going.  Places like these have 1 cent sales, as well as tons of coupons easily accessible via Twitter and Facebook.

Have your kids go through the ads to see who can find the best deal while you check the internet for stores that you may not have an ad for.  Pay attention to the dates of sales and on any coupons you plan to use.  If you need to, look up the regular prices on sale items if they’re not included in the ads, apply the discount so you know exactly how much you will be spending, then write it down next to the item on your supply list.

**Tip: You can totally wait on a purchase if a sale is after the school year begins. Your kids will be able to survive a week or two without having everything on the list. Plus, a lot of stores will have mega sales on school supplies because of overstock.

3.  Everything Else

For any items you still have left on your list that you couldn’t find for $1 or less, ask family, friends and neighbors if they have any extra or no longer needed backpacks, calculators, lunchboxes, etc. Then try garage sales, thrift stores, and consignment shops. You’d be surprised the good finds at these places for so much less the expense.  Also, refer back to your ads and the internet. Be on the look out for coupons and tax-free sales, especially for the higher priced items. You can save tons of money on electronics by not paying taxes.  Also check out auction sites like Amazon and eBay for deals. Another way to save on electronics is buying refurbished items through trusted companies. You can save hundreds!

When you’re at the thrift store (or the like) browse the clothes as well, if that’s part of your back to school shopping. Some chain thrift stores, like Goodwill and Value Village have weekly sales, like $5 bags (a bag full of clothes for 5 bucks!). The only thing I’m willing to “splurge” on are shoes, however, there have been plenty of times my daughter has found a pair at a thrift store that she’s just as excited about for way less. I generally only buy new shoes when she’s outgrown her old ones, and the ones she finds at the thrift store are usually her gym/play shoes.

**Tip: Clothes are another thing you can wait on buying, so keep that in mind. You don’t have to buy a whole new wardrobe at once. No matter where you do your clothes shopping though, raid the clearance section! It should be your first stop at any store.

4.  College Students

Most of what has already been discussed can be applied to purchasing for your college student as well.  You can find really cool dorm room necessities at the dollar store, thrift stores and garage sales.  Buying electronics during tax-free sales or from a reliable company that sales refurbished items, as well as checking auction sites or asking family members for help are the best options.

What we haven’t covered are textbooks!  Auction sites are a way to go, but you can also check out sites like to compare prices on new books and buy books for a bargain at  Also, if you can find a digital copy, they tend to be far less expensive.  And don’t forget searching on sites like Craigslist for used textbooks.

**Tip: Prioritize the items you really need when shopping.  If you hit your budget limit it’s okay.  You’ll find that as long as you stick to the essentials you can get by until you can make more room in your budget, or that the essentials are enough and you’re done buying altogether!

I think that covers our bases.  Do your best to find out exactly how much you will end up spending before shopping.  Once you have an idea of what your total expenses will be for the items you have prices for, decide how you will split the rest of the money on the items you don’t have a set price for and stick to it.  Again, prioritize for the essentials if things are really tight.  If you find that you can’t get all the essentials or none at all, don’t freak out yet!  The next section will cover this!

Free Back to School Supplies

You might be wondering why I put this section way at the bottom.  The biggest reason I waited until now is that these resources should only be used if you truly cannot afford the supplies your child needs.  In most cases, you won’t be able to have access to these free supplies unless you can verify that you are indeed within the lower-income bracket.  Taking advantage of these resources just because they’re free is not only taking away from those who are in need, but you can also suffer severe consequences (including financial) if caught.  So don’t say I didn’t warn you!

  1.  Contact Your School

The first thing to do is to get into contact with your child’s teacher, administration staff and/or the school district as soon as you know you won’t be able to get the essentials.  As embarrassing as it might be, I want to assure you that you will not be the only parent at your school going through this.

Teachers and schools tend to purchase extra supplies to help provide for those who might not be able to afford them.  If that doesn’t pan out, contact the school district.  Most areas will have programs for people to donate school supplies.  Don’t lose hope if your area doesn’t provide any of these kinds of services, they most likely will have information and resources for you to follow-up with.  If they don’t, I certainly do!

2.  Contact Local Media

Your local news stations and newspapers are the ones who get contacted when folks in your community are advertising donation drives or programs.  If they don’t have a beat on anything currently, they will most likely do the research and footwork for you.

3.  Research Your Community

Churches, charities, nonprofits, universities, distribution projects all are great places to try and find free school supplies.  The American Red CrossVolunteers of AmericaUnited Way, Salvation ArmyBoy Scouts of America are just a few national organizations that help families with school supplies.

4.  Online Community

Try joining a Yahoo Group or Google+ community to request items.  Don’t forget Craigslist and  Both have access to free items.

5.  Backpack Programs

Kids in Need FoundationNational Backpack ProgramSchool on Wheels, and School Ready Supplies donate supplies in a backpack!

I really hope that this information and these resources are helpful.  Please leave comments and suggestions letting us know how you survived back to school shopping or any other helpful resources you may know of!  Also, don’t hesitate to contact me privately if you need any kind of help with obtaining resources – I’m more than willing to try to help you find access to resources if you seem to be hitting a bunch of brick walls.  To the students: Good luck this year!