Back-to-school sales require strategic shopping

Every autumn, the list gets longer:

“Did he need college-ruled notebook paper last year?”

“I don’t remember buying her five binders.”

“A T-I-80-WHAT?”

The school supply list, it seems, grows more than your children do each year. And while your son might clamor for the Transformers pencil box, you’re determined to keep this shopping trip for necessities under control (for the most part, anyway).

That’s why, armed with the Inman Middle School 6th grade supply list, I drove to six different metro Atlanta retailers, determined to identify the cheapest places to buy supplies and the strategies most effective for back-to-school shopping. Here’s what I discovered:

Strategy: Don’t be persuaded by the door-buster prices on, say, notebook paper, which should be relatively cheap anywhere you go. Instead, one strategy is to identify the items on your list that could cost the most, and then choose a retailer based on the price of that item. For example, one-inch binders ranged from 60 cents at Walmart to $4.59 at Publix, and if your kid needs 3 to 8 of these, they could destroy your budget at the grocer.

A second strategy is to identify the items most difficult to find — in my case a non-spiral, quad-rule composition notebook was only available at three of the six stores. Then visit the store that carries the rarer items first, because you’ll have to make that trip regardless.

Timing: Office Depot’s circular included rulers, ballpoint pens and college rule paper for 25 cents, but the rulers and pens were gone by the time I got there. Go shopping ASAP for a chance to snag these prices, and hit up retailers in the morning when goods will be freshly stocked and organized.

Selection: Walmart was very organized, had an incredible supply, and was obviously prepared for the back-to-school rush. Plus, the display seemed more compact and easier to navigate than those at the large office supply stores I visited. But Target, OfficeMax and Office Depot were the only stores that had everything on my list.

Also, for you green families, recycled notebook paper wasn’t hard to spot at both Kroger and Office Depot.

Assistance: I consider myself a capable shopper, but I was a bit overwhelmed at how many choices some stores offer. At OfficeMax, I had to ask for help looking for the cheap binders, which weren’t with the other school supplies. And don’t be reticent about asking for the cheapest item. The first quad-rule composition book I found at Office Depot was $7.29, a whopping $4.80 more than the less-expensive version a salesperson located for me.

Bulk: Buying in bulk could be cheaper — but don’t assume so. The packs of 72 pencils for $5.99 Office Depot offered still cost more per pencil than the 10- or 12-packs at Walmart or Kroger. So bring a calculator if you want to maximize your savings. Also, combo packs (like 14 Dixon pencils, more erasers than you can imagine plus a pencil sharpener at Publix for $2.99) might net you some change, depending on your needs.

Ifs and buts: I cannot promise any prices mentioned will be valid by the time you get to the store, as sales can change daily. Individual stores vary and your list can differ drastically, depending on how old your kids are.

And sometimes — just sometimes – you’ll probably treat your kids to a higher-priced item. Because your daughter, OMG, will, like, die if she doesn’t walk into class with that $5 “Glee” binder.

What I shopped for

(Inman Middle 6th grade supplies list*)

  • 5 dividers
  • Notebook paper
  • 1-inch binder (3)
  • Black/blue pens
  • Ruler
  • Pencils
  • Graph paper
  • Dry erase marker
  • Composition notebook (2)
  • Highlighters
  • Pencil sharpener
  • Grid composition book, not spiral-bound
  • Colored pencils
  • At least 200 index cards (preferably on spiral or rings)

*Excludes independent reading book

Price totals from each store:

(May vary by location)

Walmart: $19.16*

Target: $20.43

Kroger: $25.31* **

Publix: $34.33*

OfficeMax: $36.87

Office Depot: $38.64

*Missing one or more items on list; total reflects only items available

**With Kroger Plus Card

Door-busters I found:

Kroger: 19-cent pen 12-packs, 39-cent rulers, 50-cent pencil sharpeners

Office Depot: 25-cent notebook paper

OfficeMax: $1 quad-rule composition books

Target: 50-cent pencil 10-packs, 50-cent highlighter 2-packs, 75-cent colored pencils

Walmart: 60-cent 1-inch binders, 20-cent composition notebooks

– By Lauren Davidson, Atlanta Bargain Hunter

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37 comments Add your comment

smh728

July 26th, 2011
7:15 am

First thing I do, is figure out what is left from the previous year. Note to parents: do not, do not, do not, send in all of the pens/pencils/reams of paper etc at the beginning of the year. You know full well either your child runs out or the teacher sends a request for more supplies by January. I send in enough to get started and then add/replace as needed by said child and/or teacher. What if the teacher doesn’t use both composition books (lists are created typically across grade level so they’re designed in general-terms)? I ended up with quite a bit of unused supplies (last year I had a third and sixth grader). That was the starting point; look at what I already had. Then I deal with door busters and which retailer has the best overall selection. It’s not worth saving five-cents if I have to go to several more stores. One word on binders: spend the money for the heavy duty ones otherwise they end up getting replaced mid year. I also wait and watch for supplies to go on clearance and stock up for the next year. Then I avoid the rush altogether. There is nothing more frustrating than standing in a crowded aisles with indecisive children and worn out parents. I make it very easy on myself and yes my supply bin is ready to go :) Just my thoughts….

Barb

July 26th, 2011
7:31 am

Laura, I’m surprised you did not include Staples in your list. Take your OfficeMax, Office Depot, and Walmart flyers with you to Staples and they will match the price for the same item. Staples doorbuster sale items have been great the past couple weeks. I also got great deals at Walgreens. As for binders, recycle old, used ones from home or from the office. Also I bought books used from half.com or amazon.com for significant savings. Between Walmart, Staples, Walgreens, and a couple items from Michaels, I’ve spent about $55 for my 4th grader and I’m DONE.

Momof2

July 26th, 2011
8:13 am

I agree with Barb. You left off Staples, they have some good sales and also Walgreens. I unpack my daughter’s backpack and see what can be used for the next school year. I also stock up on the supplies when they are cheap! Walgreens had up to 3 inch binders as Buy 1 get one free, which is great! Lots of savings out there if you look, no reason to pay full price!

T Reynolds

July 26th, 2011
8:25 am

I am done with buying for kids for school… I rather buy pens and paper than to pay for college now .. I am at the next level now… I WILL miss those days …

Rachel

July 26th, 2011
8:26 am

One thing I do is keep my receipts; at Staples, I have returned pencil boxes and notebooks that did not last as long as they should. They exchanged them with no problems. Also, Staples guarantees their office equipment for LIFE (I really can’t believe they do this–here is the policy from their site, “Office supplies: “No matter when you made your purchase, you can return office supplies to us for a full refund, including Staples® brand office products.”). I am a teacher, and I bought an electric pencil sharpener seven years ago. When it died, I returned it–I had my receipt. I would estimate that I am on my fifteenth pencil sharpener from that first purchase. I keep the box with the receipt taped to it in a drawer in my classroom, so it is easy to box it up and take it back. I have also returned a top-dollar three-hole punch AFTER SEVEN YEARS. Now, I don’t mind paying $45 at Staples if I can return it seven years later and get a new one–you sure can’t say that about Wal-mart.

Beck

July 26th, 2011
8:38 am

H@## yes Rachel!!!!!

Now THAT is some handy information for back to school!!!!

Thank you. :)

Alex

July 26th, 2011
8:39 am

Thanks for this timely article. I also look at what we have left over from last year and have had good luck at The School Box finding items that are either sold out at other stores or appear to be specialty items that I am unclear on. Also always check the Dollar Tree for index cards, etc…

Atlmom

July 26th, 2011
8:42 am

Just did the shopping yesterday! I couldn’t believe at target, they had a two pack of glue sticks for 20 cents. Then they had a 12 pack for $3.19. I just shook my head!
I calculated that my kids needed 24 of them, but I thought that a little absurd, so I will send them in with 6 each and see what happens.
We did pretty well at target, I typically don’t go elsewhere. I will say I went to staples for other stuff last year, and saw how great they were on office supplies, though. Our religious school starts a few weeks after school does, so I know I will have to get some stuff in a few weeks. What…I do not know. and hopefully there will be more sales.
I didn’t see the usual sales at target, though. They have had packs of pens in the past for 20 cents or so, and most of those kind of deals don’t seem to be there.

Lauren Davidson

July 26th, 2011
9:11 am

Hi, y’all! Thanks for your tips! I shopped at a sampling of stores to give a general idea of what’s out there. There are, of course, other stores like Staples you can shop at.

Leigh

July 26th, 2011
11:27 am

I shopped yesterday as well. I hit Wal-Mart (I usually avoid that place like the plague) around 9 a.m. No one was there! It was peaceful shopping and checkout. I spent $40 for two elementary age children.

Tracey

July 26th, 2011
1:29 pm

We were able to find every single item on my son’s list at Target. I prefer Target and didn’t want to drive around to several stores just to get it a few cents cheaper somewhere else. We shopped early before everything was picked over and it was neatly organized and arranged. I do wish they would put items like hand sanitizer and Kleenex closer to the school supply section since those items are on my school supply lists. I spent under $30 on my son’s entire list for 2nd grade. I’m also jealous of those of you who had extra supplies from the previous year. We send in communal supplies and so far, we’ve never gotten anything back at the end of the year!

TuckerGirl

July 26th, 2011
2:23 pm

Walgreen’s has a great deal this week. Buy a 24 pack of Crayola crayons for $1 and get a $1 Register Reward (which you can use at Walgreen’s like real $). Makes the crayons free! Limit one box per visit. There was no sign but it is in the sales flyer.

Amy

July 27th, 2011
10:48 am

A dictionary! So your “stragegy” can become a “strategy”!

SpaceyG on Twitter

July 27th, 2011
11:08 am

I’m driving out of town before school starts. I plan to stop by a Dollar Store in a tiny NC town for my kid’s supplies. Has got to be better than Publix prices here, that’s for sure.

Susan

July 27th, 2011
11:16 am

When my daughter was in first grade I sent in all of the supplies on the school list. What I did not know was that they “pooled” all of the pencils, crayons, scissors, etc. The third day of school my daughter was upset when I picked her up from school. They had a coloring project in class, and when she was able to get where they kept the crayons there weren’t any left. She had to share with someone who had the misfortune of getting the Rose Art crayons that don’t work. I was not a happy parent. I spoke with her teacher about it and she told me that they don’t keep those items at the desks so the kids don’t get distracted from class and play with them. That this also teaches them “sharing” – I thought sharing was a voluntary thing!

When my daughter started second grade I put a stop to the “pooled” school supplies, and I did not send all supplies at the begining of the year. I let her teacher know that my daughter was responsible for letting me know when she needed additional supplies – but that if they did need extra supplies in the classroom, I would be happy to donate some items. I buy the more expensive pensils with erasers that actually work, and don’t get eaten by the pencil sharpener! I would say that she didn’t use half of the pencils, glue, etc on her list. This has saved a lot of money and taught my daughter to be prepared for class.

CK

July 27th, 2011
11:17 am

Wow you’re very lucky. You’re shopping list was a third the size of mine and I have a soon-to-be fourth grader. Really, go check out the shopping lists for elementary schools: all of the above, 6 composition books, packs of sticky notes and highlighters, boxes of baby wipes, dry erase boards, markers, erasers, crayons, colored pencils, and markers! Multiple containers of hand sanitizer, headphones, and the list just keeps on going. The person writing this article got off very lucky compared to some of us! Also, my sister-in-law has two kids in elementary school so her list was like mine but doubled.

Wow

July 27th, 2011
11:31 am

Amy, what a contribution your post made…..Thanks for sharing

Saver

July 27th, 2011
11:49 am

Dollar Tree has many of these items for a $1.00. Check them out.

Becky

July 27th, 2011
11:52 am

Also please remember that hundreds of children in AL, GA and MS were affected by the storms of April 26/27, 2011 and families are still struggling to find their way back to ‘normal’. If you have a few extra dollars or supplies leftover from last year that your children do not need this year, please consider donating to schools in Tuscaloosa or other, more rural areas which will be receiving no help because that was 3 months ago and people forget so quickly the scope of this tragedy. My email is she_is_wolf2002@yahoo.com.

Taxed

July 27th, 2011
12:00 pm

I have no problem buying MY children school supplies. However, if many of you actually knew how much school systems WASTES on so many things, including over-paying administrative workers, useless or un-needed technology, etc……….the parents wouldn’t spend a dime on school supplies other than their own children.

Isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with my children being asked to take reams of paper to school!?!?!?? Especially when there is brand-new furniture from HAverty’s being bought for principal’s offices??!?! I could give many more examples that would really make parents mad.

Parents are being taken for fools. I say enough is enough. Let the admins work in trailers and pay the teachers what they deserve while supplying our children and teachers with fundamental school supplies. THEN worry about the rest.

stacey the mom

July 27th, 2011
12:06 pm

The cost of school supplies are crazy. Last year sent all the supplies in the beginning of the school year and I know for a fact my son did not use 200 pencils last year. Also I noticed I have to buy a ream of copy paper. So Atlanta public Schools don’t have enough money for copy paper. Folks, we need to follow the money trail in these schools. Maybe if we didn’t have so many administrators that we never see in our schools we could bring back music, art and just maybe more than 6 computers in a classroom.

Megan

July 27th, 2011
12:15 pm

I bought both my girls supplies all at Target this year with the exception of two specialty items I found at Staples. Regarding Binders I have learned a lesson. Don’t buy the cheap binders. They tear and split and will have to be replaced several times throughout the year. Staples makes their own brand of binders that are reinforced with rubber at the seams. They are pricy, starting at $10 but WELL worth it as they last well past one school year. We only replace them b/c my oldest “has to have a new one” every year. Total for both my girls this year (7th and 3rd grade) was just under $100.

Susan

July 27th, 2011
12:18 pm

@ Stacey the mom: DON’T send all of the supplies in at the start of the year. Your child can only write with one pencil at a time! Send him with a couple of pencils – keep the rest at home. Send him with enough paper to last awhile and refill – at home – as needed. ONE glue stick is all that is needed – until it runs out, then replace it – at home. I can’t believe that you had to buy 200 pencils – that is absurd!

Kat

July 27th, 2011
12:21 pm

Our school did something very interesting this year. You could buy the basic supplies online in a bundle from a company and it will be waiting at our kid’s school at sneak-a-peek. Though I don’t really want to “pick it up” as suggested because I will only have to send it in again! Anyway, you put in your school name, and kid’s year (4th or whatever), and it tells you the supply list and you buy it in a bundle at one time. Then, there will probably be some additional supplies that your kid’s specific teacher requests, but a few clicks and done. There is no shopping to go do (yet!), and the school gets a kickback (er…incentive) from the sale.

Leigh

July 27th, 2011
12:21 pm

Just for fun – go to Walmart in Snellville the night before the first day of school in Gwinnett County. I innocently made that mistake one year and I don’t even have KIDS. It was like a tornado had gone through the place. And that was before I even got to the school supply section. They may be organized now – but just wait. It was really something to see. But I did help one confused father who appeared “newly arrived” to the US and had never even heard of anything on his list. He was shell-shocked. Welcome to American elementary education – where everything has to match. I bet the next year he sent his wife. HA

Kat

July 27th, 2011
12:23 pm

I bought their backpacks at Toys R Us – best selection though. I will also ask the teachers what they need that is not on the individual student lists – or I send in a few extra supplies for the kids that need stuff.

stacey the mom

July 27th, 2011
12:24 pm

Taxed, you and I are on the same page. Our PTA also buys school supplies and books. We need more accountability with schools and school systems. Also we need to look at school hours. My kids get to school 8 and can start leaving at 2:15. They go to lunch, recess and at least two specials daily. Our kids don’t have enough time to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. So we as parents go to Kumon and Sylvan to supplement the extra hours we are not getting in the schools.

mum

July 27th, 2011
12:29 pm

I now buy the essentials, and then wait for the first day of school to get the teacher’s list. I learned the hard way a couple of years ago when I purchased from the grade list and then had to go out ab purchase additional items because the team didn’t use 40% of what I bought. Also, in elementary school, they returned the unused items at the end of the school year, I noticed that middle school didn’t.

stacey the mom

July 27th, 2011
12:33 pm

Thanks Susan! I learned my lesson last year. I watched my son go from group to group because the community property(pencils, markers, glue, etc….) at his groups table, ran out of glue sticks. Every group said “no get your own” and my son did not finish his project on time. I was mad and told the teacher that I send in supplies and it does not make any sense that my son spent 15 minutes trying to get a glue stick.

Kendy

July 27th, 2011
12:36 pm

Speaking as a teacher, I am sorry to say that we have gotten to a point where we have to ask for a ream of paper on the supply list. My list is very basic and I don’t believe in “pooling” supplies. Please send you child with what they need, labeled and replace as needed.

I understand that parents works very hard. However, I think parents forget that most teachers don’t receive a great deal of supply money (at the most $100 if you are lucky) to provide supplies for your children. This means that a great deal of the supplies or resources provided for your children come out of our pockets. Have any of you tried to support 130-160 children (students you may see on a daily basis) on your paychecks? We don’t get paid like rock stars and athletes. This year I have to buy a LCD projector, TV and basic supplies for the upcoming school year. Believe me some of us completely understnad what you are going through.

Kendy

July 27th, 2011
12:38 pm

Correction: Understand what you are going through.

Susan

July 27th, 2011
12:41 pm

@ Kendy: I know several teachers, so I know that you come out of pocket for too many things! I always buy the teacher supplies taht may be requested (white board markers, overhead markers) and I appreciate that you do not pool the supplies – that makes me crazy and I refuse to participate in that!

As for the LCD and TV – I hadn’t heard of anyone having to buy those high ticket items before! Don’t you wish you could go back to chalk and a blackboard? lol

Taxed

July 27th, 2011
12:45 pm

@kendy, I feel for teachers and my wife is a teacher. They way it is setup up, where the teachers have to spend so much time ‘off the clock’ and paying for supplies out of their own pockets, is WRONG. The school admins have it backwards.

Unfortunately, only when the teachers and the students have to do without, will the administrators wake-up. And then probably not.

It’s simple – PAY the teachers and SUPPLY the children. THEN figure the funding for all else.

Kendy

July 28th, 2011
12:26 am

@Susan.. I wish..lol

Aaron

July 28th, 2011
3:18 am

There are reasons for shopping at places that aren’t the cheapest. Publix and Target ftw.

Alice

July 28th, 2011
10:01 am

I’m a teacher in Alabama where schools haven’t seen a dime for classroom supplies in three years. I’m fortunate to be in an area where a couple of groups help us out. Both arguments are correct — school systems do waste a lot of money. Aside from taking care of the teachers, basics are needed and technology that is going to be utilized. On the other side, many teachers spend a ton of money out of their own pockets for their students; they always have because they want the best for their classrooms. Elementary schools are great about cleaning out and sending home at the end of the year, but middle school parents, most of your kids throw perfectly good supplies in the trash at the end of the year when they clean out. We teachers go behind them, searching through the trash for items that can be used the next year. :) Many schools are trying to go easier on the supply lists, but funding is not there for many basics. By the way, I believe much of the money given to schools by the states are allocated for certain things; therefore, sometimes hands are tied in the way money is used. Also, I totally agree on the binders. The cheaper ones break within a month of the start of school. Good luck to all in the back to school shopping!

Shannon W

August 1st, 2011
11:47 pm

Sending a few extra items for your teacher is a good idea. Glue sticks, erasers or pencils. I found these recycled pencils that were on the Internet http://www.treesmart.com. I found some nice binders at Office Depot that were real sturdy. I also look for USA made items.