How To Shop for School Supplies on a Budget

Please note that this post may contain affiliate links. These involve no extra cost to you, but may result in me receiving a small commission – for which I am very grateful! Learn more here.

I don’t know about you, but every year the start of school and the need for school supplies seems to catch me off guard. With the start of our new budget at the beginning of the year, however, I set aside a small amount of money each month in anticipation of the extra cost. So now, it simply comes down to making sure we get all of the supplies required at a great price.

Tip: Don’t let the back-to-school season ruin your budget! Grab my FREE Family Budget Workbook to help you get started planning ahead today! Find it HERE.

Look for Quality

While I am always looking for a great price on school supplies, I also want those supplies to be quality items so that they will last my child until they are either all used up or make it to the end of the school year. No one wants to purchase school supplies that are supposed to last, only to have to purchase them again in January, so keep that in mind when you are out shopping.

Look for Price per Item

Another thing to keep in mind is the cost per item. If you are comparing three different brands of pencils in varying colors and quantities, the easiest way to check to see which one is the less-expensive item is by calculating the cost per individual item in the package. A lot of times this will be clearly marked on the price tag in the store aisle, but other times you will need to calculate it for yourself.

It’s simple math you can do on your phone or in your head: “price” divided by “quantity” equals “item cost”. If there isn’t a big difference between the quality of the items, then you should always choose the less expensive option.

Stick to the List

Hopefully, you have the school supply list in hand when you head out to the store. I know that our local schools not only hand out a list on the final day of school, but they also post it on the website for parents to print again if necessary. Some stores also provide the lists for each of the area schools in their school supply area.

It’s important to remember that children shouldn’t take items to school that aren’t on the list. Ultimately, they will become a distraction and may be removed by the teacher or sent home. If you are excited to purchase more than the quantity specified on your list, contact the teacher and ask if you can donate the supplies to the classroom. Trust me, any teacher I know will be excited about the extra supplies.

Typical Supplies

There are some standard supplies you’ll find listed on most all back-to-school lists.

Black & White Composition Hardcover Notebooks

Most recently, I’ve noticed that composition books are once again gaining ground on the school supply lists. The nice thing about them is that they are durable and come in packages of two or three. If you end up with an extra one, why not encourage your child to create a writing notebook at home, a conversation journal, or simply a place to put their own thoughts and drawings.

Ream of White Printer Paper

As teacher budgets face more and more cuts, reams of white printer paper are being added to the school supply list. If possible, I try to purchase my printer paper well ahead of the back-to-school sales, because it always seems to be more expensive during the fall season.

Glue Sticks or Elmer’s Glue

I can never figure out how kids can use as much glue as is required for school supply lists. One year I had to send 12 glue sticks! Seemed a little outrageous to me, and yet, my daughter came home that year with plenty of projects that had definitely used those glue sticks. The thing about glue sticks is that they never come in the exact amount you need. You’ll either have too few or too many.

Once again, determine the cost per item and pick the size closest to the one you need. Don’t worry, if you end up with a couple of extra, you can save them for home craft projects.

NOTE: Not all glue is created equal, so make sure to take that into consideration when making your selection.

#2 Pencils

As a former teacher, I know from experience that kids never have enough pencils. The thing about pencils is that they are really easy to lose, break, and the erasers run out a lot faster than the lead does. (NOTE: if the list doesn’t call for extra erasers, this is one item I do suggest you add to the list to keep your child’s pencil in use for as long as it possibly can be.)

Due to the fact that kids are always losing their pencils, if you are excited about sending additional school supplies for the classroom, pencils is one of the better “extras” to send in.

Thin Dry Erase Markers

It might be easy to jump to the conclusion that you are supplying the teacher with whiteboard markers, but I know in our school that is not the case. In fact, in order to save on paper products (remember that ream of paper you had to purchase?), many teachers are now utilizing a classroom set of individual whiteboards that students can complete math problems and writing exercises on. Those dry-erase markers will likely be stored in your child’s pencil pouch and used by them alone.

Colored Pencils or Crayons

Typical school supply lists will have either colored pencils or crayons on them and often will specify the size of the package needed. These are items that I’ve found we can reuse from year to year, so I don’t have to purchase them each year. I always stick with the Crayola brand because they just have a brighter color and seem to last longer than the off-brands.

In the case of crayons, I have fallen in love with the Crayola Twistables. Not only can you get them in triangle form for your preschoolers, but you can get them in several different box sizes. The best part: they don’t break like regular crayons do, meaning that they last a lot longer.

3 Ring Binder

As kids get older, a 3-ring binder begins to show up on the school supply lists. You can pick whatever color your child likes and if you choose to get the one with the cover inserts, your child can even design his or her own cover (and change it later if they want to).

NOTE: don’t go cheap when it comes to the binder. Pick the heavy-duty one if at all possible because, if your child is like mine, he or she will thrash that binder to the point that it falls apart.

Subject Dividers

You can get subject dividers in different sized packages and, once again, your child can pick the colors he or she wants. The only thing to keep in mind is that paper dividers will get old and begin to rip. It is for that reason, that I always purchase durable plastic ones. They often get reused for the following school year as well, which makes it worth the slightly higher cost.

Binder pencil pouch

It’s tempting to go with a plastic binder pencil pouch, mostly because they come cheap, and yet, I always recommend going with the more expensive fabric or mesh one because, not only will it hold up for the entire school year, but it may last you for several years. The one I used in high school nearly twenty years ago is still being used by my youngest daughter, and it’s still in great shape.

The same goes for any pencil tins or boxes. Purchase a durable one now and you may be able to reuse it for years to come.

Loose Leaf Paper

Loose-leaf paper typically comes with a designation as to whether it should be college-ruled or wide-ruled paper. Make sure you read that part carefully, as it will make a big difference for students in the classroom, and you’d hate to be back out at the store purchasing the correct type of paper.


It wouldn’t be school without a backpack. Would it?

For younger kids, my favorite backpacks (and it can be hard to find them) are the simpler ones. If it has one large area to put their binders, folders, and lunch box in, then another smaller one on the front of the pack for a few pencils, an eraser, and the housekey, should be enough space. Honestly, I’ve found that the more pockets a backpack has, the less organized my child becomes.

When children reach middle and high school, adding a sturdier backpack with a few additional pockets isn’t a bad thing, as long as they can remain semi-organized and find their belongings when they need them.

My daughters’ favorite backpacks have been different variations of the Nike one pictured below. They are made to last, so while they might be a little bit of an expense at the beginning, they will save you money in the long run.

…And it’s Your Turn

Now that you know the ins and outs of school supplies, it’s time to get out there and find some great deals. You can follow the links I’ve provided and purchase your supplies online, but if you prefer to pick them out in person, it’s handy to pick up a Sunday newspaper with all of the ads in it ahead of time, so you make sure you are getting the best deal on the items you purchase.

Whatever you do, don’t wait until the last minute!

Tip: Don’t let the back-to-school season ruin your budget! Grab my FREE Family Budget Workbook to help you get started planning ahead today! Find it HERE.