Back To School Supplies That Are A Waste Of Money (And What To Buy Instead)

Get through back to school shopping without going into debt with these tips for finding more affordable school supplies.

August 23, 2018
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Disclaimer: Just so you know, if you order an item through one of our posts, we may get a small share of the sale.

Back to school season is here and it won’t be long before backpacks and homework folders are filling your entryway. Before you can fall back into your school year routine, you’ve got to do your back to school shopping. For many, that’s a huge expense.

Although the cost of school supplies has dropped a bit, most parents can expect to spend the same amount on preparing a single kid for their first day of school as they would on a single mortgage payment, according to the 2018 Backpack Index by Huntington Bank.

For kids in elementary school, the average cost of school supplies is $637. For middle school students, stocking up on binders, pencil, and paper is probably going to cost around $941, and for high schoolers $1,355. Kind of wild, right? Now imagine you’ve got not one, but three or four kids to send back to school fully stocked with clothing and supplies. For many, it simply isn’t realistic. It costs too much!

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iStock.com / Juanmonino

So, should you just bite the bullet, swipe your credit card, and worry about the bill later? Maybe not. As it turns out, parents might be spending on school supplies that never get used, or they might be spending too much on what their kids really need. Check out these school supplies that are a total waste of money—and our suggestions for what you can buy instead.

What Not to Wear

Shopping for school clothing is by far the biggest expense parents face as they get their kids ready for the new school year. One report, compiled by the National Retail Federation, estimates that parents are spending an average of $236.90 on school clothes per child.

One example of overspending is buying school uniforms through the school sponsored retailer, at a specialty uniform store, or even a high-end retailer. These high-cost uniforms quickly add up when you’re trying to purchase enough items for a full week of school. Take Land’s End, for instance, a popular retailer of school uniforms. Polo shirts cost as much as $35.50 each and khakis as much as $45.50.

The good news is that this expense can be lessened by buying the right things from the right retailers. These uniform options still meet most school guidelines and won’t totally deplete your back-to-school budget.

An Essential Item for a Girl’s Uniform

Many schools include solid jumpers among their approved uniform options. It’s a good basic that can often be worn multiple times without a wash.

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Amazon

This Girls’ Uniform Jumper from the Amazon Essentials brand is available in both navy and khaki, ships through Prime, and only costs $14. Perfect for the hustle and bustle of the school day, all of the uniform options from Amazon Essentials are made with fabric that has a slight stretch.

Amazon Essentials Girls’ Uniform Jumper, $14 from Amazon

A Two-Pack Wardrobe Staple for Boys and Girls

Available for both girls and boys, this two pack of polo shirts is a great value and perfect for layering under jumpers or sweaters. These long sleeves are tagless, making them perfect for kids with sensory sensitivities.

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Amazon

Because you can choose from 10 different color combinations for boys and eight combinations for girls, it’s likely you’ll be able to find an Amazon Essentials 2-Pack Long-Sleeve Polo Shirt set that works with your school’s’ colors. Plus, with free shipping, this is the likely the easiest back-to-school shopping you’ve ever done.

Girls’ 2-Pack Long-Sleeve Polo Shirts, $20.00 from Amazon

and

Boys’ 2-Pack Long-Sleeve Polo Shirts, $20.00 from Amazon

Durable Pants for Everyday Wear

These boys’ uniform pants are a bestseller on Amazon, with 370 customer reviews and an impressive 4.5 out of 5 stars. More than one reviewer has nothing but good to say about these Children’s Place Boys’ Uniform Chino Pants, pointing out how great that adjustable waist is for getting the sizing just right.

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Amazon

Like many of the clothing options on Amazon, these pants are a part of the Amazon Wardrobe option. This means they ship to you through Prime and you have seven days to try them on and make sure they fit properly. If they don’t work for you, you can act within the seven days and return the items for free.

The Children’s Place Boys’ Uniform Chino Pants, $8 from Amazon

Backpacks, and Lunch Bags, and Pouches, Oh My!

There’s no getting around the fact that kids need a sturdy bag to carry around their books all day long. Spending an arm and a leg on a backpack doesn’t have to be the norm. Many parents purchase a completely new set at the start of the year, including a new backpack, a new gym bag, lunch bags, and a litany of pouches for pencils, markers, and more.

Don’t purchase what you can reuse. If your kids’ bags are still in great shape from last year, say no to the pressure of buying shiny and new. This is especially true for things like pouches and lunch bags, which don’t see as much wear and tear as backpacks.

If you do need to replace last year’s stash, pay attention to the price. At Pottery Barn, the backpacks cost as much as $59.95, and a basic backpack from L.L. Bean costs around $40. Instead of shopping with a big brand, check out these affordable (but high quality) options we found on Amazon.

A Small, Floral Backpack

For younger kids, a standard backpack isn’t often unnecessary and weighs them down. This High Sierra Mini Loop Backpack is not only on the small side, it’s also an incredibly affordable option that quickly ships through Amazon Prime.

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Amazon

Multiple compartments help students stay organized and padded shoulder straps allow for comfortable, all-day wear. This same sized backpack is also available in light blue, navy and lime, and lilac and lavender.

High Sierra Mini Loop Backpack, $19.95 from Amazon

A Bestselling Backpack Available in 23 Colors and Prints

Sending your child to school with an affordable backpack doesn’t have to be boring. With 23 colors or patterns to choose from, you can find a High Sierra backpack that matches your kiddo’s unique style.

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Amazon

This High Sierra Loop Backpack is a bestseller on Amazon, with over 2,000 customers reviews and 4.3 stars, with one reviewer sharing that they were able to carry around a laptop, textbooks, and a ton of art supplies in this roomy bag.

High Sierra Loop Backpack, $26.99 from Amazon

A Fun Lunch Bag for Under $10

Finding a durable lunch bag for under $10 is almost unheard of, but this option by Wildkin has rave reviews. This lunch bag is super compact, but it isn’t lacking in space for your little one’s lunch. Inside, you’ll find room for a sandwich, fruit and veggies, and a strap for a water bottle.

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Amazon

The Wildkin Olive Kids’ Lunch Box It is also water resistant, which means you don’t have to worry about leaks if your little student keeps it stored in their backpack during the day. Choose from 44 different colors and prints including Trains, Planes, and Trucks or Horse Dreams.

Wildkin Olive Kids’ Lunch Box, $9.49 from Amazon

A Printed Pouch for Staying Organized

While we can’t promise that this pouch will help you avoid cleaning out your kiddo’s backpack once a week, it might help them keep track of small items so you’re not constantly repurchasing essentials like pencils, erasers, and colored pencils.

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Amazon

These Floral Canvas Pencil Pouches come in a four pack and only cost $9.96, so you know you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Each pack has two zipper pouches, allowing for optimal organization of different items.

Floral Canvas Pencil Pouch 4 Pack, $11.76 from Amazon

If florals don’t appeal to your little student, these ZIPIT Monster Pencil Cases come in 14 different colors and patterns. While they’re not quite the steal of the floral canvas pouches, they’re still fairly affordable at $6.97 each.

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Amazon
ZIPIT Monster Pencil Cases, $6.97 from Amazon

Stock up on the little stuff.

One of the most surprising expenses parents face at the start of a new school year is the cost of stocking up on the little, inexpensive supplies. A few dollars here and there for crayons, pencils, and glue might not seem like a big deal in the aisle, but you’ll watch your total quickly add up in the checkout line thanks to big differences in price between name-brand and store-brand options.

Even more shocking, perhaps, is that fact that Amazon isn’t the best place to stock up on the little stuff. While we found a ton of great deals on backpacks and uniforms, many of the small school supplies were more than twice the price of buying them from various brick-and-mortar stores. Save $.50 or more on each of these school supplies by buying from the right supplier (and selecting the most cost-effective brand).

This off-brand option is half the cost.

Most lower-grade students are expected to show up to school with crayons. Although this school supply isn’t typically considered a huge expense, it’s a good idea to save money whenever possible! While on-brand crayons get a lot of praise, these Target-brand crayons have pretty great reviews and they’re half the price.

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Target

Buy a 24 pack of Crayola for $.50 or the same set of colors from Up & Up for $.25. A penny saved is a penny earned, right?

Crayons 24 Count by Up & Up, $0.25 from Target

Another Brand Swap Out That Will Save You Big

Okay, so a few bucks isn’t going to make or break your back-to-school budget, but it will buy you a latte on your kids’ first day. No. 2 Pencils are the school supply you absolutely can’t send your kid to school without, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot.

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Target

Do another brand swap and reach for the Up & Up 24 Count #2 Pencils instead of the Ticonderoga Brand, which cost $4.49 for a pack. The Target-brand option isn’t just a fourth of the cost, they also have better reviews online. Talk about a win-win!

Up & Up 24 Count #2 Wood Pencils, $1.19 from Target

Don’t overspend on tissues.

Is it just us, or do classrooms go through a bizarre amount of tissues each year? Help your kids’ teachers prep for head cold season without overspending on tissues this year. Your school might recommend Kleenex-brand tissues, especially if they’ve partnered with Target on School List Assist.

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Target

Opt for the Up & Up brand instead and save over a dollar on a 640-count pack of tissues. While the Kleenex brand costs $5.99, the store brand costs just $4.49.

Up & Up 640 Count Facial Tissues, $4.49 from Target

Avoiding the Electronics Trap

If you want to save major money on your school supply shopping, be sure you’re paying close attention to what you’re spending on electronics this year. These are the items that really add up! They’re also the school supplies you can probably get away with saying no to—or at least avoiding the pressure of buying the newest model.

Opt to go against the status quo with this phone.

If your little student isn’t asking for a cell phone yet, they probably will be after school starts. More and more parents are sending their young kids to school with a cell phone, but you shouldn’t feel afraid of going against the status quo.

We don’t have to tell you how quickly the cost of a smartphone can add up. A new iPhone can set you back up to a $1,000 and comes with monthly expenses to pay for minutes and data usage. There is also a good argument to be made that giving kids a smartphone to take to school isn’t a great idea, even if they’re in middle school. Wait Until 8th is an organization that advocates for delaying giving kids smartphones for as long as possible, ideally until they’ve reached eighth grade.

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Target

If you need your child to have a phone so they can reach you during after-school activities or while they’re hanging out with friends, there are better options. The Consumer Cellular Alcatel Go Flip is your basic flip phone, free from distracting apps or the expensive data costs. Load it with your child’s’ regularly called numbers and send them to school without worries about how much time they’ll be spending online.

Consumer Cellular Alcatel Go Flip, $29.99 from Target

Same Brand, Better Price

One item we noticed on school supply shopping lists this year that could easily because a big expense were earbuds with a mic. Skullcandy earbuds seem to be a popular recommendation and they’ve got pretty great reviews, so that makes sense to us. One important thing to know about Skullcandy is that their earbuds can be pretty affordable if you know what you’re looking for.

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Amazon

While the Amazon’s Choice recommendation from Skullcandy is a set of sweat resistant, lightweight earbuds designed with running in mind, these $29.99 earbuds probably aren’t what your child needs for school. Instead, opt for their more affordable option — Skullcandy Ink’d. This set only costs $9.77 and still includes the mic and volume control your child will need for school.

Skullcandy Ink’d 2.0, $9.77 from Amazon

Which Extras to Skip

Your school’s supply list won’t dictate all of your back-to-school purchases. Certain kids will have needs outside of what’s listed by their teacher, and that’s okay. Whether it’s clothes for sports or those sparkle gel pens they feel they simply can’t do without, you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg on the last-minute extras. Skip some of these items when possible and make sure you’re shopping smarter for the items you decide to keep on your list.

Fancy Writing Utensils Your Allowance Earner Can Afford

When it comes to buying extras or novelty items before school, a lot of parents opt for asking their kids to cover the cost, and we think that’s really smart. If there is a trendy pen, trapper keeper, or bag your child wants, help them find an option they can afford to pay for with their allowance or birthday money.

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Amazon

One school supply that can easily add up is fancy writing utensils like gel pens and mechanical pencils. The Colorful Gel Pen from NYKKOLA comes in a pack of 12 pastel colors and they’re much more affordable than other, name-brand options.

Colorful Gel Pen 12 Pack, $3.84 from Amazon

Novelty Paper Without the Novelty Cost

Whether you’ve got a type-A student who loves to keep their life on track with a planner or a little Hemingway who swears they need a fancy journal at the start of each year, you’ve probably already noticed that novelty journals and planners get pricey very quickly.

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Amazon

If your child decides to purchases these items for themselves, guide them to an affordable option like the 2018–2019 Student Planner by Creative Notebooks or the 5 Pack of Brightly Color Field Books from Elan Publishing Companies.

2018–2019 Student Planner by Creative Notebooks, $7.99 from Amazon Field Book 5 Pack, $9.79 from Amazon
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