Back-to-School Home Economics

For most of us in Michigan, school begins the Tuesday after Labor Day. If you haven’t already received a letter in the mail from your child’s teacher welcoming them to their new grade or school along with a list of essential supplies, you will probably get one soon. 

My kids have been waiting with bated breath, eagerly anticipating their lists and our annual pilgrimage to stock up. Bursting, colorful displays of school supplies elicit “when are we going to get ours, Mama?” every single time we head to Target. (You may relate.)  After seven years of buying school supplies for my kids (four of those years for two) equipped with teachers’ needs and wish lists and a budget in mind, I’ve learned some valuable tips that save money, time, and sanity throughout the school year.

Tip 1: Invest in a good backpack

Your littles will want the cheap novelty backpack. Your wallet will not.

Backpacks don’t just carry books and supplies and get hung up nicely on hooks and the backs of chairs. The life of a backpack is tough and your kid’s backpack needs to be able to take all the stress thrown at it. It gets tossed. It gets hoisted over shoulders. It gets dragged along the concrete and grass. It gets thrown on the floor as soon as the kid bursts into the house at the end of the day. It gets opened roughly in a furry of a child’s exuberant pace, and it exists in all of our Michigan weather conditions.

Instead of going for the inexpensive, cute novelty backpack for $20 (or less) invest $40 to $50 in a sturdy one with good, strong zippers, ample pockets and storage spaces, and strong stitching especially on the padded shoulder straps. (Just don’t supersize it; your child shouldn’t be dwarfed by his or her backpack.)

A backpack at this price point will likely last not only the entire school year, but for a few of them. (Toss in the wash every so often, and it’s as good as new.) As an example, my youngest had the same backpack from Kindergarten through second grade. It’s still in good condition, so we use it for sleepovers, but because she grew, we got her a new pack this year, which I expect to last the rest of elementary school. My eldest, going into middle school, is on his third backpack in seven years.

Spending $50 once over three years, is more economical than spending $50 or more in one year because the poorly constructed novelty backpack fell apart before winter break and its replacement fell apart before the school year ended.

Tip 2: Follow the list to the letter

Don’t second-guess your child’s teacher when it comes to his or her list of needed school supplies. Your child’s teachers have put a lot of thought and energy into those lists. They’re to help organize and streamline their classrooms and ensure that every child is organized and on the same page with each subject or content area, thus minimizing distractions and wasting that precious time for fostering a nurturing learning environment. As a former teacher and daughter of a retired teacher, I know what I’m talking about. If he or she says “no Trapper Keepers,” it’s for a good reason.

Tip 3: Buy extra supplies now

School supplies have been on sale since July and likely will be through Labor Day if not a little after. Take advantage of the low prices and their abundance.

Let’s face it, pencils and crayons break and get run down, ink runs out, marker caps get lost or not put on tightly, notebooks get used, and things get lost or misplaced. Not to mention, there are few things more vexing than hearing “Mom! I’m out of pencils!” Or the “Mom! My blue marker is dried out and I need blue for this math problem, ’cause all the eights are to be colored blue!” at 7 pm on a Wednesday when your child is doing homework and a trip to run out to get supplies is just not in the cards.

Nip this mess in the bud by doubling up (or tripling up if you can swing it) now while the supplies are abundant and cheap. Stick them in a plastic bin and store them where the kids don’t have immediate access, so that when you hear those words from your child at the most inconvenient time, you’re all set, stress free and easy peasy lemon-squeezy. (Your wallet and stress level will thank you.)

Tip 4: Anticipate how hard your kids are on folders

Folders get pulled out of bags, shoved into desks, opened, filled, closed, and stuffed back into backpacks multiple times a day all school year. By December’s winter break (if you’re lucky and don’t have a kid who’s “hard on things”), they’ll be looking pretty shabby and in some cases, almost useless.

Opt for plastic folders (if the teacher’s list doesn’t specify paper folders). They cost a fraction more, but still under $2.00 per folder, and will last longer than their paper cousins and won’t be prone to having the folds, pockets, and edges start to come apart by Thanksgiving. If plastic doesn’t work for your budget (or environmental conscience) double up on the paper ones. (See Tip 3 above.) In a pinch, when the folders start to get tattered, clear packing tape can also be used to reinforce folds and edges.

Tip 5: Lunch money budgeting

If your school/school district provides a calendar of school breakfasts and lunches, use it to your advantage for both budgeting and school-morning sanity. We go over ours every two weeks so that I know which child is having a school lunch or a home lunch on which days.

Doing this allows for easier planning when I do the week’s grocery shopping and I know in advance how much to send to school on Monday for the number of days of school-provided meals that my children will consume during the school week. Let’s face it, kids won’t eat what they don’t like (especially if we’re not hovering over them) and with this extra measure, you’ll know they’re actually eating and not wasting food and money. This method can work equally well for free/reduced price and full-price families.

To make life easier, buy a box or two of small envelopes to put the money in and the child’s name/grade and school meal dates on the outside. This helps ensure that lunch money doesn’t get lost and gets to the food services people. These envelopes are also great to have handy for permission slips and notes to teachers.

Tip 6: Budget for the growth spurt

Kids grow, that’s a fact. Unless you’ve become a master at predicting your child’s growth spurts, they seem to occur at the worst times. Don’t go overboard on the back-to-school clothes shopping and when you do go, buy a few things in the next size up so that you’re not in a lurch when that unexpected growth spurt occurs the night before picture day.

Also pay close attention to your school/school district’s dress code policies. Outside of the first day outfit, if your kids don’t wear uniforms, you might want to wait on the back-to-school shopping until you’ve read the handbook and dress code. (Remember, policies may have changed since last school year or by school if your child is transitioning to the next schooling stage.)

Tip 7: Half days and child care

You know it’s coming. That half day (or those half days) where neither you nor your spouse/partner can easily get the time off of work to meet the bus or be in the pick-up line at 11:27 am. Seriously go over the school calendar and plan ahead for those days and budget (time wise and financially) for those days. Consider the added cost for extra hours of child care and lunch since most half days occur before lunchtime.

Do it now. Talk to your boss (equipped with the school calendar) and to family, friends, neighbors—whomever is in your trusted circle—and get those half-days squared away sooner rather than later. Make sure your go-to people are on the emergency list/approved people to pick up your child, if they’ll be doing pick-up from school, otherwise the school may not release them—even if it’s Grandma. And don’t forget…the first day of school may be one of these days.

Bonus Tip: Teacher wish lists

If it’s within your means, send along some extra supplies and the tissues, cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer and other classroom things your child’s teacher may ask for. You just may be helping a child who doesn’t have a box of crayons or notebook and those other wish list items help everyone in the classroom—your kid(s) and all the others.

Spending a little extra money and investing wisely now while things are on sale will actually save you money in the long term over the school year. This combined with spending some quality time now going over schedules and planning ahead will save you some stress and headaches from now through next June. 

Have you found these helpful? What are some of your home economics tips for saving money and time during the school year?


Erika Geiss

Mothering Justice member

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