Blog: Bright Ideas

School Supply Shopping Tips to Set Kids Up for Success

School supply ads appear earlier and earlier each year, breaking the summer idyll and reminding us that it can’t last forever. With the incredible range of looks and brands, a notebook is no longer just a simple notebook but rather an item with a multitude of options for customization. Parents and kids face this same choice with every product: pens, folders, technology, book covers and even tissue boxes. It can feel daunting.

Some stores offer online shopping and concierge services to help ease the process. There are weekly sales and pop-up stands, and teachers’ lists become available online and in stores. Merchants have taken elaborate steps to make the process convenient for parents, and in doing so, to generate greater sales. While you may be very tempted to take advantage of the shortcuts, setting aside some family time for school supply shopping can set kids up for success and become both a bonding and educational activity. With a little pre-planning and innovative thinking, kids can get actively involved and gain a variety of valuable life lessons.

School Supply Shopping Tips for Families

The degree to which you involve kids will depend largely on the amount of time available to devote to the process. But if you think of it as an investment, spending some dedicated time with kids in the weeks leading up the start of school could save you a bit of money and teach them some useful life lessons.

  • Start with a list. A teacher’s list of requested supplies may arrive with the class assignment notification. Some post their request lists on the school website or may even register their list with stores in the area. Often, major retailers have these suggested lists available in-store and online by teacher’s name for nearby schools. If a student’s assigned teacher has not provided a list, retailers also have generic lists that itemize suggested supplies for various age ranges. Keep in mind that these lists are just suggestions to guide your purchases. If you are shopping for multiple kids, combine their lists for efficiency and teach kids how to make a spreadsheet (or have them teach you).
  • Distinguish between needs and wants. The difference between needs and wants is Econ 101, but kids may not get it right away. Help them decide whether an item is so important that they cannot complete their assignments without it, or if it is something extra that would be nice to have. Designate the “want” items on the list as something to consider once all of the “needs” have been purchased.
  • Look over the weekly sale flyers together. These begin to appear pretty early in the summer. Each week, retailers typically advertise with loss leaders. Those are products priced below cost to get customers in the door, i.e. five spiral notebooks for $1.00. If you start midsummer and have time for a weekly shopping trip, you can take advantage of those loss leaders, as well as weekly discounts, and save a bit of money as a result. Weekly advertisements are available in-store, in newspapers and online. Assign kids the task of identifying the great deals on items from their list each week and/or comparing prices from competing retailers in your area. 
  • Estimate a budget. While basic supplies can usually be obtained quite reasonably, some of the extras can be pretty pricey. Elaborate backpacks, lunch bags, binders and locker accessories can be very enticing and expensive. Creating a budget and doing some comparison shopping are valuable financial literacy lessons that kids can apply to these small purchases and that will help them to make more informed decisions later in life. 
  • Carefully research electronics. If investment in a laptop, tablet or graphing calculator is on your list, it is an opportunity not only for comparison shopping but also for researching the best model for the price. This provides an opportunity for an important lesson in media literacy as you help kids decide what constitutes a reliable review and/or recommendation.
  • Make customizing supplies a creative activity. Sometimes, the plainest supplies are the cheapest, and can provide amazing blank canvases for kids to flex their creative muscles and individualize. A simple notebook can make a great easel for a young Sharpie artist, Washi tape can liven up a boring old pencil or kids can experiment with collage to make one-of-a-kind book covers. Kids may be resistant at first to the idea of not getting flashy supplies at first, but their final results are sure to be creations that no one else has, and they can take pride in knowing that they transformed something very basic into a work of art. 
  • Decide what to do with the money you save. Maybe you plan a family outing together. Or perhaps you take this chance to talk about kids whose families are unable to purchase new supplies for the start of the school year. Most retailers offer options to donate supplies to needy kids, and this could be as much fun as picking out their own supplies. Another option is making a family donation to These classroom projects are created by teachers in high need communities and may include school supplies, books, sports or lab equipment and more. The start of the school year is a great time to donate, but contributions are accepted year-round. 

Galileo Summer Quest camper works on photography project.

Doing It Together

The back-to-school transition can be a wonderful opportunity for some real-world learning in the context of school supply shopping. And who better to help kids learn about financial and media literacy than parents, who can share their own experience and expertise. This exciting time in kids’ lives is also a good chance to reflect on their experiences and opportunities and to reach out to help kids who are not as fortunate. These shared activities are a powerful way to bring a summer of camp and learning to a close and usher in what is sure to be another wonderful school year.

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