School Supply Shopping — Tips from a Semi-Frugal Mom (UPDATED)

Wednesday July 31, 2013


Update:  I took another look at the numbers and did a side-by-side comparison of Wal-Mart and Target.  Check out the updated tables to see how the two stores compare.

School doesn’t start for us until after Labor Day, but in a fit of organization, I decided to tackle the supply shopping chore during this one week, where all three of my children are in camp and out of my hair.

Our elementary school, like many others,  offers the option to pre-order your school supplies through a Staples company called SchoolKidz.  Teachers put together the list, parents shell out the money, and poof, everything your child needs is waiting for them in the classroom their first day of school.  Even better, the PTA gets a 10% kickback.

I know parents love this option because it saves the hassle of driving all over town looking for specific items and I was prepared to do it this year, but with three school-bound kids, I just couldn’t stomach the cost.   The combined cost for my 3 kids would have been $109  ( in addition to a mandatory $20 bulk supply fee PER STUDENT)!   I decided to see if I could do better, and to do it in a reasonable fashion, not driving myself crazy driving all over town.

My plan was to go to Wal-Mart and buy everything I could, not worrying about if somewhere else was offering a better deal on specific items (loss leaders).  After the Walmart trip, I was willing to go to one other store, if needed, and if I still couldn’t find the exact item, I’d settle for a reasonable substitute.  Also, I planned to re-use stuff I already had at home — in some cases things I bought extra of last year when they were on sale, and in some cases things that we had already used but were still in good condition.

Note: I chose Wal-Mart, because I assumed it would be cheaper than Target.   Then I decided I shouldn’t assume, but lay out the costs side-by-side.

So … how’d I do?  Let’s review the numbers:

Kindergarten Supply Costs

Kindergarten:  I spent $18.77, which yielded a savings of $5.23 or 22%.

Purchasing everything at Target would have only saved $1.66, Wal-Mart was slightly better at $3.62.  For most people, the benefit of ordering the kit far outweighs the savings.  My savings was slightly higher by re-using some things we already had.

What about 3rd grade?


3rd Grade:  I spent $18.58, saving a whopping $19.42, a 51% savings.

Shopping strictly at Target would have saved 23% ($8.60), and Wal-Mart shoppers would have saved 33% ($12.55).  These savings are more significant, made even better by re-using items we already had on hand.

On to 4th grade…


4th Grade:  I spent a total of $22.49, which resulted in a savings of $24.51, or 52% savings.

Wal-Mart shoppers saved big over the kit cost, saving over $22, or 48%.  Target shoppers also benefit from shopping in store — the savings there was $17, or 37%.

In Summary

The kindergarten cost savings is probably not worth it.  The other two grades I shopped for saw more savings — they also had a longer list of items.  It seems to me, that if supply list isn’t too long, it might not be worth fighting the crowds.

As for Wal-Mart vs Target,   Walmart was clearly the big winner.   Overall savings from Wal-Mart totaled over $38, a 38% reduction in cost vs the kit.   Target shoppers would have saved over $27, a 25% savings.  By making use of items I already had, I was able to increase my savings to 45%, keeping almost $50 extra in my wallet.


For some moms, it may not be worth the hassle, but this was a significant savings and to me, it was worth spending a couple hours driving to a couple of stores.

If you are planning on purchasing school supplies, here are some tips that may help.

Tips for Back to School/School Supplies Shopping

Shop Wal-Mart.   If your goal is absolute cheapest prices, Wal-Mart can’t be beat.  It turns out they did have everything I needed on my list, although it wasn’t all in stock the day I went.   It is worth mentioning, as noted in the comments, Wal-Mart’s business practices are not universally liked — it is worth doing a bit of research to decide if this is a business you want your dollars to support.

Don’t Buy the Cheap Paper Folders.   I used to be a sucker for those $0.01 folders at Staples but I have come to see the error of my ways.  It is very much a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach.  The paper pocket folders don’t hold up for the whole school year — well, maybe the higher quality Mead version will last but I don’t usually spring for that.  This year I got the plastic/poly folders, which were priced at $0.50 at both Walmart and Target and I am hoping they will work better.

Re-Use What You Already Have.   Obviously your child doesn’t need a new pencil holder every year but there are other items that can be re-used as well.   The pink erasers I sent to school last fall are still intact and work just fine.  Those marble composition books that teachers seem to request by the dozen can also be re-used.  When I looked at the ones my kids brought home from the past school year, most of them had no more than 10-20 pages that had been used.  I simply tore those pages out and repacked them in their Back-to-School bags.

Stock-Up.   This is the time of year to replenish your home office/homework needs.   Pens, pencils, crayons, etc. are beyond cheap so it’s worth grabbing some extra glue sticks to keep on hand around the house.  You can also get extra supplies for next year, if you find them super cheap.   Having multiple children, I have an idea what the younger kids will need as they come up through the grades and when I see something priced as a loss leader, I like to grab a few.

Be careful with this approach and don’t go overboard or you will spend more than you intended, and you need to have room to house all that extra stuff.

Buy Generic … Mostly.   I always buy the store-brand generic for things like paper products (notebooks, folders, loose leaf paper, etc.).  But for things like art supplies, I stick with Crayola and Elmer’s glue.  I think the quality of the cheaper brands does not hold up as well and I don’t mind paying a small amount more for a brand I trust.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.   There were a few things on my list I could not find precisely as described.  My Kindergartener’s list called for 12 count markers, but the stores only carried the 10 count.  No biggie, he’ll make it through the year just fine without those extra two colors.   Another list called for white folders, but the cheapie folders didn’t come in white.  I paid more for a white Mead folder, but in hindsight, that was dumb.  I should have just gotten black and been done with it.   Same thing with the .5″ ring binder.   It was nearly $5, whereas the more standard 1″ binder was only $1.97.   I went with the cheaper version and will not lose sleep over it.

Tax Free Shopping.  Virginia is offering a sales tax holiday this coming weekend  Friday August 2 – Saturday August 4.  This is a great way to save a little more, but keep in mind the stores will be much busier and stock might be lower.   If hassle-free shopping is a priority, this might not be worth it to you.  On the other hand, a 6% savings is not insignificant.

So, viola, there’s my research and findings after tackling the school supply shopping list.

What is your experience and what tips would you share?

Disclosure:  the views expressed in this post are wholly my own and I have not received any compensation for this post.


8 Responses to School Supply Shopping — Tips from a Semi-Frugal Mom (UPDATED)

  1. 1
    Jane says:


    I’m normally a huge fan but am so very disappointed that you’re suggesting people shop at Wal-Mart. Please reconsider what you’re espousing–as a short list, they

    1. Pay so low that they’re the biggest employer of folks on public assistance (ie they actually cost us taxpayers money because they don’t pay a fair wage so we have to supplement).

    2. Just gave $160 million to charter schools, which undermine public education (I’m a school teacher).

    I could go on and on–they’re a horrible company. Unless you’re struggling to make ends meet, please make a different choice!

    • 1.1
      Kendra says:


      Each consumer needs to make the best choice for their family, and being an educated consumer is an important part of that process. Thanks for taking time to share your view.

      Your comment inspired me to do a fuller comparison of Wal-Mart and Target to see exactly what the savings difference was. Perhaps seeing the actual difference in cost will inspire others to make different choices.

      • 1.1.1
        Jane says:

        Kendra, thanks for the reply. For me, it’s not just about how cheap a notebook is, or the final bill from the store; when you shop at Wal Mart, you are supporting the fact that they choose not to pay their employees a living wage, which leads to those employees having to receive public assistance, which *you* pay for in taxes. So, in fact, you’re spending MORE money. Unfortunately, Target isn’t much better . . . if you want to make a difference, shop at Costco. They pay well and offer good benefits, so their employees don’t need public assistance. 🙂

    • 1.2
      anne says:

      As a former charter school teacher, I must disagree. We provided an excellent education to kids in a failing district. The district could adopt the superior curriculum and instruction practices of the charter, but it would also have to kick out the union in order to fire incompetent teachers. Charters ARE public schools, and provide an avenue for children whose parents cannot afford private.

      • 1.2.1
        Jane says:

        Anne, I appreciate the comment. Two quick replies: The claim that unions keep principals from firing bad teachers is a rumor that doesn’t seem to die. Administrators already have the tools they need to remove ineffective teachers. As to charter schools, I point you to this teacher’s meaningful blog post: “My school is not a magnet, and so we must accept students who are “kicked out” of charters and magnets from around the city at all times during the school year, and I actually had 6 students transfer in after March! These are often children with severe emotional disturbances, but they are almost always children who are very low-skilled . . .”

  2. 2
    Rebekah says:

    I am so glad you did this comparison! I was considering getting the bulk supplies through the school. But, just this morning I laid it all out decided that I would venture out and get them on my own. You have solidified my decision. 🙂 Thank you!

  3. 3
    Lila says:

    I love the name of your website:) lol
    I also love that you are looking at home for things that can reused. I am all about the reuse and repurpose. I will say one thing about the folders. It is true that the plastic will most likely last the year, maybe, but even though the paper ones don,t, if you buy 5 at $.01 you are still coming out way ahead and the paper one can be composted. No harm done to the environment, just a little inconvenience in having to change the folder out a couple times a year.

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