I have three children in preschool and elementary school, so I know from personal experience how expensive, and sometimes stressful, back-to-school shopping can be. With three kids now involved in this process, the costs can really add up.
Thankfully, there are a few smart strategies that parents of multiple children can use to cut back on the cost of school supplies. Here are eight tactics you can use to trim the costs:
Reuse everything you can from last year. At the end of the school year, it can be tempting to just toss many of the items, but a better approach is to save everything in a box for the following fall. When the school year starts up again, do your first run of school supply "shopping" by running through that box.
A half-full bottle of glue works just as well as a new one. A box of barely-used crayons will work perfectly well for your kindergartner. The fistful of unsharpened pencils that you had to buy last spring can be sent with your daughter in the pencil box she used last year. If you can mark a bunch of items off your list without ever leaving the house, then that's money that stays in your pocket.
Hand down items from older to younger children. Any item that doesn't get destroyed is a prime candidate to get handed down from older to younger children. Clothes. Backpacks. Pencil holders. Rulers. These can all be easily used by a younger sibling once the older one outgrows it or no longer needs it.
Avoid current trends and characters. When characters are involved, I often let everyone work together when making purchasing decisions on things like backpacks. Just because my oldest child might want a "Guardians of the Galaxy" backpack doesn't mean his younger sibling would want it, so I convince them to compromise on a color or solid pattern they both like.
Not only that, if you avoid these types of character-driven items, you usually save money.
Buy new items with a focus on durability. Of course, if you're planning on handing items down from sibling to sibling, they need to be durable. I tend to avoid any items made with thin plastic, as those will quickly break. You're far better off spending a little more on a quality backpack that will be usable for several years than saving 10 bucks now on a backpack that will rip within a year or two.
Shop for supplies without the kids. Obviously, they will want input on some items, like backpacks, and it's fine to shop with them for a few staples. However, tackling the full school supply lists with multiple children can not only be a real headache, it can result in a lot of expensive and unnecessary items.
Our solution is to buy most of the staple supplies ourselves -- without the children -- so we can choose items based on price rather than which one comes in the shinier package or has the right character on the front.
Use stickers to personalize school supplies. Of course, the kids are going to want their items to stand out and reflect their personalities. The solution for that problem is to buy each of them a package of stickers and let them decorate their items.
At the end of the year, most stickers can easily be washed off, leaving the items looking just fine for the following year. It's much cheaper to buy plain lunchboxes, notebooks, folders and pencil holders and let the kids decorate them with stickers.
Watch school supply prices throughout the year, and buy in bulk when they're low. Most school supply prices lower a few weeks after school starts in the fall -- usually in early September. The stores want to offload as many of their school-related products as they can to make space for other seasonal items, so they will offer huge discounts on many items.
During this period, buy the school items that your kids will use up or items that need to be replaced regularly. It makes a lot of sense to buy 20 folders for a dollar or 10 notebooks for a dollar, and keep them in a school supply box until they're needed.
Check secondhand stores. One great place to shop for back-to-school clothes (and backpacks) is a secondhand store. These stores are usually loaded with gently worn clothes from children who outgrew the items, meaning they're practically new and available at a great price.
The majority of our children's back-to-school clothes come from secondhand stores -- and you can't tell by looking at them. We skip over the items that are well worn or don't fit well.
The back-to-school period doesn't have to be an expensive one, even if you have lots of kids. Just use a sensible strategy when buying school supplies, and your wallet will survive the experience.
Trent Hamm is the founder of the personal finance website TheSimpleDollar.com, which provides consumers with resources and tools to make informed financial decisions.
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