NEWS

20 Back-to-School Items To Buy Now

Illustration of a pile of school supplies and a very long list

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Key Takeaways

  • Retailers have already put out school supplies and states’ tax-free shopping days have begun, but some parents don’t have supply lists from their school yet.
  • Representatives at major stores say there is no concern of selling out of supplies.
  • Teachers say there are some supplies you can buy without seeing a list because they’re used so commonly.

If you started seeing school supplies on store shelves shortly after the Fourth of July, you’re not alone—it seems like stores nationwide put their notebook paper and backpacks out early this year. While students in some states return to school in August, others’ summer vacations continue until September, meaning school supply lists in those regions might not have yet been released.

In many of those states, tax-free shopping dates are already underway too. With supplies on shelves and incentives to shop, parents may be concerned the supplies they need will sell out, or they may want to take advantage of tax-free shopping days themselves. If you’re shopping in-stores or online without a list, what supplies can you buy that will definitely be put to good use?

Are Retailers Rushing Back-to-School?

Why are supplies on shelves so early in the summer? A representative for Walmart explained that they roll out school items early so families can shop when they’re ready.

“We always want to make sure customers can find what they are looking for no matter when they choose to shop, so we buy plenty of inventory to provide a wide assortment throughout the entire season," said Gabriella Ach, senior manager of media for Walmart. "Customers started seeing products around the Fourth of July and can expect to see them throughout the summer, even for those schools that start late.”

Back-to-School Shopping Without Supply Lists

If you’re heading to the store without a supply list, retailers are trying to make it easier to find essential items. Jocelyn Moruzzi, representative for Staples, explained that the chain curated a list of 22 items most featured on back-to-school lists when deciding what to put on sale this summer.

The list included essentials like pencils, sharpeners, erasers, and spiral notebooks, along with fun (but necessary) purchases like crayons, markers, colored pencils, and sticky notes. There's also a few items parents might not see coming: headphones and a graphing calculator.

Lizzy Palo, a representative for Target, said they are running back-to-school deals all summer. And Ach wants to reassure parents that Walmart is not worried about selling out of supplies.

"Walmart began taking action months ago to make sure we are in the best position to deliver for our customers," the representative says, adding that the company charters their own ships and diverts shipment through less congested ports, as just some of the ways they are prepare for busy shopping seasons.

The 20 School Supplies to Buy Now

Is your child returning to a familiar school this year, or are they starting somewhere new? The better you know your school—and how they handle supplies—the more easily you can predict your child’s needs.

“There’s no way to know everything that will be on the supply list, because it’s different based on the school,” said Martha Stewart, an eighth grade math teacher in Denver, Colorado. She has also taught high school and elementary students in the past. “In some places, teachers collect all the supplies and have a class set of everything, as opposed to kids having their own stuff in their backpack or desk.”

Even if you don’t have your child’s back-to-school supply list in-hand, teachers say there are some supplies they’ll likely need that are safe to buy right now.

Elementary School

  • Crayons
  • Folders
  • Glue sticks
  • Pencils
  • Pencil case


Stewart said that what grade schoolers need can vary widely depending on their age, but there are some supplies that are staples in every grade.

“I feel like they never have enough crayons because they break so much," she explained. "They always need crayons and folders. Glue sticks and pencils are the two things teachers never have enough of."

She added that a pencil case may not appear on school supply lists, but can be a big help in keeping crayons contained and in one piece for longer.

Middle School

  • Folders
  • Mechanical pencils
  • Pens
  • Composition notebook

As for middle school essentials, you’ll need to know if your school provides laptops for students’ work. Schools using computers or tablets for the bulk of their curriculum can reduce the number of supplies students need, like binders.

“I teach a computer class; my curriculum is web-based so [students] don’t need anything other than headphones,” said Cherie Montoya, a middle school coding and robotics teacher in Jacksonville, Florida. “More and more, curricula are moving that way and students are walking around with a laptop. So, [some] parents can shift away from this idea that you need 45 binders.”

Instead of beelining for the binder aisle, these teachers encourage parents shopping without a list to stick to the folders for now.

“For middle school, some schools are super specific about organizational stuff, like a school-wide 3” or 1” binder,” Stewart said. “My school doesn’t allow backpacks and uses Chromebooks, so I’m a big fan of folders. I give folders to kids throughout the year who are disorganized and constantly carrying just a pile of papers so I can try to get them using a system.”

Folders are one essential; Stewart added that most middle schoolers will also need mechanical pencils, pens, and a composition book.

High School

  • Scientific calculator
  • Highlighters
  • Spiral notebooks
  • Notebook paper
  • Laptop

From ninth grade on, most students will need a scientific calculator for their coursework.

“They’ll need it for several of their math classes and for chemistry. I tell my kids to buy the TI-30 because you’ll have it all through high school and college,” Stewart said. “Spiral notebooks are great if they’re taking notes, and highlighters. Notebook paper is usually needed in all grades.”

If you’re shopping early to take advantage of tax-free days in your state, take that opportunity to purchase big-ticket items your child may need, like a computer.

“Steer toward the technology items while they’re tax-free,” Montoya said.

For Teachers

  • Dry erase markers
  • Colored printer paper
  • No. 2 pencils
  • Tissues
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Clorox wipes

If you want to contribute to your child's teacher's classroom supplies, Montoya and Stewart shared the items they need most often.

“Expo markers are great for teachers—and kids often use them in class too,” Stewart said. “Colored printer paper is also something we never really have and have to buy ourselves. Middle school teachers definitely need lots of No. 2 pencils.”

“Tissues and hand sanitizer are always on the list of things that make us happy. And Clorox wipes, we’re all about those,” said Montoya.

What This Means For You

You may not have a back-to-school shopping list in hand yet, but if you're itching to get a head start on supplies, consider the essentials your child might need. Crayons, glue, or markers are a pretty safe bet for younger children, while older kids and teens might require a calculator, notebook paper, and folders. And if you're worried about shortages—rest assured, plenty of retailers have been prepping for back-to-school season for months now, and with classroom items on the shelves as early as July, it's easy to find what you need to be prepared on that first day.