Back-to-School Shopping List: Clothes, Supplies, and More

From Backpacks to Notebooks, Here's the Scoop on What to Scoop Up

Mother and son shopping for clothes

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Back-to-school shopping is naturally exciting for you and your child but it's also a chore. It's a new beginning, a new teacher, new friends, new clothes, new kicks, new school supplies, new lunch kit, and new backpack. New is fun. But the yearly ritual is prone to be overwhelming and stressful, financially, organizationally, and emotionally. (Your baby is growing up too fast—and now pouting in aisle two.)

Outfitting kids with all the new gear they'll need can feel like a herculean task. We're here to help with a realistic guide to everything you need to know about back-to-school shopping, including the definitive list of what you really need to buy.

Back-to-School in a Pandemic

This year, due to the ongoing pandemic, back-to-school shopping may look a bit different. Some children will have regular, in-person school, others may have distance learning or some combination of the two. These changes may impact the school supplies your child needs.

For example, your child may need a dedicated laptop and Internet access from home. They may need a full set of school supplies for home and school—or they may only need supplies to use at home. Check with your child's teacher to confirm how to allocate your child's supplies.

Overview

First off, check with your child's school for their specific lists, which may vary greatly from grade-to-grade, school-to-school, and teacher-to-teacher. Then, compare the list of suggested items with what you already have. Sometimes, backpacks, lunch bags, notebooks, pencil boxes, etc. will last for several years, other times they'll wear out quickly need to be replaced annually (or more often).

Some programs have shifted to having teachers buy most of the school supplies for their students to ensure each child has the same items—and exactly what the teacher wants in the classroom. In these cases, a donation is requested to cover the cost of these goods.

Cost

The fun of back-to-school shopping also comes with a steep price tag. However, there are resources to available to help reduce or cover these costs. Many states hold tax-free weekend events for the back-to-school shopping. Check with your school and/or local government office to find out if your state offers these events.

The beauty of the online shopping is that it's so much easy to comparison shop and spending a little time to check prices at various retailers often results in significant savings. Starting early also gives you time to take advantage of various sales that tend to happen in the weeks before school starts. Additionally, many stores will offer back-to-school discounts—it can't hurt to ask.

Parent Teacher Association (PTA) or other school funds are usually available to cover school supply expenses if the fee is a hardship, so definitely ask your child's teacher or school administration if your family needs assistance. Additionally, many school districts (and individual schools) offer clothing closet programs where kids can access new clothing, shoes, backpacks, and other pertinent items for free.

Clothes

It's no secret that kids grow like weeds, so the back-to-school season is a great time to review your child's wardrobe and supplement with needed items. Below is a list of recommended clothing many kids will want have in their closets. However, there are no perfect quantities, just what works best for your family—and budget.

Some kids will have less in their wardrobes, some will have more. All that really matters is that your child has several clean, well-fitting, comfortable outfits for school.

Your kids’ needs will vary according to their age, gender identity, activity level, and personal style, the weather where you live, and how frequently you do laundry, as well as whether they wear uniforms in school. If items still fit from last year, there is no reason they need to be replaced. Generally, your child will want to have:

  • Three to five pairs of jeans
  • Four to six short-sleeved tops
  • Two to four long-sleeved tops
  • Two to four hoodies
  • Two to four sweaters
  • Two to four pairs of pants and/or skirts
  • Five to seven pairs of socks and/or leggings/tights
  • Seven or more pairs of underwear
  • Five bras
  • Two sports bras

Check with the school about any dress code requirements or restrictions before you buy back-to-school clothes.

Shoes

How many pairs of shoes your kids need, and what kind, will vary with their activity level and their school's dress-code policies. Keep in mind that some schools prohibit flip flops or other open-toed sandals, particularly for little kids and on PE days to avoid tripping or other accidents. Generally, your kids will need:

  • Sneakers
  • Casual/dress shoes
  • Flip-flops/sandals/slip-on shoes

Accessories

Your child's accessory needs come down to individual needs and personal taste—although just about every student will need a backpack. Many states offering tax-free weekend events for the back-to-school shopping season stipulate that accessories are not tax-free, so you'll want to check with the laws in your state. Some of the accessories you may need to purchase include:

  • Backpack
  • Belt
  • Socks
  • Ponytail holders and/or hair clips

Outerwear

What types of coats, and how many, will depend largely on the climate where you live. In general, most children need each of the following outerwear items:

  • Raincoat, windbreaker, and/or fleece jacket
  • Winter coat
  • Rain and/or snow boots
  • Gloves or mittens
  • Winter hat

School Supplies

Contact your child’s school for a specific list of the back-to-school supplies you’ll need to purchase.

Don't assume the required school supplies for your student are the same as when a sibling was in that grade a few years ago. These lists can vary dramatically, year-to-year, even from the same teacher. Get the list from the school so you are not wasting money on unneeded items or lacking items that are required.

High school and middle school students will usually need more of the writing items, with elementary students needing fewer of the organizational supplies and more of the arts-related items. However, all kids will need some of the basics, such as pencils, glue sticks, and tape. Generally, you can expect to buy:

  • Two to five spiral notebooks
  • Two to five folders
  • Binder
  • Five to 10 pencils
  • Pencil sharpener
  • Five to 10 pens
  • Colored pencils
  • Crayons
  • Markers
  • Scissors
  • Glue or glue sticks
  • Tape
  • Highlighters
  • Pencil box or pouch

School Donations 

Many teachers ask for donations for general classroom items during the back-to-school shopping season, such as:

  • Facial tissue
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Wet wipes

Additionally, there is often a school or classroom fund to support students who need help purchasing back-to-school items. Both cash and new items are often enthusiastically welcomed. These donations help each child have the necessary items and set them up to succeed.

Lunch Items

Besides buying a lunchbox or lunch bag, you may want to start stocking up on the items you’ll be packing in your kids’ lunches, including:

  • Juice boxes
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Sandwich ingredients (like peanut butter and jelly)
  • Snack items (like applesauce, pretzels, and string cheese)
  • Convenient fruits/vegetables (like raisins, clementines, and baby carrots)
  • Yogurt
  • Freezer packs to keep food cold

A Word From Verywell

Back-to-school is the perfect time to reassess your child's wardrobe and school supply cache. You can clear out worn out or too small items. You also might find that you've already got some of the supplies you thought you'd need to buy.

By approaching the back-to-school shopping season with a plan, and knowing ahead of time what you need to buy, you'll be able to save money and avoid buying items your kids don't really need this year.

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