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

back to school supplies for the 2020–2021 school year

Olesya Semenov / EyeEm / Getty Images

Back-to-school shopping is an exciting rite of passage for you and your child, but it's also a chore. New is fun—new beginnings, new teachers, new friends, new clothes, new kicks, new school supplies, new lunch kit, and a new backpack.

But the yearly ritual is prone to be overwhelming and stressful, financially, organizationally, and emotionally. (Your baby is growing up too fast—and is 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 Shopping in a Pandemic

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, back-to-school shopping for the 2020–2021 school year 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 and if there are any pandemic-related changes you need to be aware of.

Where to Start Back-to-School Shopping

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 more quickly and 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. Alternatively, some schools coordinate with online services that will buy and ship all the necessary supplies directly to you or your school.

Cost of School Supplies

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

Spending a little time to check prices at various retailers often results in significant savings. The beauty of online shopping is that it's so easy to comparison shop and have the exact items you want (and nothing more) shipped to your door.

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) and/or other school funds are usually available to cover school supply expenses if the fees are 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 for Going Back-to-School

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 to 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 that make them feel good.

Your kids’ needs will vary according to their age, gender identity, activity level, 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:

  • Bras: about 5
  • Hoodies: 2 to 4
  • Jeans: 3 to 5 pairs
  • Long-sleeved tops: 2 to 4
  • Pants, shorts, and/or skirts: 2 to 4 pairs
  • Short-sleeved tops: 4 to 6
  • Socks and/or leggings/tights: 5 to 7 pairs
  • Sports bras: 2
  • Sweaters: 2 to 4
  • Underwear: 7 or more pairs

Check with your child's school about any dress code requirements or restrictions before you buy back-to-school clothes. Your child may need specific workout clothing for gym or art classes.

Getting Shoes for School

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:

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

Back-to-School 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 that offer tax-free weekend events for the back-to-school shopping season stipulate that accessories are not tax-free, so you'll want to check the laws in your state.

Some of the other accessories you may want to consider include:

  • Backpack
  • Belt
  • Face masks
  • Ponytail holders and/or hair clips

Due to the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, some schools may require students to wear face masks while at school, particularly when they can't maintain social distance. If so, you will want to purchase or make several well-fitting, comfortable masks for your child to wear.

Aim for masks sewn with a double layer of breathable fabric in appealing colors or patterns with adjustable fasteners either around the ears or behind the head.

Outerwear for School

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

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

Additional School Supplies

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

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

High school and middle school students will usually need more of the writing-related items, while elementary students will need fewer organizational supplies and more arts-related products. Students may need specific items for electives or higher-level math and science courses as well, such as paints, brushes, or scientific calculators.

However, all kids will need some of the basics, such as pencils, glue sticks, and tape. Generally, you can expect to buy:

  • Folders: 2 to 5
  • Pencils: 5 to 10
  • Pens: 5 to 10
  • Spiral notebooks: 2 to 5

You may also need one unit of each of the following:

  • Calculator (usually just for middle school on up)
  • Colored pencils
  • Crayons
  • Glue or glue sticks
  • Highlighters
  • Markers
  • Pencil box or pouch
  • Pencil sharpener
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Three-ring binder

School Donations 

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

  • Facial tissue
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Sharpened pencils
  • 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 for School

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. Here's a list to get you started:

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

Children's Personal Items

These items will vary quite a bit from child to child, however, particularly due to the ongoing pandemic, students may want to have their own personal hygiene products, such as hand sanitizer and tissues.

Additionally, girls, from puberty on, will want to carry tampons or pads and/or period panties or a change of underwear for when their period comes along unexpectedly.

Bringing Electronics to School

Increasingly, cell phones and other electronic devices are both used and misused in schools. It's not usually required for students to own or bring these devices to class—and often their use is limited or prohibited entirely. Check with your child's school for guidance on the specific rules and recommendations that apply to your student.

Some classrooms (particularly in the upper grades of private schools and well-funded public school districts) are fully stocked with computers for student use, while others do not have enough devices to go around.

Some schools encourage (or require) students to bring their own phone, computer, or iPad while others provide them to all students (or to those who don't have access to one from home).

While these devices are not usually required by schools, most tweens and teens have them, especially a cell phone. Many have laptops—or access to one—as well.

In fact, according to Common Sense Media, by age 11, over 50% of kids have their own cell phone, and by 14, that number jumps to over 80%.

Home access to a laptop and the Internet is recommended for most older kids—this becomes particularly crucial for middle school and high school students as much homework is done and turned in electronically.

Computer and Internet Access

For students doing distance-learning, access to computers and reliable WiFi are necessary. If your family does not have these items, contact your school and/or school district administration as they will most likely provide them for your student.

A Word From Verywell

Back-to-school is the perfect time to reassess your child's wardrobe and school supply cache. This is a great opportunity to 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. If you have multiple children, you can also pass down items to younger siblings.

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, cut down on stress, and avoid buying items your kids don't really need.

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Article Sources
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  1. Common Sense Media. The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens. Published October 28, 2019.