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

back to school supplies for the 2020–2021 school year

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Back-to-school shopping is an exciting rite of passage for you and your child, but it also can feel like a chore. Sure, new clothes, new kicks, new school supplies, a new lunch kit, and a new backpack can be fun. But this yearly ritual also is prone to overwhelm parents financially, organizationally, and emotionally.

We're here to help with a realistic guide. Included you will find a comprehensive list of everything you need to know about back-to-school shopping, including a definitive list of what you really need to buy.

Where to Start

First off, check with your child's school for their specific supply 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 boxes, binders, and pencil boxes will last for several years; other times, they'll wear out and need to be replaced.

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 also can 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 or local government office to find out if your state offers these events.

Spending a little time checking 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 sales offered in the weeks before school starts. Additionally, many stores will offer back-to-school discounts.

Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and other school funds are usually available to cover school supply expenses if the cost is a hardship, so definitely ask your child's teacher or school administration if your family needs assistance.

You also might want to check with churches and other charitable organizations in your area. Sometimes these organizations offer back-to-school events where they give out free school supplies to qualified families. Additionally, many school districts (and even individual schools) offer clothing closet programs where kids can access new clothing, shoes, backpacks, and other necessities for free.

Clothing for 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 school clothes 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 your 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 child's needs also 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 and shoes for gym, or a smock for art classes.

Shoes for School

How many pairs of shoes your kids need, and what kind, will vary depending on 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. They also may have specific requirements for PE days as well to avoid tripping, accidents, and marking up the floor. 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 style 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 want to consider include:

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

Masks at School

Children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated against Covid-19. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that schools have students (and adults) who are not vaccinated wear a mask. The CDC also recommends that schools try to ensure three feet of separation between everyone while indoors.

Even though masks are not required for fully vaccinated people, masks may still be required at your child's school, especially if students are under 12. Each district sets its own policies.

If your child will be wearing a mask at school, you will want to purchase or make several well-fitting, comfortable masks for your child to wear.

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 or composition 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
  • Quart or gallon size bags

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, students may want to have their own personal hygiene products, such as hand sanitizer and tissues.

Additionally, if your child is menstruating, they will want to carry tampons or pads in their bag. Period panties or a change of underwear can also be helpful 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. Often, the use of these personal items 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. Meanwhile, some schools do not have enough devices to go around.

Some schools even encourage or require students to bring their own phone, computer, or iPad while other programs provide them to all students or to those who don't have access to one from home. While these devices are not always required by schools, most tweens and teens have them, especially a cell phone. Many young people have laptops—or access to one—as well.

According to Common Sense Media, by age 11, more than 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. Access becomes particularly crucial for middle school and high school students, as a significant amount of homework is completed and turned in electronically.

Computer and Internet Access

For students engaged in research or classwork at home, 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 and clear out items that are worn out or too small. You also might find that you already have some of the supplies you thought you'd need to buy. If you have multiple children, you also can pass down gently used 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
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools. Updated July 9, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim public health recommendations for fully vaccinated people. Updated May 13, 2021.

  3. Common Sense Media. Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens.

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