What School Supplies Do You Really Need?

back to school supplies

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Many schools publish a list of school supplies every summer, and local retail stores have copies of the lists available for shoppers before the school year starts. But these lists usually aren't the final word on what your child will need for the entire school year. And sometimes they include optional items alongside the must-haves.

To be a savvy shopper, getting the best prices on school supplies while ensuring your children have what they need, you need a strategy. You might even be able to add a few fun or special items along with the essentials.

How Schools Make Supply Lists

Typically, school administrators will survey teachers at the end of the school year. This helps them come up with the list of school supplies that most students will need the following year.

This supply list is designed so that most students will have the basic items required for school. But sometimes—especially in middle and high school—teachers have their own class materials list. Your child might not learn about these needs until school begins.

Over the summer months, teachers and administrators review new curriculum changes, update lesson plans, and even explore new teaching strategies to try in the new school year. These changes may lead to changes in the school-supply list too.

The school supply list is often the best guess made by well-meaning schools to help well-meaning parents shop before school begins.

Refine Your School Supply Shopping List

While you may not be able to anticipate every school supply need before the school year begins, you can improve your odds with some savvy shopping.

Take Advantage of Known Teacher Assignments 

If you know which teachers your child will have before the school year begins, try to find out what those teachers will want for their class. If you have a copy of the school's supply list, ask the teachers if they have any additions or subtractions.

Keep School Basics in Stock

There are certain items that you can count on any school-age child needing. Pick them up year-round when you see a good deal (if you have the space to store them at home). Then you can shop in your own closet when the list comes out.

  • #2 pencils
  • Basic blue or black ink pens
  • Crayons or colored pencils
  • A backpack or bookbag
  • Non-marking shoes for PE class
  • Markers
  • Glue
  • Paper
  • Notebooks
  • Folders
  • Facial tissues

Backpack Policies

Stay aware of your school's requirements for backpacks. Some schools require all backpacks and bookbags to be clear plastic, while others limit the size of the bag.

Talk to Parents of Older Children

Ask parents of children one grade ahead of your child what school supply surprises they encountered. You might learn that certain supplies needed to be replaced often. This can happen if a teacher is a heavy user of a particular supply in their classroom. 

If highlighters or composition books are used daily, for example, you may want to pick up extras when prices are low. Then you'll have extras on hand when your child uses up their initial supply.

Buy Extra Doorbuster Consumables 

If you find a fantastic special for a school supply that will get used up, go ahead and purchase extra. Items like looseleaf paper, pens, glue sticks, and composition notebooks may get used up at school. If you purchase too many, you can use them at home, donate them to the school (if teachers want them), or save them for next year

Attend or Organize a Back-to-School Supply Swap 

Another option is a supply swap. Freecycle and other groups sometimes host these events. Parents bring school supplies (new, or used but in good condition) and trade with others for items they need. Attending a swap held after school begins can allow families to trade their extra items for the missing items they don't have. 

No event in your community? Talk with your PTA or recycle/reuse groups about organizing such an event. 

Tell the School of List vs. Actual Need Differences

Let your child's school know about the differences between the real school supplies needed vs. the ones listed on the school supplies list. Politely and briefly mentioning to school staff what differences you ran into will let the school know where the school supply list could be improved.

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  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. What elementary, middle, and high school principals do. Updated April 10, 2020.

  2. Voogt JM, Pieters JM, Handelzalts A. Teacher collaboration in curriculum design teams: effects, mechanisms, and conditions. Educational Research and Collaboration. 2016;(22)3-4:121-140. doi:10.1080/13803611.2016.1247725