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 will 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.

If you are trying to be a savvy shopper, getting the best prices on school supplies while ensuring your children have what they need, and maybe even a few fun or special items, you need a complete strategy.

How Schools Make Supply Lists

Typically, school administrators, such as the principal or assistant principal, will survey grade-level departments in elementary school (subject departments in secondary school) at the end of a school year. This helps them come up with the list of supplies that most students will need in those grades or departments the following year.

Then, they add the items that every student needs (such as pencils and a backpack). This list is designed so that most students will have the basic items required for school. But sometimes—especially in middle and high school—a teacher has his or her 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 require students to have a different set of supplies that what was anticipated before summer planning began.

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 single school supply need before the school year begins, you can improve your odds with these strategies.

Take Advantage of Known Teacher Assignments 

If you are lucky enough to know which teachers your child will be assigned to before the school year begins, try to find out what your child's teacher will want for their class. If you have a copy of the school supply list, show it to the teacher and see what the teacher will require or not use in their class. 

Keep School Basics in Stock

There are certain school items that you can count on any school-age child or classroom 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 book bag
  • Pair of non-marking shoes that can be worn for a 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 your local store is offering a fantastic special for a school supply that will get used up, go ahead and purchase extra items just in case. 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 teacher (if he or she wants them), or save them for next year

Attend or Organize a Post 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 second 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 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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