Don't break the bank buying back-to-school supplies

Marci Gore • Jul 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Deborah DeBraal says she’s a veteran bargain shopper and enjoys the challenge of finding the best deals available. And, lately, as her two daughters, Sophie, age 9, and Lily, age 6, prepare to head back to Sullivan County’s Miller Perry Elementary School next week, DeBraal, like so many other parents, has been keeping her eyes open for the best deals in school supplies.

And it’s no wonder.

According to a survey conducted by BIGresearch, a consumer marketing intelligence firm, the average family with students in kindergarten through 12th grade is expected to spend nearly $550 on school supplies this year. Even though, according to BIGresearch, this is a 7.7 percent decline from last year, this is still a sizable figure for most families today.

But, fortunately, there are some very simple and practical ways to avoid breaking the bank as the kids head back to the classrooms this month.

DeBraal says she takes advantage of all the back-to-school sales that most stores are having right now, and even buys more of what she actually needs to save for later.

“A lot of times I will buy extra when items I know [my daughters] are going to need go on clearance — things like paper, pencils and crayons. I have a big plastic box I keep in my closet. I’m able to pull from that for the next year,” she said. “Usually stores will start marking things down crazy low in September and I’ll just try to stock up. And, I also know being a veteran of this, that there are certain things that are always on the school lists, like Kleenex for example, and when I see them on sale, I just go ahead and stock up.”

DeBraal says some of the supply lists have as many as 17 different items to purchase. She estimates she’s already spent about $40 to $50 on back-to-school supplies for each of her daughters so far this year.

But new clothes for school will have to wait, DeBraal says.

“I don’t buy clothes for the whole year. I buy them as sales come up. When I was a kid, I lived in Florida and my mom would take me back-to-school shopping and she would buy me 10 or so new outfits. I don’t do that,” she said. “I look for a couple of pairs of good shoes. And, too, it’s still so hot when school starts back that they can pretty much still wear their summer clothes as long as everything’s dress code compliant.”

Another Kingsport mom, Laura Jack, says in addition to looking for the best back-to-school sales and buying extra notebook paper, she takes advantage of what’s already in the house, making use of hand-me-downs.

And with four teenagers in this family — Christopher, 19; Allison, 17; Meredith, 15 and Benjamin, 14 — there are plenty of hand-me-downs to go around. Christopher is a sophomore at Clemson University in South Carolina. The other three children are all students at Dobyns-Bennett High School.

“They’ve just always been able to use things that the older ones had used. And they never particularly cared. They are used to making do with hand-me-downs in everything else in their lives, so they never minded the school supplies,” Jack said.

Like DeBraal, Jack said she doesn’t replace her children’s wardrobes every year.

“They get a couple of new outfits. And I sew. Sometimes I make their clothes,” she said.

For some local school systems, however, expansive supply lists are now a thing of the past.

Recognizing that financial times are tough for many area families right now is just one reason that Kingsport City Schools has trimmed its school supplies list considerably for the 2009-2010 school year, says Anissa Lyttle, director of the city school system’s Family Resource Center.

Lyttle purchases school supplies for hundreds of needy students within the city’s schools.

“In addition to the economy being the way it is right now, these lists were scaled back just to get some standardization. Sometimes you had a supply list for every teacher in every school. Sometimes you may have just one list for that grade for that school. Last year, I had 80-some school supply lists. This year it’s much more streamlined. I think this is something [the school administration] has been meaning to do for some time now, and this was just a good time to do it,” she said.

With some elementary schools’ lists this year consisting of only a very few items — glue sticks, crayons, erasers, pencils and a pencil box — Lyttle said the total cost of these supplies should now only be around $3.

“Everybody has to put food on the table and buy gas. I think everyone appreciates one less financial worry,” she said.

The school system is sensitive to the fact that the supplies are not the only expense families will have facing them as school starts back, and not all can afford even the $3 for school supplies, Lyttle says.

“[The supplies] are just one part of it. There are the other things, too — the backpack, the shoes they’ve outgrown since last year, new clothes, underclothes, socks and school fees. It all adds up and is just a ton of money right there at the beginning,” she said. “It’s really hard on a lot of families.”

With so many students to buy supplies for, Lyttle knows the importance of saving a dollar or two when you can. She points out that even though what she is doing is on a much larger scale, parents can do the same things for their own children.

“One of the things I’ve been doing for a couple of weeks now is surveying the Sunday newspaper ads for all the retailers’ sales. Then I pick the two stores with the best deals and try to get everything I need there. While things are cheap, go ahead and stock up. Like glue, for example, in some stores, it’s five for $1. That way you’ll have enough to last throughout the year and you’ll have enough stuff at home so your kids can do their homework and projects and you won’t have to go out the night before it’s due and pay $3 for a pack of markers,” Lyttle said.

Some parents Lyttle said she’s talked to say instead of purchasing a new backpack right now for their kids, they are going to just clean up last year’s and try to squeeze a couple of more months out of it as they wait for the new ones to go on sale.

“The backpacks that are out now will be on clearance in a few months. You can’t really get a good deal on them now. The ones I’m handing out to students now, I bought them last November and got such a good deal on them,” she said.

Lyttle also recommends, if possible, purchasing the better quality, more expensive brand names on items like shoes, backpacks and even three-ring binders.

“If you pay just a little more for certain things like these, and get good quality ones, they’ll last a lot longer. Some of these things are a bit more expensive, but they are sturdier, and I know they’ll last the kids the entire school year,” she said.

Kingsport City’s not the only school system in the area hoping to ease the financial burden for its students and parents.

Scott County Public Schools does not require parents to purchase any school supplies, despite the fact that in past years many schools sent home-school supply lists or posted them on their Web sites.

Superintendent of Schools, Jim Scott, said not requiring parents to provide classroom supplies for the students has been the system’s policy for several years now, but was never properly communicated to parents.

This year, though, some schools sent letters home in the students’ report cards at the end of school in June, which outlined the policy, while other schools have it posted on their Web sites.

“We’ve tried to find ways to get word out to the parents this year that they are not required to buy classroom supplies. We wanted them to know they didn’t have to do it. This is probably a relief to some parents, especially with the situation in our area right now, job wise, and the economy the way it is,” Scott said.

Every school in the county is given approximately $50 per student for classroom supply money each year, he said.

“This is instructional supply money. It’s based on the number of students in each school and it’s to be used to buy classroom supplies for the teachers, whether it’s crayons, rubber bands, magic markers, whatever. Parents shouldn’t be required to buy classroom supplies for the students,” he said.

Scott points out, though, that any parent who chooses to purchase items above what’s furnished is welcome to do so, but that is purely optional.

“In this day and time, I really think it’s more important than ever that we try to truly provide a free education for our students,” he said.

If you are planning to purchase back-to-school supplies, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling offers the following smart-shopper tips:

• Begin with a plan. Take inventory of what you already have at home. Only purchase the essentials.

• Clip coupons and be on the lookout for sales. Take advantage of the tax-free weekends, especially for the big-ticket items like computers. In both Tennessee and Virginia, this will be Aug. 7-9.

• Develop a budget and stick to it.

• When buying clothes, keep in mind that kids grow quickly.

• Buy in bulk.

• Shop online.

• Hang on to receipts and return items that won’t get used or do not fit.

• Delay if you can. You don’t have to buy everything before school starts.

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