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The List: 8 Money-Saving, Waste-Reducing, Clutter-Curtailing, Back-To-School Shopping Tips

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It’s hard to resist a school- or office-supply obsession. These tips help reduce waste without making back-to-school shopping boring.


I greet my daughters’ school supply lists with a mixture of excitement and dread. Excitement because I absolutely love school supplies: the smell of new pencils, choosing a fun backpack and lunchbox, the tidy box of crayons. And dread because I always end up spending way too much on supplies, and then I watch as, within weeks, our pristine supplies get lost and disheveled.

Especially after seeing all the unused or only partly used materials that came home at the end of last school year, I’m not particularly enthusiastic about dropping a boatload of money on brand-new stuff.

If, like me, you like to minimize the waste of supplies and their packaging when you’re doing your back-to-school shopping, here are some tips I have for keeping it in check. Don’t have school-aged kids? Good news: Most of these tips work for office supplies, craft materials, and more.

1. Buy in bulk. At one of my kids’ schools, instead of sending out a supply list, the school collects a materials fee from every student, and then orders the supplies altogether. This has many benefits: there’s a cost savings to buying in bulk, and a collective conservation of energy since individuals don’t have to drive around to their local stores amassing their gear. What’s more, since the supplies are packaged in bulk, there’s less packaging waste. Even if your school doesn’t do a program like this, you can get a bunch of friends together and place a similar bulk order to get the same benefits. Amazon has some great deals on large quantities of writing utensils, papers, and more.

2. Repurpose from last year. Yes, it’s fun to start out the year with brand-new goodies, but chances are you have a lot of what’s on your list already in your house. Do a quick search to round up pencils that are in good shape (some fun pencil eraser toppers will freshen them up), half-used packages of paper, notebooks that have only been partially filled (you can rip out the used pages) and boxes of crayons that are still in good shape.

3. Don’t overbuy. There’s a tendency, especially if there’s a big back-to-school sale, to buy more than you actually need. Even if it’s cheap, it’s still a waste if it isn’t necessary. Just buy the bare minimum and wait until a few weeks into the year to see if you need to restock.

4. Organize an exchange. While your kids might not be enthused about using their same backpack as last year, they might be excited about a new-to-them backpack. Get a bunch of friends together to swap gently used uniforms, backpacks, books, supplies, and other necessities. You’ll be able to extend the life of your supplies by passing them along to someone else who will be able to use them, and everyone will save a bit of money by not having to buy everything brand-new.

5. Label everything. I can’t tell you how many cardigans, lunch containers, water bottles, and other things that have disappeared between our house and school. If you label everything, you’ll have a better chance of recovering it. Order custom labels to make it easy.

6. Organize a dedicated homework station. Decide at the beginning of the school year where homework is going to be done, and create a station stocked with all the supplies needed: a couple of pencils and erasers, scissors, a set of crayons, a ruler, blank paper, and so on. If the homework area is going to be at the kitchen counter or the dining room table, keep all the supplies in a box so they can be taken out when needed and stashed when homework is done. Make sure everyone knows that the homework supplies are only for doing homework, that way your kids will have everything they need, when they need it, and you won’t end up replacing scissors and crayons every time the box gets raided.

7. Shop with a conscience. Make a bigger impact with your back-to-school purchases by shopping brands and retailers that give back, whether it’s to your school, the community, or another cause. Office Depot, for instance, will apply 5 percent of qualifying purchases towards supplies for teachers to purchase. And Yoobi, which is sold at Target stores, will give an item to a school in need for every item purchased. Or buy eco-friendly supplies such as recycled paper and sustainably harvested wooden pencils.

8. Save your receipts. Few things are as aggravating as buying unnecessary uniforms or supplies, and then losing the receipt before they can be returned. Keep all your back-to-school receipts in an envelope in your purse, and if you find you don’t need something you’ve bought, be sure to go through the trouble to return it. You’ll reduce the waste and clutter of hanging onto something you don’t need.

P.S. — Once you open up your school supplies, be sure to recycle any packaging your hauler accepts! From the paperboard packaging that highlighters and pens (and similar) often come in, to the paper tags hanging off pencil cases or backpacks, there are lots of good recyclables worth remembering.

What are the ways you reduce waste during back-to-school shopping? Give us your best tips in the comments below.

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.

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  • erica m. 9 months ago
    I had everything on the list already in the house, except for a pack of erasers. Some of the supplies have advertisements on them, but fine by me. Also I am not picky about brands. I do not appreciate teachers demanding certain brands of crayons, zip baggies, tissues, etc. If it's good enough for my household, it's good enough for the classroom. In our family we really do not waste office/craft supplies, so it is also disheartening that some teachers use a lot of non-recyclable craft supplies and throw away perfectly good but used markers, crayons, etc., just to have brand new. Would be nice to see schools get better about being green in their choices and to use leftover supplies to the very end, or at least donate to after school programs, nursery schools, nursing homes, senior centers, something.
    • Barbara W. 9 months ago
      You are certainly correct about brands. How about actually teaching about recycling in schools , and then practicing it. Kids learn by example!
  • Luanne S. 9 months ago
    Talk to your school about starting a Stockpile Area where all parents can donate excess supplies and those less fortunate can receive what they need through their teachers drawing from the stockpile
  • Geff M. 9 months ago
    Sweet! Take notice this posting is worth 10 pts as there are TWO black-colored 5 pt click boxes - FYI
    • Barbara W. 9 months ago
      YES, people need to actually READ all of the article and not just go for the points only ...checks and balances!
  • p g. 9 months ago
    I give my public school kids the minimum, rather than the excessive amount they sometimes ask for. A lot goes to waste when they have, say, 24, pencils per kid. One year a kid was breaking his pencils over and over 'cause he knew he could always get another one. Such as waste. At homeschool we use every scrap around and work pencils to the nub.
  • Virginia S. 1 year ago
    You can always donate extras to the homeless shelters!
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