These Teachers Find Creative Ways to Economize on School Supplies

Hawaii second-grade teacher Brenda Barker poses in her classroom.
Hawaii second-grade teacher Brenda Barker relies on her own ingenuity and money to equip and decorate her classroom affordably. Photo courtesy of Brenda Barker

Hawaii second-grade teacher Brenda Barker is one part educator, one part crafter and one part bargain shopper.

“There’s always a way to make things usable,” said Barker, who wielded green spray paint to transform a rusty, discarded file sorter into a drying rack for her students’ artwork last week, just before the start of the school year.

As classes resume this fall, Barker and thousands of other teachers across the U.S., have to get creative to equip their classrooms adequately. They dig into their own pockets, hamstrung by tight school budgets, and rely on their ingenuity.

Los Angeles-area high school English teacher Donna Kaminsky tackles the challenge by encouraging friends who go to conferences to bring back free pens and donate them to her classroom.

Kaminsky, an avid biker, once rented a motorcycle in Chicago and asked whether she could keep the pen she used to sign the contract. When she explained her situation, the company gave her a box of Harley-Davidson pens for her students.

“Every hotel I stay at, I steal all the pens,” Kaminsky said with a chuckle.

The 30-year teaching veteran also employs more conventional ways of making sure her students, who largely come from disadvantaged homes, have what they need. She shops back-to-school sales for ruled paper, notebooks and, yes, pens at Staples, Office Depot and Michaels. All offer discounts for teachers — especially at the beginning of the school year, she said. Unlike in more affluent districts, Kaminsky can’t rely on parents to fill in the gaps.

“My students bring absolutely nothing to school,” she said. “Many have nothing.”

Even in districts where families are more fortunate, teachers — whose average salary is estimated at $60,483 by the National Education Association — find themselves faced with similar challenges.

Laurie Fuller, an eighth-grade language arts teacher in Maitland, Florida, said it’s also not unusual for her students to come to class without folders, notebooks or pencils. Her main goal, however, is to buy books for her classroom library that will interest 13- and 14-year-olds enough to instill a love of reading.

One of her strategies is to scour public libraries for gently used books at a good price. She also set up an Amazon page with a list of titles she’d like people to donate, including novels, biographies and nonfiction volumes.

“Teachers really do have to be creative,” said Fuller, who teaches in a state where teacher pay is about $10,000 less than the national average. “Much to my chagrin, I spend way more money out of our [her and her husband’s] pocket than I should.”

Fundraising, Donations and Wise Shopping

Elementary school teacher Sophie Gray shops the back-to-school deals at a Target store in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Monday July 31, 2017.
Elementary school teacher Sophie Gray shops the back-to-school deals at a Target store in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Monday July 31, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Many teachers rely on, a website for funding requests that has raised $713 million since it was founded in 2000 by a Bronx, New York, history teacher. Current appeals seek Geiger counters, Chromebooks, ukuleles, basketballs, comfortable floor seating, sweatpants for low-income students and materials to make blankets for homeless children.

Some districts have access to nonprofit stores that let them “shop” for donated supplies for free. The one in Barker’s area, the island of Kauai, is called Kumu’s Cupboard. It’s open to public, private and charter school teachers, counselors and teaching assistants.

In Orlando, Florida, the 20-year-old A Gift for Teaching runs a back-to-school drive from the beginning of August through mid-September. The charity says teachers shell out an average of $500 to $1,000 each year to provide their students with supplies.

Another approach is to pound the pavement. Teachers have hit up pizza parlors for stacks of boxes to transform into solar ovens and grocery stores for polystyrene trays for other science projects, said Brandon Haught, who teaches environmental science to high school freshmen in Orange City, Florida, a city between Orlando and Daytona Beach. Some schools form partnerships with local companies, which hold supply drives and offer other support.

Haught’s school provides teachers with a budget of $200 a year for materials such as paper, markers and poster board, but he says it’s not enough to meet the needs of his 170 students.

“Throughout the year I constantly run out of stuff,” said Haught, who estimates he spends a couple hundred dollars annually of his own money on essentials such as Band-Aids and notebooks. “A box of pencils is not expensive,” he said. “But when you buy box after box after box, it adds up.”

Active PTAs, like the one at Rebecca Stanley’s school in Austin, Texas, are a godsend to teachers. With the help of the organization, the school throws a giant carnival and runs a silent auction to raise funds. Businesses donate gift cards, dinners and nail-spa visits, said Stanley, a first-grade teacher.

Even so, she frequents thrift stores, Dollar Tree and Target’s $1 section, where she scouts for plastic baskets and bins and decorative borders for bulletin boards. She also stocks her classroom with hand-me-downs and gifts, such as magnetic letters, books and educational games, from retired teachers, friends and relatives.

“If I just walked into a classroom and used what was left for me, it would be difficult,” Stanley said.

Cristina Paz, a third-grade teacher in Tampa, Florida, favors stores including Hobby Lobby (save with these coupons) and Michaels, particularly during seasonal clearance sales. She’s after butcher paper as a background for wall decorations, miniature lanterns for her reading nook and garland to decorate pencils.

“The Dollar Tree is like teacher heaven,” said Paz, who has laid out her own money to finance classroom science experiments. “Everything really is a dollar.”

While teachers may not like dipping into their personal budgets, many said they do it willingly to ensure that their children get a good education.

“They do appreciate that I got something special for them [even] at a garage sale,” Barker said. “It does push them to be better students when I go out of my way to be a better teacher.”

Susan Jacobson is a former editor at The Penny Hoarder.