The 7 Biggest Ways You’re Wasting Money on School Supplies

A young girl shops for back-to-school supplies
Madeleine Brassfield, 9, shops for back-to-school supplies at Walmart. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
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Hey. Guess what? You’re probably spending too much money on back-to-school shopping.

Last year, the average parent planned to spend $122.13 on school supplies, according to the National Retail Federation.

Per kid.

Oh, and that excludes clothes and technology.

So how can you cut back on your back-to-school spending? Here are eight ways you’re probably spending too much on those school supplies:

1. You Shop at the Wrong Store

We get it. You’re a busy parent, so you’re probably focused on convenience when you stock up on school supplies at the drugstore chain on the corner.

But did you know you could save almost 50% by shopping elsewhere? 

We took a school-supply list to Walmart to see how low its prices were.

Our subtotal at Walmart? $70.07.

Our subtotal at the drugstore chain? $124.95.

Turns out, Walmart was the cheapest. That’s a 43% savings — excluding additional coupons and promotions.

Check out our complete back-to-school price comparison.

2. You’re Overpaying for Trends

Kids these days… they’re into all sorts of weird things we didn’t grow up with. Glow-in-the-dark glue? Scented pencils? Color-changing scissors? C’mon.

But let’s face it. Your kids want these things. And if you’re not careful, you can run up a pretty big bill filling your cart with these trendy supplies. You could save money buying these types of items at Walmart. For example, a 12-count pack of “silly” scented colored pencils costs just $3.97 at Walmart.

It’s worth reminding your kids, though, that a lot of teachers use community supply bins, where all the supplies get mixed together and distributed as needed — so remind your little one they might not get to hang onto that glow-in-the-dark glue.

3. You’re a Snob

A brand snob, that is. And we get it: Some brand-name items are simply better quality, but they’re also more expensive. When it comes to back-to-school supplies, there’s really no difference.

For example, a four-count pack of name-brand dry-erase markers costs $4.27 at Walmart. Opt for its store brand, and you’ll save $2.97. A box of Walmart’s Great Value brand tissues will save you 66 cents.

There are, however, two exceptions to this rule, according to Rebecca Stanley, a first grade teacher in Austin, Texas: Ticonderoga pencils and Crayola crayons.

“Ticonderoga pencils last forever because the lead seems to be stronger and doesn’t constantly break,” she says. “They also usually come pre-sharpened, which saves time in the classroom.”

And off-brand crayons are too waxy and easily break.

The rest of the items on your kid’s list? Save some money, and buy them store brand, unless the teacher specifies or the name-brand item is on sale for less.

4. You Don’t Shop for Additional Savings

Honestly, with so many coupon and cash-back apps, you shouldn’t pay for full price on anything, especially when it comes to back-to-school supplies. Walmart frequently has sales or rollbacks.

At the time we wrote this article, the TI-84 graphing calculator, originally $116, was on sale at Walmart for $88. A 12-count pack of Sharpie highlighters was on sale for $4.97, regularly $7.47. (But store brand might be cheaper, so check that, too!)

You might also wait until August and September to do your back-to-school shopping, when stores mark down prices to move inventory out.

And if you really want to live on the edge? Stock up last minute, around Labor Day, to capitalize on those holiday weekend sales.

Heck, some parents shop a full year early to snag end-of-season markdowns. (That’s not the worst idea we’ve heard.)

5. You Pay Sales Tax

At this point, we don’t really think much about sales tax; it’s a given. But what if you could avoid paying it?

Luckily, 16 states are hosting tax-free holidays this year, just in time for back-to-school shopping. Here are the states and dates you need to know:

  • Alabama: July 19–21
  • Arkansas: Aug. 3–4
  • Connecticut: Aug. 18–24
  • Florida: Aug. 2–6
  • Iowa: Aug. 2–3
  • Maryland: Aug. 11–17
  • Massachusetts: Aug. 17–18
  • Mississippi: July 26–27
  • Missouri: Aug. 2–4
  • New Mexico: Aug. 2–4
  • Ohio: Aug. 2–4
  • Oklahoma: Aug. 2–4
  • South Carolina: Aug. 2–4
  • Tennessee: July 26–28
  • Texas: Aug. 9–11
  • Virginia: Aug. 2–4

Say you live in Florida, where the state sales tax is 6%. If you stock up on $90 worth of qualifying back-to-school supplies, you’ll save an automatic $5.40. No, the savings won’t make you rich, but they’ll help.

Before celebrating your state’s tax-free holiday, check with its Department of Revenue website. Qualifying products and localities vary.

6. You Don’t Compare In-Store Prices

It’s important to remember that sometimes you can actually get a better deal by shopping in the store. Compare prices on Walmart’s website to what you find in the store. You’d be surprised at the savings you can find by shopping in person. 

7. You Forgot Grade-School Math

I was always one of those annoying kids in math class who was like, “Why do we need to know this stuff in real life, Miss Johnson?” I couldn’t fathom why I’d need to price a single apple from an entire bushel.

Well, well, well. My grade-school teachers will be happy to hear me say this: You do need math in real life. In fact, doing some simple arithmetic can save you a whole lot of money.

Yup — I’m talking about unit prices, the price of a single unit of product. When back-to-school shopping, you’ll find, like, 500 options for each item on your list. Do you want the 36-count pack of pencils? Or a three pack of 12? Or maybe you should get the bulk supply, and split its contents amongst other class parents.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve been in a classroom, Walmart does the math for you and shows the unit prices for each item on its price tag. Check to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

Carson Kohler ([email protected]) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. As a child, she loved back-to-school shopping. Lisa Frank folders and fresh trapper keepers? Yes, please.