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14 Back-to-School Supplies That Are a Waste of Money

Don't blow your whole back-to-school budget on items that will be quickly broken or discarded like magic ink markers that teachers never permit anyway. We rounded up the real essentials your kids will use, treasure, and maybe even keep beyond the school year.

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Expensive backpacks

Is there anything on the back-to-school supplies list that ends up more abused than backpacks? They’re shoved, dropped, soiled, and torn in a matter of a few weeks—which is why a budget-friendly, washable version is your best bet. Buying a designer label backpack for a little one is basically money thrown into the wind.

Parkland backpacks are affordable, made of recycled water bottles (how’s that for extra credit in environmental science class?), and come in a variety of fun colors and patterns. Plus, you can wipe them down or machine-wash them for years of future use. Here’s how to organize your child’s backpack for success.

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Giant bottles of hand sanitizer

Did your back-to-school supply list include a monstrous bottle of hand sanitizer? Don’t worry, that’s quickly becoming the norm, but experts warn that young children often love the sport of pumping out oodles of oozy, gooey fluids more than actually disinfecting and keeping a hygienic environment. Even worse, the germ-killing effects of hand sanitizer probably aren’t as great as most parents might hope for.

The solution? Try sending your little one to school with a container of Kleenex Wet Wipes instead. They can wipe sticky hands, icky boogers, and even work on cafeteria-stained shirts before getting them home to you. The wipes dispense one at a time, so you’ll manage to get at least the first semester out of a single pack.

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Overpriced art sets

Let’s all be honest for a moment, shall we? Buying one of those giant art sets with 300 markers and 50 watercolor paints will leave you out of a lot of cash, and most kids use only a few colors that they really love anyway (shout out to turquoise and pink!).

Your best bet? Scrap the major sets and opt for something you won’t mind replacing. A set of Crayola Washable Markers leaves your wallet intact and your new school outfits safe from permanent damage. Use these pro tricks to save money when shopping online.

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Sports drinks

Did you know that a lot of sports drinks contain toxic ingredients for kids? It’s true, and while they may be colorful, fun-tasting, and appealing to little ones, they don’t offer much in the way of vitamins, minerals, or protein.

Try switching their lunchbox beverage over to a protein-rich container of Horizon Organic Chocolate Milk. Each box contains eight grams of muscle-building, brain-satisfying protein, and they’re shelf-stable when unopened, so you don’t have to worry about lunchbox spoilage on warm days.

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Goo-inducing glues

Sure, the current DIY slime trend is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it has to extend to art class and book report-related projects.

Play it safe (and neat) with Elmer’s Disappearing Glue Sticks. Kids love that the glue goes on purple and dries clear, and you’ll love that it’s not being wasted in an art classroom corner.

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Flimsy pencil cases

Scrap those seemingly “cheap” vinyl and thin plastic pencil cases—most kids end up ruining, breaking, or losing them by the end of the year, and they’re not exactly environmentally friendly.

Invest a little more in a higher quality fabric or a padded fabric, like in this Yoobi Denim Unicorn Pencil Case, that will take your child through several years of use (and phases of expression).

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School-mandated uniforms

It’s not uncommon for schools to suggest their own uniform maker or supplier, but purchasing basics like chinos and collared white shirts from those retailers often come with a steeper-than-necessary price tag.

Experienced parents uniform their kids with budget-friendly basics from French Toast, a line devoted to school uniform essentials such as pants, dresses, collared shirts, and uniform-compliant cardigans and hoodies. There’s no reason to spend a boatload of cash for items that will likely be torn and tattered after a few days of playground use. Here are other ways to save big on back-to-school shopping.

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Crayons without sharpeners

If you’re on the fence about getting one of those little boxes of crayons or the behemoth ones with the built-in sharpeners, this is one instance where it pays to spend more. Why? Because usually those bigger assortments come with lots of shades of all the basics, so if you lost a couple over the course of the last school year, it’s okay—just sharpen the rest neatly and continue. Check out the back-to-school deals on Amazon.

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Glass water bottles

Sure, those glass water bottles seem to make a lot of sense for you, the adult in the room, but the last thing you want to send a kid of any age to school with is a container of glass. Even if you have the most responsible kid in the school, someone is bound to shove their stuff on top of that glass bottle, throw it, or clumsily toss it off a desk. It’s just not worth the headache, and they’re often far more expensive than great plastic or stainless steel reusable bottles.

Buy a set of Contigo Kids Autospout Gizmo Water Bottles and know that your little one will have a spill-free, danger-free year of hydration. They’re BPA-free too. Check out more back-to-school supplies that will make your child healthier.

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Old wooden pencils

Those old school #2 pencils we all used as kids did their job, but modern times call for better writing implements.

Forget the sharpening and move to brighter, more fun-to-use Paper Mate Handwriting Triangular Mechanical Pencils. They’re designed with elementary school-aged children in mind—they’re ergonomic, and refillable. Don’t miss the back-to-school supplies that will make kids love learning.

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Excessive apps and video games

A recent study by Temple University showed that all those “learning” apps may do more harm than good, and trigger the same areas of the brain as sugary snacks. Yikes!

Instead, a fun solution for after-school hours is getting kids outdoors in activities that stimulate them both physically and mentally, like bike riding, local sports, or zipping through the neighborhood on a fun Pulse Performance KR2 Scooter.

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Overpriced gym clothes

Unless your school requires a specific set of uniformed gym clothes, there’s really no reason to spend extra cash on flashy labels—they’ll be stinky, ripped, or outgrown in no time.

Opt instead for reliably on-trend basics that easily double as schoolyard play and gym clothes, like a pair of affordable Appaman Greyson Sweats.

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Erasers that promise more

Good news, penny savers! Erasers are one of the few items you really never have to spend more on and can be reused year after year. These Kikkerland Woodlands Erasers are an adorable addition to any pencil case, and cost pennies each when purchased in a set of 10.

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Cell phones

Most schools have pretty strict no-phones rules now, at least in the classroom. Rather than giving your child handheld temptation just to let you know they arrived, you can keep track of them (and their belongings) more easily by slipping a Tile Slim in their bag or jacket pocket. The Tile was designed to help people find lost keys, wallets, and purses, but just as easily helps you track your child, making sure she’s where she needs to be without any problems. Don’t miss these teacher-approved tricks for helping your kids get ahead in school.

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Disclosure: This post is brought to you by Reader’s Digest editors, who aim to highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we may get a small share of revenue from our partners, such as Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. We frequently receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We welcome your feedback. Have something you think we should know about? Email us at [email protected]