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18 Shopping Secrets Teachers Use When Buying Back-to-School Supplies

No one knows school supplies like teachers, so you'll want to steal their strategies for big-time back-to-school savings.

18 Shopping Secrets Teachers Use When Buying Back-to-School SuppliesDenis Tabler/Shutterstock

Skip the September rush

“The best time to buy discount school supplies is July and August,” says Aly Bern, who teaches second grade. She checks the flyers from all the big box chains, as well Michael’s and smarter niche stores. She also notes that some stores offer sales in the latter half of September—to get rid of their overstock, so that’s a good time to look too, if you can wait on certain items. Check out our guide to the best time to buy almost anything.

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Make it a family affair

“We give parents our school supplies wish list on the last day of school,” says Bern. “My co-teacher and I then have parents bring the supplies in at the beginning of the school year.” For the teachers, that wish list might include communal resources like boxes of tissues, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and extra crayons and markers. But there’s no reason you can’t use the same strategy with family and friends. Make a school supply wish list and send it along to the people in your life; you’d be surprised at how many items Grandpa and Aunt Carole may be willing to contribute.

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Start a swap

“For whatever reason, I always have way too many crayons and my fellow teacher always is overloaded with pencils,” say Emily Grant, who teaches first grade. She decided to create a closed Facebook group with other teachers to do swaps of school supplies. You can do the same with other parents—create an online group for school supply swaps and trade some of your 15 erasers for the highlighters you need. These swaps will save you big on back-to-school shopping.

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Don’t overlook dollar stores

“I get most of my discount school supplies at the dollar store,” says Kevin Bryone, who teaches preschool. “It’s cheap, and while the quality may not be the best, for preschoolers who often break everything, it’s kind of perfect.”

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Sign up for store e-mail alerts

“I usually wait for an e-mail from Staples so I know when the sales are,” says Kim Ferguson, kindergarten teacher. “They have great deals, like five glue sticks for a dollar or bulk folders at a great price.” The nice thing about these e-mail alerts is that they come to you, so you don’t always have to be checking their websites or stopping by their stores for updates. Use these pro tricks to save money when shopping online.

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Get memberships to key stores

“Lakeshore Learning has a teacher membership that will text me deals and coupons to my phone,” says Ferguson, kindergarten teacher. Parents can also sign up for memberships at certain stores to get discounts and access to special deals.

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Target specific stores for specific things

“Amazing Savings usually has things like bins and baskets that I need for my classroom,” says Ferguson, so that that’s where she goes for any storage items. You should make a list of everything you need and then target discount school supplies stores that carry those items. If you expect to do one-stop-shopping, you’re likely to pay more than necessary. Here are things to always buy at big box stores.

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Try Goodwill and the Salvation Army

“A lot of times, the stores receive unopened items that haven’t been used,” says Linda E. Martin, an elementary school teacher, reading interventionist and author of The Adventures of Wyatt the Riot & The Preschool Pig. “Good Will also offers special promotion days throughout the month where customers can come in and receive half off on marked items.” These are the items you should always buy used. These are the tech gadgets it’s OK to buy used.

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Don’t ignore department stores

“It may seem like department stores and school supplies don’t mix,” says Martin, “however, more and more department stores are jumping on the bandwagon and are adding bedazzled notebooks or character-themed pens to their inventory.” She recommends Sears, Kohls, and JCPenny—and they often have back-to-school sales.

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Buy in bulk for the entire year

“Parents usually buy their children one backpack in August and think they’re all set,” says Martin. “But things happen, and very few kids use only one backpack for the entire year.” So if you see that an item is on sale, don’t just buy one. Buy two or three because your child is most likely going to need it. These are the back-to-school secrets only parents of “A” students know. 

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Visit stores after holidays

Many stores run promotions and deals right after a holiday. “So the day after a holiday, visit your local store and head straight to the stationary and supplies section,” advises Martin. You never know what sale may be happening right at the moment. The item may be holiday-themed, but at least you’ll be getting it at a low price. And you can always pick up some stickers while you’re there so your child can decorate over the holiday designs.

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Head straight to the clearance section

“I go to stores on a weekly basis, visiting the clearance sections and I’m always amazed at what school supply items I find,” says Martin. She recommends visiting your store’s clearance aisle as often as you can. You may see a few items that you might not necessarily need at the moment, but they could come in handy in the future. 

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Ask for a discount

“I always shop in person, and when I check out I ask for discount,” says school supply buyer Michelle Myers. “You’d be surprised at how often this works.” Talk it up with the cashier, tell her you’re buying for your kids and are always on the lookout for cheap school supplies and ask if there are any discounts. It could be Friends & Family, a Manager’s discount, or something else the store may be be able to offer. And you walk away with discount school supplies. Here are the shopping tricks you’ll wish you knew all along. 

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Take a home inventory before buying new

“I’m always surprised at just how many supplies I have buried in the school closet, at my home, in the top cabines of the classroom shelves,” says Cheryl Wilder, who teaches fifth grade. “So before I go out and buy a ton of things, I double check to see what I have.” As a parent, you can do the same. Go through the basement, the kids’ bedrooms, the office and kitchen cabinets—you’ll likely uncover more pencils, pens, folders, erasers, art supplies, rulers, and highlighters than you ever thought you had.

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Give new life to old stuff

“I have so many friends who have since retired from teaching and ironically, they have tons of supplies,” says Wilder. “They’ve been buying in bulk for decades and are happy to get rid of the excess.” Ask parents who have older kids if they wouldn’t mind passing along their unused school supplies, suggests Missy Clark, a fourth grade teacher.

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Hit garage and tag sales

“I once bought my entire year of supplies at a neighborhood tag sale,” says Myers. The best tag or garage sales are those run by former teachers, principals, or anyone in the academic field. “You can get tons of cheap school supplies in one shot. Just be mindful: There are some things you should never buy at garage sales because they’re broken, unsafe, or just plain old gross.

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Take advantage of sales tax holidays

“On specific days, in specific regions, there are tax-free holidays,” says Myers. “When you’re spending hundreds of dollars on supplies, this is a nice saving.”

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Coupons, coupons, and more coupons

“I use websites like Retail Me Not; they have a special back-to-school section that has a huge array of coupons,” says Justine Rosen, who teaches third grade. Next, check out the back-to-school items that are a waste of money.