It's crazy that U.S. households spend an average of $510 on school supplies every year.
It may feel like the summer has only just begun, but already stores are decked out with back-to-school signs and promotions in an effort to get families shopping. A shocking amount of money gets dropped at this time of year. Deloitte's annual report on back-to-school spending says it's the second biggest spending season of the year, next to Christmas. Twenty-nine million households across the U.S. will spend $27.6 billion on supplies, which works out to roughly $510 per household.
While some school supplies are necessary, buying over $500-worth seems rather excessive, especially if that gets repeated every year for a child's 13- to 14-year school career. Just imagine if you could invest that approx. $7,000 and use it to pay off your kid's post-secondary education; at the end of the day, that would be a whole lot more meaningful than cute pencil cases and themed backpacks. (Read about the power of unspent money here.)
You can fight against the consumerism that creeps into every aspect of our lives by choosing not to participate -- or, at the very least, by strategizing in a way that reduces the money and time you spend on it. This is how I approach it with my own kids when back-to-school season rolls around.
1. Second-hand is the first option.
Kids grow so fast and are so hard on their clothes that I don't see much point in buying nice new clothes. Thrift stores have lots of cheap, clean, and great quality stuff. We do buy new shoes, usually, which is the biggest back-to-school financial outlay.
Thrift stores have surprisingly good school and office supplies. I've found reams of lined binder paper, 3-ring binders, sheets of stickers, boxes of pencil crayons and lots more. Alternatively, ask grandparents or other family members and friends if they have extras kicking around.
2. Keep a stockpile of school supplies at home.
There's a good chance you have lots more school supplies kicking around the house than you realize. If you have a central location in which to store them year-round, they will be neater and easier to access when the time comes. 'Shop' there first before going elsewhere.
3. If you must shop, take a list and a strict budget to local shops.
Know exactly what your kid needs before hitting up a store, and separate those 'needs' from 'wants'. This might mean waiting for a detailed list from the school and not getting ahead on your purchases, but if it means saving time and money, it's worth it. Shop at local independently-owned stores, as opposed to ordering online, unless you're sourcing specific eco-friendly products (more on that below).
4. Buy eco-friendly supplies wherever possible.
There are some interesting products made from recycled and biodegradable materials now available. TreeSmart sells regular and colored pencils made from rolled-up newspapers, as well as pens made from recycled water bottles and denim rulers. Life Without Plastic has wool insulated lunch bags, a bamboo geometry set and rulers, and great reusable sandwich bags and food containers. Onyx+Green offers a range of recycled and biodegradable office supplies, as well.
5. Buy the highest quality you can.
Focus on buying 'durable' goods, as opposed to consumables. These two categories aren't always interchangeable, but by purchasing good stainless steel lunch containers, water bottles, and thermoses, for example, you can eliminate the need for disposable ones. These cost more up front but last for years. The same goes for backpacks and lunch bags. Buy non-gendered, non-themed, neutral-colored items that can be comfortably used as the child ages. What's considered cool in kindergarten is generally reviled by third grade! Buy metal rulers, good binders, scissors, mechanical pencils with refills, etc. and your kid will have them for years.
6. There's really no rush.
Despite the shopping frenzy that retailers would have you enter, realize that it is a false impression they're creating. Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, it's not as if school supplies and new clothes will disappear or become inaccessible all of a sudden. You can purchase them anytime when prices are better or your kid actually needs them.