Back-to-School Shopping: How to Spend Under $50—Backpack Included!

affordable school suppliesThere’s something about back-to-school shopping that I just love.

It’s hard to resist all those shiny scissors and razor-sharp pencils (although, luckily, my soon-to-be first-grader doesn't seem to feel the same pull).

But my appetite for crisp new school supplies leads down a slippery slope: When a rainbow of notebooks and folders and cute erasers is too appealing to resist, how do you stuff a child's backpack without racking up a $100 bill?

Saving Money on Supplies

Kim Helseth, a third-grade teacher in central Montana, advises sticking to the list provided by your child's teacher. “We try to keep the lists as simple as possible so families won't have to spend a lot on supplies,” Helseth explains, "and we choose the supplies that are basic and get used up by the kids, or are used all year long, like scissors or composition books.”

To save money, Helseth suggests re-using items like scissors, folders and pencil boxes for multiple years and shopping the back-to-school sales in the next few weeks to fill in the gaps for cheap. She also recommends checking items off your list at the dollar store—depending on where you live, you can visit in person, or do your shopping online (most places have free delivery with a minimum order).

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What About the Backpack?

That takes care of the pencils and glue, but what about the backpack? Unlike other school supplies, a backpack can be used for many years (my daughter's is on its second year and was even used for summer camp), which makes choosing the right one even more important—not to mention the fact that kids are lugging loads of stuff around these days and need proper back, shoulder and neck support.

If you watch carefully, you can find great quality bags on clearance. Some companies, like Lands’ End and L.L. Bean, guarantee their products for life, which means you can get your child a new backpack if the bag is ever damaged. We even found a few great options that have been marked down from $45 to $15.

Back-to-school season doesn't have to be a money pit. With Helseth's actual list for the 2013-2014 school year as our guide, we’ve done some digging and collected a list of products that will keep your spending on supplies under $50 ... including the backpack!

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Item Details
Backpack | $14.97 Lands' End
1 Large Packet Loose Leaf Paper (Wide Rule) | $0.82 Target
1 70-Sheet Spiral Notebook (Wide Rule) | $0.17 Target
2-Pocket Folders | $1.00 Dollar Tree
1 Composition Book | $1.00 Dollar Tree
2 Boxes 24 #2 Pencils | $4.99 Staples
1 4-oz Bottle Elmer’s Glue | $1.59 Office Depot
2 Glue Sticks | $2.00 Dollar General
1 Pencil Box | $1.99 Staples
1 Box 24 Crayons | $1.79 Office Depot
1 Box 10 Markers | $3.39 Office Depot
1 Box 10 Colored Pencils | $1.00 Dollar Tree
2 Dry Erase Markers | $1.24 Target
3 Highlighters | $1.32 Target
1 Sharpie Black Permanent Marker | $1.00 Dollar Tree
1 Large Box of Kleenex | $1.00 Dollar Tree
1 Pair Scissors | $1.99 Office Depot
2 Large Pink Erasers | $1.00 Dollar General
  • Dana W. Manor

    you can get that stuff even cheaper if you go to walmart even the book bag. dollar store and dollar general although i love them are not always cheap, because for them everything is 1 dollar. like folders at walmart are 12 cents.

  • Kathy Burton

    We get the kids a backpack from Lands End at the beginning of each school. So they get one in kindergarten, one when they start middle school and another when they start high school.

  • Camika Lopez

    Great Article! Thanks! :)

  • summerblues

    Slightly unrealistic list for some of us. 2 kids, and need multiples of everything. Examples include: 2 reams of copy paper for each, graph paper, 3 packs of college ruled filler paper, specific brand of dry erase markers (12 each), 5-8 sharpies, 3 boxes of tissues, clorox wipes, and the list goes on…. WAY over $50 – and that’s with re-using backpacks for multiple years, and re-using poly pocket folders, pencils, markers, and pens.