How much have you spent on school supplies this year? (Plus, 5 tips for splitting costs creatively)

I felt the same way when I got my son's kindergarten school supply list by email as I did standing in the middle of the big store packed with lots of people scrambling for glitter glue and Transformers folders: the rush of excitement of all the stuff that signals a new year starting, the thrill of the intoxicating smell of clean notebooks and dry erase markers, and completely overwhelmed about how much money I was spending on all that was already piled in my cart and all the crap left on the list to buy.

I am the daughter of an inner-city public school teacher. All through my childhood, I went with my mother to buy pencils, paper, and even chalk to outfit her classroom. Often, out of her own pocketbook. Even during years when our own family was pretty broke. Even during those years when teachers had been on strike and there was no income for weeks or even months. It was hard, but many of her students' situations were even harder. At the helm of the classroom, my mom just did what she had to do so her kids had the tools they needed to learn what they needed to learn.

Many years later, as a mother myself, I feel pulled to gather up all the supplies my son's teacher says he and the classroom need, without complaint, without question. I want him to be fully prepared on his first day and I certainly want the class to be stocked as they begin a year of reading and math and tying shoes and social skill-building.

But the list. Ohhh, the list. The list is long. The list is complicated. The list leaves much to be questioned -- Really? 3-ounce bottles of glitter glue? Where does one find 3-ounce bottles of glitter glue in a sea of 1.5-ouncebottles of glitter glue and 0.3-ounce mini bottles of glitter glue but nary a trace of a 3-ounce bottle of glitter glue? -- and has already cost me a lot of time and money.

I've been to three stores and have spent nearly a hundred dollars and am halfway through the list. Is it wrong, in spite of my wish to be a responsible citizen to this classroom, to wish I could just write a check and trust the teacher to gather up all the 3-ounce bottles of glitter glue she needs?

Clearly, I am not alone in this dilemma of doing right by my child and his teacher and his class but still feeling overwhelmed by the cost and time commitment of checking off every single thing from the school supply list.

According to the National Retail Foundation, families are spending an average of $96.39 on school supplies this year, up about $13 from last year.

If the price of reams of copy paper and disinfectant wipes and crayons isn't actually costing you this much, I think that one reason it feels so overwhelming is that there is simply so much other stuff to buy and to do before the school year starts. When shoes, clothes, technology, and other supplies are added in, the average American family spends $606.40 on back-to-school gear, even though more parents are comparative shopping online and nearly half of parents are opting for generic or store brands. That's almost $58 more that average spending for 2009. The result is big business in this country, with total spending for K - 12 students (college prep spending is its own incredible cha-ching, cha-ching moneymaker) estimated to hit $21.35 billion by the time the first bells of the year ring.

Lots of parents have tips for cutting back on costs while still sticking to the big list. Here are a few of my favorite bits of advice on back-to-school spending:

1. Team up with other parents and buy in bulk. Buying a case of alcohol-free hand sanitizer or reams of paper might not work out well if you are going it alone, but it will probably be a lot cheaper if you divvy it up among five parents in the class. Hit Costco, Sam's Club, or another warehouse where you have a membership to find deals on school supplies you can all benefit from.

2. Start shopping early.
This only works if your list is predictable or you know there are items your kids are going to need every single year. When pencils go on sale at your discount store, stock up whether it is August or April or even February. If your list is not reliable, perhaps the teachers in your child's grade would be open to emailing it out earlier in the summer so you have time to spread out the shopping and the costs.

3. Hunt through your desk drawers and closets.
You are not likely to find those damn 3-ounce glitter glue bottles in there (or at least full bottles) but you might find the notebook paper and glue sticks you need. It is worth a look in case you are surprised by marking off items before you even leave the house. You might also be able to put together a small bag of supplies you no longer need (that are in good shape, relatively new, not gross or gooey or gunked up or broken) to ask the teacher if she can use. My son's preschool teachers loved getting leftover scrapbooking paper, rubber stamps, name tags, half-rolls of masking tape, and even unused envelopes from bills. Check in to see if you can donate those items cluttering up your desk drawer and do a bit of above-and-beyond helping the class (you may even get a reprieve for the glitter glue for that kind of deed).

4. Cash in on rebates, sales, and gift cards. This can take some time, but putting in that time can also mean extra savings. Pull out those gift cards that have any money left on them and put them toward you school supply bill. Then hit stores that offer rebates or have the best sales. If you can consolidate all of your trips from store to store in one day, you might just save a bundle. Do steer clear of opening a store credit card just to get an immediate savings unless you can pay it off that day. Those "deals" never seem worth it once you look at how much you will end up paying over time anyway.

5. Ask if there are scholarships offered. If you can make room in your budget to buy school supplies, you clearly should. But if your family is experiencing devastating financial hardship, speak to the principal or teacher to see if you can get a full or partial school supply scholarship. Another option is to ask if you can bring several supplies a month over the course of the year or can volunteer time in the class as compensation. Whatever you arrange, be sure to stick to it as a commitment to your child and the person teaching them all year long.

To ease my own headaches with all the educational equipment piling up on my kitchen table and on my credit card, I've decided that my son and I will take an afternoon this week and make a scavenger hunt out of finding those last pesky items. I will try -- deep breaths -- to make the last bit of this back-to-schooling fun rather than stressful. And I will definitely add it as my calendar turns over to August in 2011 to room in my schedule and budget for the long and complicated list I will be sure to get.


How are you surviving school supply spending? And how much is this year's bill for supplies per child?

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