Shopping for Back-to-School Supplies

Kids may learn best when they’re well-rested, well-fed and well-stocked with sharpened pencils, fresh notebooks and other tools for learning. School supplies, including books and equipment, cost an average of $500 per year for U.S. families with elementary or high school age children. Those sending teenagers to college spend nearly three times as much, an average of about $1,415, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. We’ll show you some ways to spend less when you stock up on your child’s backpack necessities.

When to Shop for Cheap School Supplies

School start dates vary across the U.S., with some elementary schools in the South opening their doors to students in the first week of August. Meanwhile, Stanford University doesn’t begin instruction for undergraduates until late September.

Teachers may send out a school supplies list sometime during the summer, and retailers try to attract back-to-school spenders with big sales and deals then. Sale dates vary, but are typically around the July and August time frame, depending on the start dates in your district. In addition, certain states offer sales tax holidays on school supplies at specific times. Parents in Arkansas can save on sales tax on school supplies on August 1 and 2. In Missouri, it’s August 7th through the 9th. Check this chart to see if your state has a sales tax holiday around the time you need to be purchasing backpacks and notebooks. Of course, some states never charge sales tax (or only in certain areas). These include Alaska, Montana, New Hampshire, Delaware and Oregon. Parents and college students, however, can actually get tax exemptions on their school textbooks, depending on their state. Take a look at our guide here.

The Best Places to Buy Back-to-School Basic Supplies

School supplies are widely available, from retailers large and small. We considered a handful of well-known stores and internet merchants and checked their prices posted online on the same day in late summer of 2015 for a basket of school supplies that might appear on a typical child’s list. Here’s how the numbers compare:

School Supplies Price Comparison (excl SH)

Amazon

Walmart

Target

Staples

CVS

RiteAid

OfficeSupply

Dixon Ticonderoga Pre Sharpened No. 2 Yellow pencil (pack of 30, or similar)

$5.97$5.97$5.99$6.00$7.20$4.80$5.70

Crayola Crayons (24 count)

$2.73$4.95$2.19$2.49$2.77$3.19$2.24

Elmers School Glue (4 oz)

$0.50$0.74$0.50$2.49$2.19$2.29$0.05

Fiskars Blunt End Scissors (5 inch)

$4.37$3.41$1.99$3.49$3.49$3.49$0.25

Single Subject Notebook (Mead, 70 pp, wide rule or similar)

$2.88$2.00$0.65$1.49$2.77$1.59$0.50

Binder (Avery economy 1" round ring reference binder, or similar)

$1.99$2.45$4.29$4.79$5.99$4.99$2.69

TOTAL

$18.44

$19.52

$15.61

$20.75

$24.41

$20.35

$11.43

A dark horse emerged during our research. OfficeSupply.com was having a sale and offered some astonishingly low prices on most of the items we shopped for, including a 4 oz bottle of Elmer’s school glue for a nickel; a pair of blunt-tipped scissors for a quarter. And a single subject notebook for 50 cents. You could buy all six items on our list for $11.43. The downside? You would have had to pay for shipping on the order, which added an additional $7.95 to the costs, bringing the total in line with most of the other sellers, at about $19.38.

If you prefer to pick out school supplies in person, your best bet—at least on the day we looked—would have been Target, which offered the basket of items we priced at a few dollars less than most other places. Your total would have been $15.61. Bonus: in typical Tar-Jay fashion, many of their offerings are quite stylish. So if your little one is looking for cute school supplies, Target might be the best option.

Price Fluctuations on Amazon.com

An interesting thing happened when we shopped for the items on Amazon.com. On the first attempt, at around 10 am on a Monday morning in late July, we found all of the items for a respectable total cost of $18.44, though you would have been responsible for shipping fees, unless you are a member of Amazon Prime, or added other things to your order to get over the $35 minimum for free shipping. (Amazon Prime costs $99 per year, but offers a number of perks).

Here’s where things get more interesting. When we returned later that afternoon at about 6 pm to double-check the numbers, the cost of many of the items on our list had jumped dramatically. The glue went from 50 cents to $4. The single subject notebook doubled in price. And the binder went from under $2 to over $5! These rather sudden price changes moved Amazon from middle of the pack, to the most expensive seller of our basket of school supplies.

We gave Amazon another chance the following morning. This time, the price of the crayons jumped to $3.50, though the glue was once again a bargain at 52 cents. The single subject notebook and binder price dropped too, so the total was $17.74 (note: the cheaper items were add-ons thus would have required other items in the order to total $25 or more.) One final check a day later added another 63 cents to the bill.

Amazon's Pricing

Mon AM

Mon PM

Tues AM

Wed AM

Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 Yellow pencil(pack of 30)

5.975.975.975.97

Crayola Crayons (24 count)

2.732.733.503.50

Elmers School Glue (4 oz)

0.504.000.520.52

Fiskars Blunt End Scissors (5 inch)

4.374.374.374.17

Single Subject Notebook (Mead, 70 pp, wide rule or similar)

2.885.341.091.09

Binder (Avery economy 1" round ring reference binder)

1.995.182.293.12

TOTAL

18.44

27.59

17.74

18.37

The fluctuations at Amazon presumably reflect the company’s strategy of dynamic pricing, that is, using information about supply and demand and about the customers themselves to set the offer. Notably, this sort of price-jumping did not happen when we double-checked the possible purchases at the other stores around the same time.

Where Else to Buy Back to School Supplies?

Surprisingly not so great were the “always low” prices at Walmart. The Avery 1 inch round-ring binder and the glue were pretty good deals, but the store had the highest price for the crayons, and the other prices fell in the middle of our sample. You would have spent about $20 on all of the items that day at Walmart, about the same as what you would have spent at Staples and RiteAid.

To pay the highest prices for school supplies in late July? You would have headed to your friendly neighborhood drugstore, CVS. While this store, and other drugstores, are well known for offering loss leader prices on popular items (CVS, for example, was selling Puffs tissues for 99 cents, and had HP Photo Paper half off), the six school supplies we priced cost more than $24 there. Keep an eye out for their back-to-school sales, though.

Get Even Bigger Discounts on School Supplies

Our research did turn up sporadic places where the price of an individual item from our basket was much less compared to the competitors. For example, you could get the pack of crayons for just $2.09 at DiscountSchoolSupply.com. But these deals often involve some caveats, namely minimum purchases. Discount School Supply only sold the binders in packs of four (and the minimum for free shipping was $79). Meanwhile, at Sam’s Club, you could get the Mead 70-page notebook for a mere $1.28. However, you had to buy a minimum of 12 of them (and have a membership to Sam’s, which starts at $45 per year). RiteAid was offering the notebook at 33 cents apiece, if you bought three and have a store card.

If you are shopping for multiple children, or just one with a lengthy list of needed supplies, these kinds of offers might help you save more money.

When you’re shopping online, make sure you factor in the costs of shipping, which can end up negating any price savings, especially for low-cost items like school supplies. At many online retailers, including Walmart and Amazon and Target, you can often get free shipping if your order amount is above a certain price point ($25 at Target; $35 at Amazon (not-prime); $35 at Walmart; $49 at CVS; $49.99 at Staples; and $50 at RiteAid, on the day we checked).

If you manage to save some money on school supplies at the beginning of the school year, earmark it for ice cream sundaes when your little scholar brings home all As.

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