I Didn’t Do Back To School Shopping

I Didn't Do Back To School Shopping

Yes, that’s right. Today my oldest son heads back to his junior year of high school, and tomorrow my middle son heads off to seventh grade. And yet we didn’t do any back to school shopping for them.

No back to school clothes. No new backpacks, notebooks, books, or pens.

But why? Isn’t this what everyone does – head off to the store and pick up hundreds of dollars of new clothes, shiny new backpacks and a fresh set of folders?

Sometimes it seems like it. But you don’t have to. I haven’t.

And no, I’m not sending my kids to school in a barrel with nothing. Instead, I’m very strategic about how we handle back to school here.

Let me tell you more about why we don’t buy into the back to school craze marketers hope you think everyone else is going, what we do instead, how we handle it when we do need to pick up new supplies, and what we do with the money we save.

Experience Has Taught Me Well

I’m an old mom now – or I should say “experienced” mom. (CMO, you’re almost forty, old will do just fine). I’ve been through the back to school ringer for years.

So this isn’t my first rodeo. I have to say I’ve learned a lot over the years about what’s necessary for back to school, and what marketers want you to think is necessary for back to school.

Back in the day, when I was a young mom and was new to having kids in school, I thought everyone always went back to school shopping . That it was important for kids to have some new duds for school, and of course they would need some new supplies.

I never really stopped to think about why. After all, that was in all the ads, and all over my Facebook feed my friends were dropping hundreds of dollars back to school shopping.

Wasn’t that just normal? Didn’t everyone do it? And since everyone was doing it, didn’t I need to do it?

The answer to all those is no.

Normal Doesn’t Mean Necessary

It may be normal, but it may not be necessary.

When you’re being marketed to, it’s important to stop and think critically about who wants you to buy – and why.

All the back to school sales running before school even starts tempt you to buy, buy, buy in fear of missing out on the amazing discounts. If you don’t buy clothes during tax free week, before school even starts, you won’t get the tax break! If you don’t get notebooks for fifty cents, they’ll be twice the price next week!

They also prey on the fear of missing out, that you’ll be the only (bad) parent sending your kids to school in *gasp!* clothes they wore last year. And of course they market to your kids to emphasize how important it is that they be wearing the latest fashion, or that they need to start school as a whole new person.


That’s the frantic message that the marketers hope you hear. They hope you’ll head down to their store, fill up your basket with supplies you need and don’t need, and send your kid back with brand new everything.

Why do you think they sell notebooks for a quarter? It’s a loss leader, just like the grocery store. They want you in to buy the notebook so you’ll spend more on the rest of the things they sell.

Just because marketers sell us a certain vision of back to school time doesn’t mean we need to buy into it.

So now we know that marketers create the vision of the perfect back to school, and stir up fear of missing out, in hope that you’ll buy, buy buy. And you know you don’t need to buy into it – but you still have kids that need to be ready for school. So what can you do instead?

Here’s how I handle back to school time – both before buying anything, and when making purchasing decisions.

Three Things I Do Before Buying Anything

In the weeks leading up to back to school, we don’t necessary go shopping, but we do prepare. Here’s the three things we do to get ready for the first day of school, without necessarily buying anything.

Try On Last Years Clothes

Now that my boys are older (well the 15 and 12 year old, at least) they don’t outgrow clothes or shoes every single year like they used to. As the weather starts to change here in CT, it’s important to check out whether last years fall and winter clothes will work.

Even when they were younger, though, their growth over the summer wasn’t guaranteed. Some times, yes, it looked like all their clothes from last year shrunk in the wash. But other years they fit just fine.

The only way to find out for sure? Try them all on.

Yes, it’s not kids favorite thing to do, especially if you’re the mother of all boys like I am. But it’s a necessary step to strategically assess whether or not something needs replacement.

By only filling in the true wardrobe gaps, instead of shopping because we should, we do save money. But we also save time in shopping which is great because I hate shopping. It’s also better for the environment because we’re not contributing to the huge and growing problem of throw-away clothes.

Shop the closet

Once you have kids in school for a few years, at the end of the year you’ll likely have plenty of leftovers. I know here at CMO Central we’re practically drowning in pens, pencils, folders, notebooks and the like from past years.

What we do is put the school supplies from last year in a specific location at the end of the year. Then before school starts it’s time to shop the closet, and grab those prior year supplies.

This year the strategy was particularly effective with backpacks. My oldest son’s backpack strap broke after being used for many years. He tried to fix it a few times, but it just wouldn’t stay together.

He was really bummed – his backpack wasn’t just an ordinary bag. It was personalized. He had it nicely decorated with patches and keychains he’s collected over the years. Fortunately, the closet held the solution.

In the closet was a large bag my husband had picked up some years back. It’s the perfect size for a fifteen year old, was plain black and had tons of space for patches and keychains.

So without spending a dime, he has a “new” personalized backpack perfect for an arts student.

Check The List

For some reason, my school districts don’t ever send supply lists home before school starts. This used to drive me crazy because I worried about sending them to school unprepared.

Not anymore! Now I wait for the list and don’t pre-buy, so I’m not wasting money on supplies they won’t use.

Once we have the list, I’ll go “shop the closets” first before buying a thing. They need a new folder? Maybe there’s an extra one around here. Twenty black pens? I think I have five hundred. Post it notes? I’ve got those in a junk drawer.

Now, of course, you can do all those things and still need to pick up some supplies. What then? Here’s what we do.

Need To Buy? My School Supply Philosophy

Does all this this mean I’m never going to buy them any school supplies at all? Or new clothes, ever?

Of course not. When they need something, we’ll get it.

And once I do determine we need supplies, or clothes, for school, there are three key things I keep in mind.

Buy to Last…

I’ve made the mistake of buying cheap when I really shouldn’t have.

You’ve probably done this too.

I’ve bought cheap folders that have fallen apart a few months into the year. Binders where the binding comes off quickly. Backpacks that break. Lunch bags that fall apart.

You get the picture. When it comes to supplies you want to be able to use all year, that can stand up to the kinds of abuse kids put them through, you want to buy to last.

Now, this doesn’t mean buying the most expensive things. But it does mean spending a bit more to get the lunch bag that will last for years, instead of the cheap cute one with pictures that will fall apart.

If you buy to last, then you’ll actually save money in the long run because you won’t have to buy replacements. But this strategy doesn’t always work….

…But Only When It Makes Sense

There are times, and items, where it doesn’t make sense to buy to last.

If your kids are going through rapid growth times, buying them clothes that will last for years is a waste if they’ll outgrow them in months.

If your kids are like at least one of mine and will lose their pens rapidly, you don’t want to buy them a high quality and expensive pen. Get them a cheap pack so you’re not mad when they lose them.

Kids can be tough on their things. They lose stuff, and they break it. So when shopping I always try to buy to last, but think critically and ask myself if this is an item where it makes sense to spend more. It may – but it may not.

Think Reusable And Timeless

When shopping for supplies now, in addition to really carefully considering whether buying to last makes sense or not, I also think of both reusability and timelessness.

There have been too many years where we’ve gotten a folder, backpack, or lunchbag with a certain character on it because the kid loves that particular character at that point in time.

And that’s great – for a while. Until that character isn’t cool, or fun, and they’ve moved on to something else. Now you find yourself needing to replace it, lest they be seen with an uncool cartoon on their backpack.

After one too many times of this happening I now think of reusability and timelessness when getting supplies. Instead of folders, binders, and backpacks with designs, I get plain solid colors.

Boring? Drab? Heck no! They can be personalized with removable items like stickers, keychains, or even their own drawings. Once they’ve gotten tired of the character, design, etc. you can swap them out for whatever’s cool now.

This strategy helps supplies to last until they wear out, rather than until the kid gets tired of them. You can make them fresh and new together every year, and still save money, time, and the environment over buying all new stuff all the time.

What To Do With The Money You Save

Many kids don’t have the advantages mine do. They may not have the option to buy supplies that last, or even be bought supplies at all.

I’m strategic about what I get my own kids for back to school time, working hard to make sure something is needed before buying it, and buying to last when it’s needed. That’s true.

One final advantage to doing this for our own family is that we can take those savings and use them to buy school supplies for other kids. Quality school supplies, that will hopefully last them for years.

So this year, I’m looking forward not just to getting my own kids school list, but also seeing what other kids might need. Being strategic about our own purchases helps free up room in the budget to help others.

What About You?

What did you do this year for back to school shopping? What tips have you found most helpful when prepping kids for back to school? Let me know in the comments.

I would love to stay in touch! 

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4 thoughts on “I Didn’t Do Back To School Shopping”

  1. Some buying for us is unavoidable as the charter school changes the list of supplies year to year. But in general we pick up school uniforms as hand me downs or resales at the end of the previous year. Also most other supplies are bought in May or June as well when the stores are trying to get rid of overstock.

  2. We do the same too! I call it “shop from home” first for school supplies and buy only what we don’t already have. We do luckily get a list in late July every year. And clothes I review as well: this year, only two of my three girls need long sleeve shirts (too warm to buy them yet!) and otherwise we are set on short sleeves and bottoms. I think our back to school shopping for three girls was ~$45 for supplies and $120 for three sets of sneakers (we’ve decided on shoes, its better to buy quality as my girls don’t grow very fast)

  3. Great tips for next year! This was our first year without school uniforms (I was skeptical of this for preschool, but it was really cost and time efficient!) so we ended up buying a lot of clothes this year. It was the first time we’ve really gone clothes shopping since the early days, so while it stung a little (it helped we had sales and Kohl’s cash), we’ll have leftovers for hand-me-downs, and we sized up a bit for room to grow over the year.

    The school supply list came out before the first day, and was maybe $20 all in for shared supplies for the class, plus a pencil case.

    All in, we’re feeling pretty good about getting the elementary school “raise” this year so it feels like a win. 😉

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