If you've been to a store recently, you've no doubt noticed row after row of loose-leaf paper, marble composition books, Elmer's glue and Fiskars scissors.
Although the start of school is still a couple of weeks away, now is the time to start thinking about procuring those supplies, plus the boxes of tissues, baby wipes, hand sanitizer and plastic zipper bags that are part of the class supply stash.
Gone are the days when all a child needed for school were a few pencils and some notebook paper.
Now, for example, kindergartners at Burns Elementary need, among other things, "3 sturdy plastic pocket folders" and "1 pack of dry erase markers," while students at Academic Magnet High School are required to have a $129 TI-84 calculator.
"This is daunting," said Jenna Wood Smith, a North Charleston mother of three, as she recently scoured the supply aisles at a big-box discount store. "I don't even know what some of this stuff is. What exactly is a 'clear view binder'? Why do we need five packs of lined, not blank, 3-by-5 notecards? A person could go broke buying everything on these lists."
In fact, families will spend an average of $96.30 on school supplies this year, according to the National Retail Federation's 2010 Consumer Intentions and Actions Back to School survey. Total spending on school-age children in kindergarten through 12th grade is expected to reach $21.35 billion this year.
The survey estimates that the average American family will spend $606.40 on clothes, shoes, supplies and electronics this year, compared with $548.72 last year and $594.24 in 2008.
However, they will spend more wisely. The survey found that 44.3 percent will buy more store brand or generic products, compared with 41.7 percent last year, and 30.3 percent will comparative shop online, compared with 26.4 percent last year.
"We used to buy new supplies every year: lunch boxes and book bags, everything," said Kathy Brock of Summerville. "But things were tight last year, so my children had to reuse some of their stuff from the year before. As a result, we spent less. This year, our finances are still tight, but now the kids have been using their book bags and binders for two years, and they need new stuff."
At the same time, she says she will look for bargains and sales and try to get the best deal she can on the necessities.
"I won't be buying the fancy stuff," she said. "For instance, they have composition books now with pretty covers, but they are $2.50, and the old marble ones are 50 cents. My two kids need a total of eight of them, so we'll be buying the old-fashioned kind and spending $4 instead of $20."
Here are some tips for saving money on school supplies:
--Before you start shopping, check to see what supplies you already have on hand. You might not need to buy a new 24-pack of pencils if you can find a couple of dozen around the house, for instance, or maybe you stocked up on two-pocket, three-prong folders during last year's back-to-school sales and you just need to remember where you put them.
--Some schools offer package deals designed to save parents time and money on shopping for supplies. For one flat fee, you can order all of the supplies, which will be delivered to the school. However, before you do this, check on what's included. Do you really need everything on the list? Will that binder really suit your child's needs? Will you still find yourself out shopping for supplies when school starts?
--Start shopping early. It might be tempting to wait and then hope for clearance sales, but that likely won't be the case. Go into big retail stores the day school starts and you are likely to find the notebooks gone and the Halloween candy in its place. Buy the supplies while they are available.
--Look out for special sales. Search sales fliers for deals. Staples, for instance, recently offered a few items, including highlighters and pens, for a quarter or even as low as a penny with a $5 purchase. At Office Depot, rulers were 5 cents, and a pack of six spiral notebooks was 50 cents. Which brings us to the next point:
--Shop at multiple stores. With a little searching, you might be able to find everything on your list on sale somewhere. At the same time, weigh saving a few pennies against the time, cost and effort of getting to the store.
--Many basic items are on sale, but fancier stuff is a higher price. Take, for instance, those composition books, or compare the price of binders with plain covers to those with a pattern. Buy the basics and save money. (But also know that sometimes you have to spend money to save. Charleston mom Wendy Patton said she bought paper folders for her children last year but found they wore out quickly and had to be replaced often. This year, she is buying more-expensive plastic folders, hoping that they will last longer.)
--Avoid buying trendy items. Although that Jonas Brothers lunchbox might still be in great shape, your child might balk at using it yet another year.
--Keep an extra copy of the supply list in your car or purse so that if you are out shopping and see something on sale, you can check to see if you need it before buying.
--Don't buy everything on the teacher's list. Buy the basics, but hold out on that box of tissues or hand sanitizer. The class will not need 30 bottles on the first day, or even the first month, of school. You can always send those later.
--If your child insists on buying something that you think is above and beyond what's needed, let him spend his own money on it. That also will teach him a lesson about finances.
--And finally, if you can afford it, go ahead and buy an extra box of crayons or ream of paper. In the long run, you'll save money when your child's supplies need to be restocked mid-year and the items aren't on sale.