With the start of a new school year approaching, retailers are promoting back-to-school sales and parents are loading up their shopping carts with everything from calculators to colored pencils and combination locks.
According to Huntington Bank's 2012 Huntington Backpack Index, the average annual cost for school supplies for an elementary school student is $548, while sending the average high schooler back to school can cost more than a thousand dollars. No doubt about it: Back-to-school season means big business for retailers. The National Retail Federation's 2012 Back-to-School spending survey conducted by BIGinsight predicts that total back-to-school spending will reach $30.3 billion this year.
"I realize that parents are overwhelmed with the price totals for back-to-school supplies, but if they buy only what's necessary, it's much cheaper," says Maureen S. Taylor, a fifth-grade teacher in Norcross, Ga. With that in mind, U.S. News talked to parents, teachers, and experts to weed out the extras that kids of all ages can do without this back-to-school season.
1. Oversized or mechanical pencils. "Don't bring cute, large pencils adorned with plumes or any other accessories that might belong on a Las Vegas dancer," says Taylor. Fancy pencils can easily get caught in backpack zippers or get lost. She also suggests that parents avoid mechanical pencils because "they eat lead and kids refill them constantly." Plain #2 pencils work just fine, and they're much cheaper than their fancier counterparts. If kids insist on fancy writing tools, choose colorful or patterned #2 pencils.
2. Pencil sharpeners. Many classrooms already have a pencil sharpener, so most students don't need to carry around their own. Plus, as Taylor points out, "shavings get all over the floor and the adorable sizes and shapes they come in become play toys in minutes."
3. Dry-erase markers and erasers. Leah Ingram, a frugal living blogger and mom based in New Hope, Penn., says when her daughters were in middle school, "every year it galled me to see dry-erase markers, eraser, and dry-erase spray on the school-supply list, especially since I knew that many teachers were using SmartBoards and, to my understanding, you couldn't use regular dry-erase markers on the SmartBoard anyway." Ingram says those items often came home still in the packaging at the end of the year.
4. Dorm-room phone. Some colleges automatically tack on a charge for a dorm-room phone, but nowadays most students use cell phones because they're more convenient than a landline. Plus, if your college student's friends all use cell phones with area codes from home, your student may need to dial long distance just to call someone down the hall. Long-distance fees are just one reason that Kevin Campbell, president of College Planning Authority, a college planning company based in Texas, says parents "need to go through their bill line by line" to look for unnecessary add-ons. If your student isn't into sports, you may not need to pay extra fees to attend football games he or she probably won't want to attend anyway.
5. Paper dictionary or thesaurus. With online dictionaries and thesauruses readily available, most students won't reference the paper edition. "When was the last time you looked something up in a dictionary?" ponders Campbell. "Why would you possibly need a dictionary in your dorm room? So much of that has been replaced by technology." However, if your student does wind up needing to reference hard copies of books, you or they can always buy them later. Campbell says that's preferable to buying extra stuff that will gather dust in your student's tiny dorm room.
6. Cash. Younger students may not be ready to handle money yet, so if your child's school has an online payment option for lunch, that's a better bet than giving your child cash. Paying for lunches online gives parents peace of mind that the money won't get lost or spent on ice cream and snacks instead of lunch. "Every day at school, we hear announcements of money that has escaped from the child and found on playgrounds, bathrooms, hallways, and accompanied by lots of tears," says Taylor. "If you send money, place it in a labeled envelope in a zippered section of the book bag or on the floor of the book bag. Don't pin an envelope on kids' clothes."