When I moved into my new apartment last week, I had three laundry baskets of clothes, ten boxes of books, four storage tubs of yarn, and seven boxes of office supplies.
School supply season is my weakness, even more than day-after-Halloween candy sales. I have multiple boxes of notebooks and comp books and note pads, many of which have one or two pages written in them but are otherwise pristine. I’m working on my organization problems and hoarding tendencies, so I haven’t bought any school supplies this season yet. But I know a good bargain when I see one.
A quick glance at the studyblr community would lead you to believe that every dedicated student has the expendable income to buy Stabilo pens and Moleskines and Macbook Airs (and the time to study 16 hours a day). Greek life Pinterest boards are full of college “essentials” lists that include Kate Spade planners and dry erase calendars and white noise machines.
Few students–especially adult orphans–can afford such extravagances. And really, do you actually need that stuff to study?
In this post, I’ll go over how I spend less than $30 on school supplies each year and still manage to create a school supplies hoard in my office.
So, how do I get all this stuff so cheap?
First off, I wait until the end of school supply season to get the bulk of my supplies, because that’s when everything is pretty much free. And I don’t buy things I don’t think I need.
Chances are, you don’t need more than a notebook and pen for the first week or so of classes. A pack of 10 pens and a spiral notebook will set you back two dollars at most. That’s if you’re going to Staples instead of Target and you have no coupons.
When I go school shopping, I don’t buy stuff I wouldn’t use. I don’t have a need for pencil sharpeners or rubber erasers or planners. I may be a hoarder, but I’m a selective hoarder. I stick to the basics with school supplies shopping.
Bare Bones School Supplies List
- #2 pencils
- notebook paper
If you’re a minimalist, you can get through a semester–or even an entire school year–with just these school supplies and shell out maybe $10 if you don’t get a sweet backpack rebate.
Note: why did I list pencils instead of pens? If these are the only five items you purchase for the entire school year, you’ll want pencils instead of pens because of the dreaded Scantron exams. Sure, the TA will hand out stubby little pencils, but those have no erasers and you need an eraser.
Essential College School Supplies
My 10 Must-Have School Supplies
- backpack or tote bag
- water bottle
- #2 pencils
- spiral or composition notebooks, or loose leaf notebook paper
- binder or folders
- index cards
- post-its or page flags
Why Did You Include x but not y?
This isn’t a dorm packing list, because I’ve never lived in a dorm and there are plenty of lists out there for that need. This is strictly the stuff you need for class, and they’re the things you need.
Things like flash drives, laptops, and planners are really nice to have–but they’re conveniences, not necessities. You can get by without them or find alternatives: Google Drive and Dropbox as substitutes for flash drives, computer labs instead of a laptop, bullet journals instead of a planner. You can even find a printable planner to put in your binder, like I do!
Even the umbrella and water bottle are conveniences, but I use them enough that they’re worth the investment. I get stuck in the rain between classes all the time, and having water in class will keep you hydrated and focused.
School Supplies Stock Up Price List
Here are my personal stock-up prices for school supplies. The deals you see on the shelf are usually pretty good during school supply season, but if you take the time to match up coupons and sale cycles with different stores, you can get a lot more bang for your buck.
How to Save on School Supplies
Name Brand vs. Store Brand
Store brand is almost always cheaper than name brand, whether it’s food or school supplies. I grew up on a restricted income, and even as an adult I try to stick to a grocery budget. I buy Hy-Vee pasta instead of Barilla and Great Value trash bags instead of Glad. The products are usually identical, or at least comparable, and I can’t justify the extra dollar or two that’s really just paying for a marketing team and package designer.
This is especially true for school supplies. No one in your 8am Friday class cares if you have a Walmart backpack or a Kate Spade purse, because they’re all too tired or hungover to notice. Save your money for important things like Netflix and snacks.
I do make a few name brand exceptions when they are cheaper, however. When it comes to school supplies, I get pretty particular about my pens, so I would rather use InkJoys or Sharpies instead of the Staples house brand. If you time your shopping right during school supply season, you can combine coupons with store sales to get name brand stuff for a lot cheaper–or even free!
Things I regularly get for free with coupon-sale matchups: Bic Crystal pens, Bic mechanical pencils, InkJoy pens, Sharpies, Post-Its, Mead one-subject notebooks.
Most stores have some kind of rebate deal where you buy x amount of stuff and get a free item or cash back. This is a great way to get a pricier item you wouldn’t have bought otherwise, or to take advantage of great freebie sales. I see these rebates a lot with backpacks, lunch boxes, and printer paper, which is why so many of my stock-up prices are FREE. It takes a little bit of research and even some coupon clipping, but you can get so many of your school supplies for free.
Target frequently has a buy $X get $X off coupons and great store-brand Cartwheel deals during school supply season. Combine with manufacturer coupons and printable Target coupons and you can usually get a ton of free things–I have a lot of free Post-Its and Sharpie pens from combining Target sales, Cartwheels, and manufacturer coupons.
Staples has a 110% price match guarantee. If they have a notebook for a dollar and Target’s is 50c, they’ll ring up as 45c. They also frequently have 20% off paper supplies coupons and 25% off one item coupons, so keep an eye on your local paper and their website for coupons.
Most of the school supply coupons I find are through coupons.com and newspaper inserts, but there are a lot of great blogs that list store-coupon matches so you can find only the coupons you want.
Krazy Coupon Lady highlights great individual deals and people’s cheap stock-up hauls.
Totally Target matches up the weekly sales with coupons.
Cuckoo for Coupon Deals matches up the best sales and coupons for individual items.
Fat Wallet collects all the school supply coupons on one page for easy printing.
Passionate Penny Pincher has a stock-up list specific to Target and Walmart.
What are some of your favorite school supplies? Let me know in the comments below!
And be sure to check out the Orphan Survival Guide Tumblr, where I will be hosting a school supplies giveaway this weekend!