When you walk into the store to buy school supplies for the year, you will find a huge array of items aimed at preschool through college years.

This includes a lot of stuff you really don’t need.

If you want to save money during back-to-school shopping time, do not buy the following school supplies unless they are specifically required or requested by your instructor, teacher or school:

  • Lunch box: If your student packs lunch on a regular basis, you will want a lunch box. But if packed lunches happen only during field trips, forgo the lunch box. The typical instructions on field trips are “pack a sack lunch.” The instructions are worded that way because teachers and chaperones do not want to be responsible for making sure all the lunch boxes and containers get sent home to the right families. The adults have enough to worry about on field trips with making sure the kids stay on schedule.
  • Big binder. I have seen many grade-school lists include this instruction: “no big binders.” Here’s why: grade school desk shelves and cubbies are pretty small. The zipper-style binders in particular take up so much space that students have to park some of their books on top of their chairs or on the floor at the end of the day. So don’t get a big binder unless you are told to for a specific reason. For example, my daughter was told get a big binder to keep her handouts in a high school foreign language class.
  • The really, really big boxes of crayons: Most brands of crayons come in boxes that range in size from 8 to 96. I don’t like the 8-color boxes. But there is a point of diminishing creative returns on the crayon box sizes, in addition to limited space in the students’ cubbies and desks. Aim for the 24 or 48-count crayon boxes unless your teacher or school specifies otherwise.
  • Colored markers: Unless you are told to buy a specific size / style / brand of colored marker, do not buy markers for grade school use. Parents and grandparents: you know what it’s like to get marker ink all over the kitchen table or the walls. Teachers and classroom aides don’t want to clean up that mess either. Get the kids some crayons or colored pencils instead.
  • Highlighters: College kids want / need highlighters to mark up their textbooks or notes. But the potential use is limited for K-12 students, where textbooks often belong to the schools and highlighter marking is discouraged because the books need to be re-used from year to year.
  • Academic day planner: This may seem like an odd thing to skip over for the high school and college students. But you first want to check and see whether there is one sold or distributed by the school. If you’ll get a day planner at orientation with the school’s dates already entered, why bother buying a day planner on your own?
  • Scientific calculator: You will see that equipment automatically listed on some back-to-school high school lists at the stores. They are, however, pricey. Don’t buy a scientific calculator until you have heard from the instructor that the equipment will be actually used in that math or science class, and what the technical specifications are.
  • Flash drive, DVD-R or any recordable media: You need to find out  which computer systems and connections are in use in the classroom before you purchase recordable media. I’ve seen people bring a variety of recordable media and gadgets to The Monroe Evening News newsroom and ask that my co-workers download pictures for the newspaper – but sometimes we can’t access the images because we don’t have the connectors for their media.
  • Computer for the college kids: Don’t buy any computer for a college student until you find out directly from your college’s information technology staff what the technical specifications are. This detail varies quite a bit from one campus to another, based on what we saw when my daughter was attending college open houses. You also might get a better deal buying the computer via the college’s purchase plan or at the bookstore than if you bought the computer at a retail store.
  • Liquid glue: The preferred glue in many grade-school classrooms is the glue stick form. Students don’t like glue sticks because they will dry out fast if not capped and stored correctly. But liquid glue creates a huge mess for the teachers or classroom aides to clean up when students don’t know how to handle it.
  • Ink pens: There are many teachers who insist students use only pencils in class. If ink pens are allowed, in many cases the required color is blue or black. Save your money and don’t buy red pens or other color pens unless you are told to.
  • Facial tissue and hand sanitizer: These items are popping up more frequently on back-to-school lists. If your teacher or school requests such donations, please contribute if you can. If they are not asked for, you don’t need to supply them.
  • Paint kits: If the teacher asks for a paint kit, get whatever is asked for. But they’re not needed in all elementary classrooms. Sometimes, the teacher already has a supply of paints that he or she uses from year to year.
  • Index cards and posterboard: You will likely need index cards and posterboards for specific projects at the junior high and high school level. But don’t buy them until you need them – or you happen to see a really cheap sale.
  • Dry erase markers: There are still classrooms in Monroe, Mich., that have traditional blackboards / chalkboards instead of the newer dry erase whiteboards. Dry erase markers are expensive, so don’t get them unless you know they will be used in class.
  • Scissors: Your K-6 student will probably need a pair of paper-cutting scissors, and there are some classes at the older grades that need cutting supplies. The question you need to answer before buying the equipment is: which cutting materials are considered safe and appropriate for that grade level?
  • Digital cameras and mp3 players: Yes, there are academic applications for such things. The mp3 players, for example, can be handy for foreign language classes. Digital cameras might be expected for art, photography or journalism classes. But don’t buy this equipment for school use until you find out exactly what technology the professor recommends.
  • Cute character erasers: You want a pencil eraser that does the job, not one whose purpose is to look pretty.
  • A padlock: Student lockers sometimes have combination locks built in. That means you might not need to provide a padlock until the semester or year when the student is scheduled for physical education class. Don’t buy a lock until you need it, or you might forget the combination in the meantime.
  • Specialty notebooks: Some schools and teachers do require composition notebooks, five-subject notebooks or “blue books” for specific assignments. But if you don’t know of any special requests for your students’ classroom, get a stack of the cheap one-subject spiral notebooks in assorted colors.
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