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Tips for Finding Cheap and Free School Supplies

Updated on August 10, 2013
donnah75 profile image

I am a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing and enjoying a positive life with family and friends.

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A couple of years ago, I started to look around at new job opportunities, and I began interviewing at different schools. One of my interviews fell during the school’s summer school session, and they asked me to return for a second interview in order to teach a lesson to a group of summer students. On the day, I arrived early, and I was brought into the temporary summer school office to wait for the candidate before me to finish. As I waited, a young man entered the office and went into the small interior office to speak to the summer school administrator. It was hard not to overhear the conversation between the two, as most of it was at the level of shouting. The bottom line was that the student had been asked to leave class because he didn’t have a pencil. He was berated by this adult who told him that “he should know better,” and that “if he couldn’t come to school prepared then he could repeat the course during the school year.” I really wanted to give him a pencil out of my bag, but I wasn’t sure that I should interfere, especially since I was trying to get a job there. In the end, that was a defining moment in my decision making process to not take the job. Clearly, this student had failed the course during the school year. Was it really worth the battle? Couldn’t someone have just provided him with a pencil?

About a week after that interview, I interviewed at a second school. Knowing that at my current school we have a yearly supply budget allotted to us for classroom supplies, I asked a question in the interview about the topic. I was told that we would receive a starter kit, which included a pen, a packet of sticky notes, a packet of paper, a strip of staples, and some paper clips. Maybe there was more, but you get the picture. The supplies allotted by that particular school, which was located in an affluent area, were not enough for a classroom teacher to get through the first month of school.

These experiences make me wonder how many school districts do supply basic materials for teachers to use in their classrooms, and how many teachers have to put out hundreds of dollars to provide those supplies themselves. Even though my current district does give us a generous supply budget, I spend money every year for materials and supplies for my classroom. Over the years, I have found ways to stock my classroom on the cheap. By doing that, I always have the materials we need. I keep extra binders for those students who don’t have the money to provide their own. I have stacks of paper, so everyone can get started on an assignment without having to negotiate with their classmates. Plus, I never have to battle over pencils with unprepared students, and we can get on with the business of learning. Here are my tips.

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Staples One Cent Sale

In my region, July starts Christmas in July. The Staples 1 cent sales begin.Every year, I watch for the one cent sales. For several weeks, Staples offers a few items on sale for one cent. Read the flyer carefully, as sometimes there are rules that apply. The items on sale change every week too, so you may not want to buy too much for full price, on the chance that it might drop in price for the next week’s sale. For parents, there will be a minimum number of items that you can buy, and there may be a minimum dollar amount that you have to spend that day in order to qualify for the sale. For teachers, the rules are often different. In past years, teachers have been able to purchase up to twenty-five of each one cent item with valid proof that you are an employed teacher. I have walked out of Staples with bags of folders, highlighters, pencils, erasers, index cards, and rulers for pennies. Shop early in the week, as the supplies are limited and people flock to the stores early in order to save.

Update: (7/7/13) It seems that there are rules that apply for the teacher's discount again this year. Teachers can get 20 items for one cent, according to the Staples associate I spoke to today. This is a bit less than the maximum number allowed in the past. Also, you will have to pay up front for all items beyond the store minimum, usually 2, and then receive the money back through the Staples Rewards program. This does not inspire me to stock up like I did in the past. I was apt to spend more money at Staples as a whole when I was able to leave with 25 of each one cent item. Today, I spent the minimum to get the minimum of the three items that were on the once cent sale.

Freebies

Growing up, we never lacked for pens around our house. My mother worked in a hospital setting, where they were overwhelmed by free pens from the pharmaceutical companies. As a teacher, look for the freebie opportunities, especially when it comes to pens and pencils. One summer, I was a counselor at a summer camp on a college campus in Cambridge, England. At the start of the summer, we brought in a local policeman to talk to our students about the town, safety, and his job. He brought with him several boxes of pencils that said “Cambridgeshire Constabulary.” At the end of the summer when we had to clean up and go home, I ended up with the whole front pocket of my suitcase full of free pencils, which I was able to use in my classroom. I have collected free pens and pencils at events as well, such as at conferences. Visit information booths at local county fairs as well, as often local organizations will be giving out pencils.

Teachers, are you provided with school supplies for your classroom by your employer?

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Want Not? Waste Not.

During the course of the school year, if you keep your eyes open, you will find plenty of free school supplies. Students are constantly dropping pens and pencils on the floor. At the end of the day, I pick up these pencils and place them in the pencil canister on my desk. I figure if a student lost his pencil today, then he may need to borrow one tomorrow. At the end of this school year, several students left their binders behind. It took me about ten minutes to go through them and recycle the contents, but I was able to salvage at least ten binders that had no damage. In September, I will use that stash to help out students who are in financial need.

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Free Books!

As an English teacher, I am always on the lookout for free or cheap books to stock my classroom library. In my classroom, books are an essential supply. However, they are not cheap. I stock my classroom library, which consists of free reading books for students to borrow, in a couple of ways.

· I keep my eye out for yard sales. I have picked up a lot of cheap books at yard sales over the years. If you are patient, the seller may even let you have any books that are left over when the sale is done.

· In my apartment community, people leave books in our mailroom. I choose wisely, but I have found some great books there to lend to my own students.

· I offer my students the opportunity to purchase books from the Scholastic catalog throughout the school year. Although this is a tough sell for high school students, some students are interested. Scholastic awards teachers points for free books after a certain amount of sales. I have been able to get free books with those points. One of my co-workers in our middle school, where buying Scholastic books is much more popular due to their offerings, has been able to get hundreds of free books over the years.

· For the past few years I have organized the book sale at our union’s annual scholarship fundraiser. At the end of the fundraiser, we often will donate the books that didn’t sell. Some of them end up in my classroom library.

Final Thoughts

In order for our students to learn, they need to have the right materials. Just like the summer school student who lost out because he didn’t have a pencil, students can’t do their job if they don’t have something to write with. I suppose that some teachers may choose to fight the battle against unprepared students. For me, I can’t be bothered with that battle. I keep a canister of pencils on my desk, a stack of lined paper in a bin, and reserve the “come prepared” conversations for those who abuse the privilege of borrowing supplies when they need them. Because this is my policy, I find ways to gather supplies for free or cheaply. If you are a parent or a teacher, now is the time to start gathering school supplies before the September prices go up and the supply bins are nearly empty. I hope you find some good deals.

Written by Donna Hilbrandt.

© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt

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    • embee77 profile image

      embee77 4 years ago

      Nicely done! I personally go for the freebies. And I love yard sales. So many opportunities, if we only think of them. Thank you!

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you, embee77. I am sure there are more deals and opportunities out there. Everyone loves to save money, so let's all share those ideas!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      This is the stuff they never teach us as we study to become a teacher. I was constantly on the lookout for freebies; one become a very accomplished pack rat when teaching. Great hub Donnah!

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks Bill. I am a bit of a school supply hoarder :)

    • tfrickey profile image

      tfrickey 4 years ago from Copake, New York

      Love it, Donna! Great hub!

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, Tonya.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 4 years ago from Florida

      One of my Granddaughters is going to begin her teaching career this fall in Florida. I know she will be surprised when she finds out that she will be furnishing lots of school supplies. Our schools depend on the teachers to do a lot of this kind of thing. Great Hub, good tips.

      I voted it UP, and will share.

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Good luck to your granddaughter, Mary! Tell her to start the search early, as the deals start now.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 4 years ago from New York, New York

      As a fellow teacher, I too always kept a thing of pencils and pens for my students to use and never did feel the battle was worth on this one. Totally informative hub and loved how comprehensive your hub was to finding free or cheap school supplies. Have pinned, shared and voted up too.

    • dmhenderson profile image

      Dave Henderson 4 years ago from Missouri, USA

      I applaud your ingenuity but lament the fact that you must apply it to problems like this. Keep up the good work!

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you Janine for the publicity. :)

      dmhenderson: I admit that I am luckier than most, as I get a supply budget. So many school just expect teachers to furnish their classrooms with their own money, which, as we all know, is not even sufficient to put a roof over their family's heads often times. Thanks for the support.

    • carter06 profile image

      Mary 4 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      I loved your preceding story donna & your very generous heart as like many other teachers you go the 2 & 3rd mile etc...

      Well written & thoughtful hub...voted U A H & shared...cheers

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks so much, carter06!

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      See my update as of 7/12/12 regarding the Staples one cent sale. It isn't as generous as it has been in years past.

    • littlepiggy profile image

      littlepiggy 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Awesome hub -- some really great advice here. I'm in the process of publishing a series of hubs on back-to-school season, and will likely do one or two on the subject of school supplies. This will be a great hub to link to. Thanks for the info!

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, littlepiggy. I will check out your work.

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Excellent tips! I bet as a teacher you have many students coming to class without school supplies. Sharing and pinning!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country

      When I was teaching, I always looked for free and cheap supplies. I found that some good places were county fairs and trade shows. If you tell them you are a teacher a lot of companies are glad to give you pens, pencils, rulers, erasers and lots of stuff (that has their name and logo on it). I wrote a hub about cheap and free teaching materials, too.

      Thanks for adding the good tips about the books, especially.

    • TIMETRAVELER2 profile image

      TIMETRAVELER2 4 years ago

      Great Hub. When I was teaching, I never hesitated to ask parents to donate supplies to my classroom. Everybody always had everything they needed. By the way, the average teacher spends around $500 out of pocket to supply her room. Ridiculous! Voted up

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks Tammy. There are many families that can't afford school supplies, so being unprepared is not uncommon. Thanks for sharing and pinning.

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Rochelle & Timetraveler: Thanks for reading. Rochelle I will find and check out your hub. :)

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Excellent information here and I love your philosophy. There is an important lesson in picking one's battles, whether it is with a teen, a student, or another human being on this planet. Well done and I will pass this info on to other frugal folks! Thanks for the tips! Rated up and U/A

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, Denise. If I battled every conflict, I wouldn't make it very long. I say, save the energy for the things that really count. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Lady_E profile image

      Elena 4 years ago from London, UK

      Thanks. This was useful - interesting that so far most of us chose 3 in the poll. (Partially supplied). I don't mind getting some school supplies, it means I can get fancy stationary things for learners and they are never expensive. :-)

    • donnah75 profile image
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      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      That is interesting, Lady E, as you are in the UK (?) and I am in the US. I taught in London for a year about ten years ago. I don't remember the supplies situation back then. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • bridalletter profile image

      Brenda Kyle 4 years ago from Blue Springs, Missouri, USA

      this article is so timely, I shared it so others can see. I think teachers and parents can benefit from the advice. It is amazing how much less and less schools provide even though the tax rate we all pay gets higher and higher. I think it is sad programs like field trips and special classes drop. There needs to be a bigger effort gaining sponsorships to will supply and maintain what schools need.

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you bridalletter. It is getting harder for families fo afford the necessary supplies as well, so we need to all work together to find solutions. Thanks for reading and sharing. I appreciate it.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 4 years ago from New Jersey

      I think it is sad that as educators we have to put so much thought into making sure our classes are properly supplied. I remember when I taught at the high school level I was constantly coming "out of pocket" to make sure there were certain extras in the classroom, especially for projects. Apparently the situation is so common that I learned when doing taxes that I got a write-off for all the supplies I bought and the government knows and expects us to spend up to a certain amount.

      When I got to the college level and found that while students should be responsible and bring what they needed, instructors became quite interesting in their approach to having basic supplies. I know of people who charged students like 5 cents for a piece of paper or a pencil. Personally, at one point I let students trade me something of value until the end of class to borrow a pen or pencil, especially on quiz days.

      So, it's great that you offer ways to smooth over the situation of being under supplied. I find it interesting that the government speaks so much about how important education is, but supplies, programs, etc. are one of the first things cut in a state budget.

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Stephanie: I also think it is a help that we get a tax write off. I always spend more than that, and I expect that others do as well. Every little bit helps though. I wouldn't think that this would be a problem on the college level. If I showed up to a test in college without a pencil, I would have been asked to leave and take a zero.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • MariaTeresaM profile image

      Teresa Martinez 4 years ago from Philippines

      Teachers certainly have to be resourceful in finding ways to do what needs to be done. You certainly are in the right profession.

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you, MariaTeresa. Sometimes I wonder if I am in the right profession, as it is putting me in the poorhouse. Sigh. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Lovelovemeloveme profile image

      Lovelovemeloveme 4 years ago from Cindee's Land

      thanks! some really good tips. save a ton for back to school season.

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, Love...

    • Missy Mac profile image

      Missy Mac 4 years ago from Illinois

      I go to the neighborhood library for free books and Dollar Tree stores have been selling classroom materials. Good resources in this article. thanks.

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Missy Mac: I also utilize the library quite a bit for resources, dvds, audiobooks... It is a great way to save. Great tip. Thanks for reading.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      These are some very useful ideas and tips, Donna. Thanks for sharing. Voted up and useful.

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you, Rajan!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      I am not a teacher, but I stock up on school supplies and donate to my daughter's school. (This embarrasses her terribly, being a young teen.) After the mad rush in August and September there are frequently practically give-away sales at Walmart and similar stores. OfficeMax also has a rewards program involving turning in ink cartridges for credit. I save my vouchers and hit the sales, buying pencils on the cheap. I love a good deal. Not only am I recycling (the ink cartridges), but I'm also getting something for nothing and donating. It's an awesome experience.

    • donnah75 profile image
      Author

      Donna Hilbrandt 3 years ago from Upstate New York

      Flourish anyway: although I boycott Walmart, this is great advice. I love that you donate! Many families can't afford supplies and teachers are always paying out of pocket to provide. Your generosity is appreciated, I'm sure. Thank you!

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