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Tips for Finding Cheap and Free School Supplies

Updated on August 10, 2013
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I am a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing and enjoying a positive life with family and friends.


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.


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.


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.


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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