Back to School How-To: Where to Splurge and Where to Save on School Supplies

“As a parent, you don’t want to go overboard with spending,” admits Annalise Marcus, a mother of three in Ridgewood, NJ. “You want to make appropriate choices.”

While the number of items on your back to school shopping list may be daunting, buying smart doesn’t have to be. Focus on three factors to figure out where to spend and where to save:

  1. Durability: For products that kids use a lot, choose the highest-quality durable items you can afford. Check online reviews for feedback on how products hold up.
  2. Quantity: For supplies used in large amounts, like notebooks or pens, look for volume discounts and low replacement costs. Look for back to school deals and stock up.
  3. Total cost of ownership: For technology, consider the cost of component parts, like peripherals or supplies. If that low-cost printer requires high-priced or hard-to-find cartridges, or frequent replacements, you haven’t really saved money.

School supplies to spend on

In many cases, looking for a bargain isn’t just about the lowest price. Here are five instances when it pays to consider spending a little more:

1. Backpack: Students spend most of their academic lives schlepping between classes and home or after-school activities, so a high-quality ergonomic backpack is critical. “Cheap ones fall apart, are uncomfortable or — worst-case scenario — don’t support your posture, leading to back problems,” says Holly Rodriguez, a Richmond, VA–based mentor to high school and college students.
Pro tip: Choose a backpack that offers sufficient shoulder padding and proper fit.

2. Seating: Another place where ergonomics matter is seating. “A good-quality ergonomic computer chair prevents body fatigue from hours spent in front of the computer,” says Monica Benoit-Beatty, an Austin, TX–based mom. Even if the kitchen table doubles as a desk, your child will stay focused and correctly positioned.

3. Binders & notebooks: Because they get so much use, it pays to invest in high-quality, durable binders and spiral notebooks. For binders, choose thick plastic, ample binding and strong rings. For notebooks, look for a durable, tear-resistant cover and a hard cardboard backing. These features ensure products stand up to repeated use, like being pulled from and shoved back in backpacks all day long.

4. Learning technology: If your child attends a school with a bring-your-own-device policy, or if you’re tired of sharing your computer with your kids, buy reliable and portable tablets or laptops for school. “The most money, hands down, should be spent on the technology the student needs to get their work done,” says Rodriguez.
Pro tip: Shave additional bucks by shopping back to school sales and purchasing during your state’s tax-free weekend.

5. 5. Data storage & protection: Forget the dog — these days, it’s more likely that computer gremlins will eat your child’s homework. An external hard drive provides good backup capacity and a flash drive offers portability. A cloud-based solution keeps important papers and work in progress securely stored for easy access from school or when your child is working on a group project at a classmate’s house.
Pro tip: Teach your kids to upload their assignments every night so if they forget to bring them to school, the documents are easily retrieved for full credit (and without you having to make a special trip to the school office).

School supplies to save on

It makes sense to shop on price when buying these items:

1. Printers: Choose an inexpensive unit that uses readily available and affordable long-run ink and toner cartridges, and that enables wireless printing so everyone in the family can use it. An all-in-one model gives the most bang for your buck.
Pro tip: Stock up on ink cartridges during special offers for even more savings.

2. Repairs & replacement: Many manufacturers and retailers offer warranties and guarantees, some with optional accidental damage coverage. Always look for money-back guarantees, of course, but be choosier about signing up for protection plans for devices and appliances. Compare the price of the plan and the cost of replacing the item to see if it is worth it.

3. Screens & displays: If your child’s school uses flipped classrooms or blended learning, videos are an important part of homework assignments. Similarly, if your child does a lot of video or graphics projects, a bigger screen is better. When considering a computer monitor, opt for a television that also connects with laptops or tablets so the display does double duty for education and entertainment.
Pro tip: Save more dough by watching for low prices in your area and using your favorite retailer’s price-match guarantee. Some, like Staples, go beyond matching, offering 110 percent of the published price during the back to school season.

Spending smart on school-related products earns you high marks in budgeting and teaches your children how to make better purchasing decisions of their own. Those are valuable wins during the school year and beyond.

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