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Back-to-School Support

Faced with ever-growing lists, Guard families can save money and stress by using these strategies and resources

Reading, writing and ’rithmetic aren’t what they used to be—and neither is the list of school supplies. Over the past decade, families have spent 42 percent more on school items, and every year the list increases. Fortunately, you can use cost-cutting strategies and military community resources to shop smart. Here’s how to navigate the back-to-school landscape and win the war at the cash register—so you can enjoy the final days of summer before the kids head back to the classroom.


The breakdown

To give you an idea of what’s ahead, last year’s back-to-school purchases cost each household an average of $630. According to the National Retail Federation, that total broke down into four categories: basic items, clothes, shoes and electronics.

Basic items apply for all ages: pens, No. 2 pencils, pencil sharpeners, highlighting pens, erasers, notebooks, calculators, rulers, loose-leaf paper and binders. Backpacks and lunch boxes are also standard. Americans spent $98 on average for these items. Clothing costs averaged $218 per family—excluding shoes, for which Americans spent an additional $117.

Parents reported spending $197 on electronics. These purchases included items ranging from special sensitive headphones for elementary students to computer memory sticks. Because many schools are now wired with IT labs, USB drives are a must, even if your kids don’t use a computer at home.


Review the list

Before you begin shopping, it’s a good idea to start with the source: the teacher-approved inventory. If you’re uninitiated, brace yourself. It can be a lengthy list of “must-haves”—and not just from the homeroom teacher. Expect duplicate requests from art, music and physical education teachers. Requirements vary and can depend on your child’s grade level and extracurricular activities.

For elementary students, home room supplies usually include a pair of Fiskars scissors, washable broad-tipped markers, two boxes of crayons, two glue sticks and one dry eraser—an elusive purchase because it disappears from shelves quickly. Additionally, art teachers often want a separate box of supplies that mirror homeroom needs. Hygiene items are also frequently on the list and can include boxes of tissues, paper towels, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.

Middle school and high school requirements are fairly similar. They require lined composition notebooks for creative writing, journaling and foreign language classes. One-inch binders and plastic subject dividers are standard as well. Also, you can expect to buy scientific calculators and geometry sets for advanced math classes. Glue sticks and scissors may be required for projects.

School districts with uniform or dress code policies can also affect the clothes you purchase. For example, a uniform may require polo and khakis; a school’s dress code may not allow T-shirts, cut-off shorts or open-toed sandals. Check your school’s policy before you buy.

Other items are optional. Locker articles are an example: magnetic white boards for notes, shelves for organization and mirrors. A pocket dictionary is also handy, even if your child has a spell checker on their phone or laptop.

Once you’ve finalized your list, consider setting aside money for field trips, extracurricular clubs and unexpected fees. They inevitably pop up.


Smart Shopping

With the landscape mapped, you’re ready to make a plan. Consider these recommendations from the Federal Trade Commission:

1. Take inventory.

Check what’s already under your roof. Then set a budget and only buy what you need. If you’ve previously bought pen-and-paper supplies in bulk, you may have enough to last the year.

2. Discover discounts.

Start with your teacher list and see how much can be bought as an off-brand at dollar stores. Consignment and resale shops often offer deep discounts. 

3. Take advantage of tax-free shopping. 

Many states offer a tax-free shopping day. Don’t miss your chance to cut costs. You can find your state’s date at

4. Buy big items used.

For big-ticket items like musical instruments, electronics or school uniforms, consider buying used from a consignment shop, neighbor or friend.

5. Check return policies.

If buying a sale or clearance item, be aware of different return and refund policies. Always ask at the register. If a merchant’s sales are final, try on clothes to make sure they fit, and test that laptop before you pay.

6. Scout social media.

Follow your favorite retailers’ accounts. Many send coupons to loyal followers and announce deals on Twitter and Facebook, too. Others will send coupons to your mobile device if you sign up for alerts.


When the Math Adds Up …

If back-to-school costs start to stretch your budget, additional resources are available. For one, Operation Homefront ( provides a “Back-to-School Brigade” program that offers free school supplies to military families. To support this, Dollar Tree stores collect donations from more than 5,000 locations nationwide. Last year, more than 25,000 backpacks filled with supplies were distributed to military families. Follow this group online to learn when registration opens in your area.

Also, some retailers offer discounts specifically for military families. It never hurts to ask a store whether it offers military discounts. For those who live near a military installation, the Army and Air Force Exchange (AAFES) offers price matching. If you find a lower-priced item at another store, you can buy it at AAFES at the rival amount with proof of the competitor’s price.

Altogether, as a Guard family, you have the resources at your disposal to come out on top of the back-to-school scramble. With the right plan, you can get the kids geared up, save some green and enjoy the last lap of summer at your own pace.


Don’t Forget About …

Immunizations and pediatric exams. Although some have copays, most insurance, including TRICARE, covers child immunizations. Your main concern will likely be scheduling an appointment before the first day of school.

Until age 6, children need vaccines to protect them from serious diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu vaccines are also recommended for elementary school children.

As kids get older, the risks are different—and may surprise you. The following vaccines are recommended by the CDC for children 11 to 12 years old: HPV, for infections that can cause cancer later in life; Tdap, for whooping cough, tetanus and diphtheria; and meningococcal conjugate, to prevent two of the three most common causes of meningococcal disease. And, of course, don’t forget that flu shot! 

For complete vaccine schedules, see