Save Money on Back-to-School Supplies Even as Costs Rise

Have you received your child’s list of school supplies and thought “I wonder how much this is going to cost me?” Chances are more than what you spent before.

With widespread inflation and ongoing supply chain issues due to the effects of the pandemic and labor shortages, this year could be a back-to-school budget doozy. However, here in Vermont, there are some strategies you can use to save money and ensure you have everything on your list.

So get out that calculator – then send it with your student to school. They may need it for math class.

How School Supply Prices and Inventories Have Been Affected in Vermont

National trends suggest inflation has pushed up the cost of goods, including school supplies, by 9.1% from a year ago. However, you can expect to spend 27% more on back-to-school purchases compared to three years ago, in 2019.

A Deloitte poll showed that 64% of American families felt they couldn’t afford back-to-school shopping this year without using a credit card or dipping into their savings. These numbers reflect purchases that include clothing and footwear.

Vermont is certainly feeling the effects.

You can see the price difference from year to year, especially with brand name products. Sharpie, for example, is more expensive than last year, according to Andrea Clark, inventory specialist at Staples’ Maple Tree Place store in Williston.

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She said that while prices may be a bit higher overall on many products, you can save a lot of money by shopping at store brands.

So far, inventory is good, according to Clark, but that could change as the start of the school year approaches. Here in Chittenden County, most schools start during the last days of August or after Labor Day in September.

Currently, much of the inventory is on the floor at Staples. Clark said you can see boxes full of similar products stacked near their display. This makes it easier for people who want to buy in bulk, like teachers.

Ways to save on back-to-school shopping

There are a variety of areas where you might be able to save a few dollars.

It can be frustrating to see back-to-school ads everywhere, as many southern states are ending their summer vacations now, weeks before we do here in Vermont. But now may be the perfect time to find late summer deals. Keep an eye out for back-to-school specials and coupons, and that applies to online shopping too.

Some states have a tax-free holiday in August where sales tax is temporarily removed. This could mean saving the 6% tax you would normally pay in Vermont. With a 9% increase on goods due to inflation, you might only pay 3% more on average if you don’t pay sales tax.

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Connecticut and Massachusetts are the closest states with sales tax exemptions. Taking the trip can make more sense if you can combine it with a planned vacation so the gas money to get there doesn’t overshadow the savings. The Massachusetts holidays are August 13 and 14 when sales tax will be waived on retail purchases for single items that cost less than $2,500.

A row of backpacks and coats at the Pine Forest Children's Center in Burlington on March 7, 2022.

One of the best ways to save on supplies, according to Clark, who worked at Staples and Target, is to buy store-brand items. “If you have your own brand, you can play around with pricing, which is helpful for the customer,” she said.

At Staples, you can get notebooks for 35 cents, a pack of 24 pencils for 50 cents, or pay 50 cents for a composition notebook. While your list may appeal to some particular brands, there are plenty of cheaper store brand items that can help balance the expense. Clark says you can get tape, markers, pens, post-it notes and more.

Check these items out before they sell out

One of the best things you can do to make sure you find everything on your list is not to wait until the last minute to shop. Inventory and selection are all the better the earlier you make your rounds. Clark said back to school was their Christmas. So, just like shopping in December, expect stores to run out of certain products and long lines just before school starts.

Staples in Williston wanted customers to know they were open for business on May 18, 2020.

Clark said their lines can creep up from the register to the bathroom on particularly popular days. With staffing shortages affecting workers and new people being trained on the register, she asks customers for patience.

Teachers often provide their classrooms as well. So, although there were 30 folders available one day, they may disappear the next day after they have all been purchased at once.

There are two Staples in Chittenden County – the other is on Williston Road in South Burlington. As the most well-known office supply stores, they could attract families from across the county.

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Places to get school supplies that may not be a priority

Hoping to avoid where all the other students might get their supplies — like Staples, Walmart, and Target? Here are some alternative places to look. Some of them may have loyalty programs that can help you save on other purchases later.

Pharmacies like Kinney Drug, CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid usually have essential school supplies on hand. Your local grocery store may also be a place to find pens, pencils, markers, crayons, highlighters, and paper. Remember, these are great for buying the tissue boxes and disinfectant wipes on the list, which may be more expensive at an office supply store.

Trisha Shrum talks to her daughter Eleanor Shrum Myers, through her day one nervousness as she heads to CP Smith Elementary School to start Eleanor's second year, August 25, 2021.

Dollar stores are a good place to look. There is a Dollar Tree in Burlington and Essex Junction and a Family Dollar in Essex Junction.

Art supply stores often carry markers, crayons, glue sticks, scissors, and paper. There are local art supply stores such as Vermont Art Supply or you can try Michaels or JoAnn Fabric.

Vermont is also known for its local general stores. Many may have some of the products you need.

You can also shop online and have your purchases delivered to your favorite local store so you don’t have to pay shipping costs.

Contact April Barton at [email protected] or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.

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