Back-to-School Brings Out Shopping Lists and Fundraisers, Too

I been sleeping in a cave for a 100 years? Sure feels like it.

I just read that as a nation, we will spend (brace)  $78.5 billion getting our kids outfitted to go back to school. And by outfitted I mean with all the “proper” electronic gear, shoes with all the bells and whistles (I would like a pair of those sneakers with little wheels embedded in the soles), backpacks, and of course the ever popular school supplies.


Yikes! That’s a whole lotta’ money.

Granted, I don’t have school aged children anymore, but come on! The average elementary schooler’s must-haves this year total $649; for middle school students, it’s $941; and for high school kids, $1,402 each, according to the ninth annual Backpack Index Survey from Huntington Bank in Columbus, Ohio.

Look, I’m open to being convinced that I’m wrong, but is this anywhere close to reasonable? Perhaps if you feel you must purchase an entire school year’s worth of pencils, pens, crayons, paper, notebooks, binders, calculators, printer cartridges; shoes, sneakers, jeans, slacks, sweaters, blouses, shirts, socks and undies. But I would find that to be a little ridiculous in that kids do grow, styles do change and, quite frankly, who wants to do all that laundry?

Spreading the cost over the school year seems more reasonable to me. Unless it’s notebook paper, notes, pens and paper. Those are so cheap right now at office supply stores, you really should stock up for the entire year.

So am I missing something here? I’d love to go head on with any school-aged family to prove to them that I could get the kids looking mighty fine and with all the stuff they need in their backpacks for a lot less than this projected per child average.

Okay all of you parents, students, teachers, administrators and grandparents … what am I missing here? Is it really that expensive to get kids back to school?

And while we’re on the subject, let’s throw fundraisers into the discussion.

Every year about this time I get a flood of messages that are some variation of, “I am so sick of my kids bringing home catalogs full of cheap, overpriced stuff that the school expects us to sell. How can we deal with this? I’d love some advice and insight on how other parents do it.”

I remember those days. Of course I wanted my kids to win all the prizes for being the best little fundraisers, which multiplied the pressure we already felt from the school and Little League. I pity all of my co-workers, neighbors, relatives and friends who got caught up in my web of obligation.

Personally, I’m married to a guy who is a big old softy when it comes to children bearing boxes of anything that they’re selling to raise money for their schools and teams. I think we still have The World’s Finest Chocolate bars left in the refrigerator from last season. And probably a tub or two of cookie dough in the freezer, too. Oh, and gift wrap and candles.

Now that I think about it, maybe I haven’t moved beyond the fundraiser pressure cooker season of my life, after all.

So, how do you deal with fundraisers? I can’t think of a better place to unload, share, question or even plead your case for your particular fundraiser of choice than by using the comments feature below.

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25 replies
  1. Fay
    Fay says:

    Staples, Joann’s, Office Depot, etc usually offer a percentage off for teachers year round with school IDs. Additionally most will allow the limits on sale items to be ignored with the ID.

  2. Older mom
    Older mom says:

    am retired, which means fixed income, and when my kids were young I did not send them door to door. How timely is your column, as a strange woman with kids was just ringing my bell! We have public schools, to which I pay a fair portion of my real estate taxes to support, and we regularly have increases for the district.
    If someone came to my door panhandling, I wouldn’t give them anything. Just because your kids are cute doesn’t mean I need to support them any more than I already am. If you know me by name, or as a neighbor said hello, that would be a relationship. Otherwise I am a stranger to you. I paid for plenty of gift wrap and candies and cookies and all along the way for my children. Do the same for yours.

  3. Carol
    Carol says:

    When my children were in school, it was difficult every time they had to sell stuff because we had no relatives anywhere near us, and I was (still am) a pastor of a congregation, so I couldn’t sell their stuff at work, either. That left only knocking on strangers’ doors, which they hated. I despised fundraisers.
    Now I live far away from all my grandchildren, but now they sell stuff online, so I am constantly getting emails to go to this or that webpage and buy junk I don’t need or want so the grandchild I love can earn some prize. I still despise fundraisers. I would rathe (and do sometimes) donate money directly to the need.

  4. Pauline
    Pauline says:

    The school only gets a certain percentage off of each sale. Instead of buying stuff, I send the school PTA a check for $50 at the beginning of the year – I figure since the school only gets a certain amount off of the sale price of each item, $50 would require me to buy a whole lot of things! So $50 is way more economical and the school gets 100% of the amount! And I also consider this the one and only time – so if other fundraising options come up later on in the year, I don’t participate…


    I was so tired of fundraisers that I just started making donations to the PTA/PTO. Then I didn’t feel guilty when my kids didn’t sell anything. There was also a chance to have another portrait taken in the spring as a fundraiser–never felt guilty about opting out on that one either!

    As a retired teacher I can tell you that I spent quite a bit of my own money outfitting the class. Whenever a parent would donate something I was always grateful, but I didn’t expect them to do it. There are a lot of parents without discretionary income, so I didn’t feel right asking for anything.

    To the parents out there who enjoy selling fundraising items–THANK YOU!!!

  6. Dan Waud
    Dan Waud says:

    The 2 middle schools where I teach had the same problem with fundraising, The community was sick of the whole deal. About 20 years ago the teachers and parents came up with the concept of the “Fund Run”. It is at the very beginning of the year. Students raise money per mile, or lump sums, and then they run 3 miles on a course out on the activity fields. Students are able to win a day to go to “the movie” (we rent a local theater), prizes for more money raised, most money raised today, etc. When we were just one middle school, 800 to 900 students raised about 35,000 dollars a year (in today’s dollars.) Now each middle school raises $20,000 to $24,000, with about 500 students in each school. Our promise to the community? We will have no more fund raisers the rest of the year. This money funds all the ASB activities, such as Junior Honor Society, Drama, Clubs and some of the money needed for sports (which gets the most share, divided among a lot of sports.)

  7. l
    l says:

    I work in a K-6 plus two middle schools district. We provide all paper, pencils, crayons, etc. There is no need for parents to purchase those things. We also provide tissue, We use hand sanitizer that is approved by our district. We ask students to have a backpack & come to school appropriately dressed. Fund Raisers–ugh! These are usually from the parent clubs organizations–sometimes I’m over-whelmed by the number of these projects. In my day we had bake sales, most parents joined the parent clubs, providing $$$. We put on dinners or breakfasts to raise money (as well as give students community service opportunities). We had school carnivals. Open House nights we had food & ice cream sundaes available for purchase,

  8. Sue in MN
    Sue in MN says:

    The fundraisers -oof! When our kids were in school, they were responsible for selling not Mom & Dad. In later years we were able to demonstrate that a cash donation to the cause was better for all, by then they had outgrown the desire for the “prizes”. Now we let our near neighbors and relatives know we will buy from ONE fundraiser or support ONE walkathon per student and let them choose which they value most. My niece liked this so much that she now follows the policy with her children & their requests. She makes sure when they approach someone they let them know it is their only request for the year.
    As for school supplies, our local districts supply the stores with specific lists for each school & grade (teachers come up with these in May & many share with families at the end of the school year so shopping can be done a bit at a time all summer.
    We send a lot of supplies to my daughter’s not-so-prosperous high school where she is the nurse. We especially keep her well-stocked with sanitary supplies, first-aid supplies for the classrooms & gyms, and sanitizers – the school-supplied quantity runs out by Thanksgiving. The staff shouldn’t be expected to provide thiese items, but that is reality today – millions for sports and pennies for support staff.
    When our kids were in school, from age 9 or 10, they received a budget for their school shoes & clothes based on need. Other than buying a pair of shoes, they were then allowed to spend the rest as they saw fit. One year, our daughter had only one pair of jeans for 1/2 the school year because she “had to have” the designer brand, and didn’t get a second pair until Christmas. This was never repeated! And both of my kids were willing to wear last year’s clothes, hand-me-downs and thrift store finds if it meant they could save their budget for the very desirable school sweatshirt or this year’s hot fashion.This only worked because we stuck to the policy and didn’t worry if our kids didn’t have everything their friends had .

  9. Birgit Nicolaisen
    Birgit Nicolaisen says:

    Good to know we’re well below average on back to school shopping. You can really get some great deals if you do your homework. And I love the $10 off if you spend $10. Makes for some cheap buys. As far as school sales. I usually just send in a check for $20 to the PTA and return any sales fliers with a note saying “we don’t participate in these”. I’m sure the $20 is more than the percentage of any sales we would get. The only sale I do is Girl Scout cookies…man those things practically sell themselves…. 🙂

  10. Pat
    Pat says:

    I use coupons and get free or almost free school supplies. I donate the ones that I can’t use to the teachers. If her class doesn’t use them she passes them onto another teacher that does. I was lucky and went to JC Penney when they were giving away those cards for $10 off $10, $20 off $20 and $100 off $100 so I got some great bargains for the kids school clothes. I do shop thrift stores too at times. No uniforms this year so much easier for me. She is using her backpack from last year so will be looking for a good sale on one later this year in case it breaks. I got pens and pencils for free and staples and office depot has them for a penny a lot of times. I usually get a back pack and all the penny, nickel and dime deals. Target had $10 off a $30 school supply purchase too. I got the kleenex and baggies cheap to with coupons and sales match up at Kroger. Kroger is so much cheaper than walmart if you shop their sales and throw coupons in the mix. I love their $5 off 5 items sale. Using coupons I can get even more off making some things free or almost free.

  11. Jule barta
    Jule barta says:

    Speaking as a former teacher at a low income school. Most students can’t afford basic supplies and teachers shell out hundreds of personal dollars to buy pencils, paper, and Kleenex. Let me add in hand soap, sanatizer, paper towels and other cleaning supplies for the room. I used to bargain hunt year round for these items. I want to encourage people to clean out the office supplies in their house, if you find a good deal on school supplies, purchase extra if you can and donate these items to your favorite school or teacher. We can never have enough printer paper, pens/pencils, and dry erase markers. As for fundraising, I personally hate these, they are a lot of work on parents, teachers, and the schools part. There are also a lot of door to door scams out there. I like one persons comment below, donate directly to the school.

    • Pat
      Pat says:

      Follow hip to save or check out her website. She puts out deals on school supplies and other things throughout the year. She is free and ex military so she is very honest. She also tells you how to help the teachers with donations etc.

  12. Jane
    Jane says:

    When my kids were in school I loved the band’s Fair Share approach – pay a set amount & NO fundraisers! Having been a Girl Scout & having two daughters who were also, I always buy GS cookies from any who ask. Dread the other fundraisers. As for supplies, I was shocked at the lists one daughter showed me this year. Obviously, the teachers were trying to get stocked up with tissue, etc. for the year. I don’t blame them as I remember how much I spent of my own money each year I was in the school system, but I do think it’s a shame the school systems expect teachers to purchase so many necessary supplies on their own.

  13. Betty Thomas
    Betty Thomas says:

    I know the list they give at schools is so ridiculously expensive. You have to be a good shopper and stock up when possible. An important thing for most kids at every age is a good backpack. Maybe you could take that on Mary for your next product comparison?? Even though backpacks need to be age appropriate in size and weight there are certainly backpacks out there that can last 1-3 years. I’m sure that backpacks is one of the biggest back to school expenses. Most of the schools in my area have a donation spot. People can donate school supplies and kids can “shop” the supply store when they register. I love the idea, no embarrassment and kids get to start school prepared for their job as students. As for fund raisers I donate directly, cash only to whatever my grandkids are raising money for, choir trips or sports equipment.

  14. Anitra Merritt
    Anitra Merritt says:

    Coming from the other side of it, I love dedicating a portion of my profits each month to a worthy cause including the schools in my community. People love my product and it is just an added bonus to know their purchases are supporting the next generation. The key is I offer amazing clothes
    that people can’t get enough of so it becomes a true win-win.

  15. Katybee
    Katybee says:

    Never participate in fundraisers except “spirit nights” at different restaurants who promise to donate a percentage of their income on the given night to the PTA/school. I try to be in touch with teachers throughout the school year and send in supplies on their wish lists, etc.

  16. Cara Day
    Cara Day says:

    One more thing though about fundraisers. As a Girl Scout from the cookie sales I learned valuable lessons about sales, deadlines, tracking inventory, marketing, promotion, customer retention, etc.

  17. Cara Day
    Cara Day says:

    Dealing with school fundraisers? I make a direct donation to the school, band boosters, foundation, etc. Then 100% of my monies support the program instead of just a percentage (read the fine-print on magazine subscriptions, cookie dough sales, etc. to find out how much money will actually go to the program). Plus, as a bonus I receive a tax deduction for donating to a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization.

  18. EAGarner78
    EAGarner78 says:

    I estimate that we’ve spent $435 this year to get our three children (one middle schooler and two elementary age kids) back to school. I purchased the prepackaged school supplies at the end of last year for about $155 total, $140 on shoes and $140 on four pair of jeans (taking advantage of Target’s 40% off jeans sale) and several tops for my oldest who has outgrown many of her clothes. The other kids have plenty of nice clothes that still fit them well, so we haven’t bought new clothes just for the sake of it.

  19. Kathleen French
    Kathleen French says:

    Mary, I am definitely in your hubby’s camp with regard to the fundraisers. It has EVERYTHING to do with how you look at it. I remember being that kid, who pounded the pavement hoping to sell as many “whatevers” as I could for my school.

    I try to make sure that my spending plan allows for at least one of the least expensive offerings. I look at it as a small donation to a local school (they can ALWAYS use it) and more importantly, an investment in that kid, who is trying so hard. One added bonus is that I can often use the item as a last-minute gift.

    BTW, I don’t feel the same way about the kids’ fundraisers taken to work by well-meaning parents.

  20. Will Derrick
    Will Derrick says:

    I never purchase anything from fundraisers. I donate cash. Kids don’t always like it or understand it but I explain that I don’t want their products and that it contributes a lot more to their cause to accept the cash donation.

  21. Danielle Backer
    Danielle Backer says:

    It’s required for our children to have these items. It’s not like I wanted to spend $65 total for my two kids things, but I did. Unfortunately when you get a school supply list that includes Kleenex and Ziplock baggies, it just makes me dislike the school budgeting process. This is where budget cuts come in – affecting what our kids have/don’t have in class.

  22. Sophie LaFontaine
    Sophie LaFontaine says:

    If I like the co-worker who’s trying to sell me something for a fundraiser, I’ll just go ahead and buy something cheap that I can give away. It’s a small price to pay to avoid unpleasantness, and this way, my home remains uncluttered.

    • Howie
      Howie says:

      I agree I buy things i can give away as a gift or things i know i will use. That way i am never stuck with clutter. One fundraiser i like was one that sold gift cards. I found that very useful.
      I shop the sales for school supplies but i also find not to buy cheep binders due to half way through school i have to buy new ones.


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