Back-to-School Supply Shopping for Teens

Back-to-School Supply Shopping for Teens

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.  No, not Christmas. It’s Back-to-School season!! The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend $29.5 billion in the next few weeks to get ready for school. Billion. And just like Christmas, Back-to-School seems to start earlier and earlier each year. (My grocery store’s section was up 3 weeks after school ended.)

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Americans will spend $29.5 billion in the next few weeks to get ready for school. ” quote=”Americans will spend $29.5 billion in the next few weeks to get ready for school. “]

Most teachers LURVE school supply shopping and I am no exception. I get giddy when shiny, new supplies show up in the stores. I spend Sunday mornings poring over the sales circulars and dreaming of new pens, notebooks, and scissors.

But I know that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for school supply shopping. In fact, I have heard rumors that some people hate it. And I get it. Back-to-school (BTS) shopping is expensive, can be frustrating, and often requires multiple trips to stores for a random item. Boo!

And it only gets more expensive and harder as you or your child gets older. Most high schoolers won’t know what supplies they need until school actually starts. That’s means you have to go back to the store again! And then you have a schedule change, a new teacher, and different supply requirements.

Take a deep breath! I am ready to help you through the craziness of the next few weeks. Let’s start with my general tips for BTS shopping. As a teacher, I shopped every year for my classroom. My goal was to spend as little as possible while getting all the supplies I need. Here’s how I did it!

(Before we dive in, go ahead and grab the FREE checklist I created. You’ll need it for Tip #1 below!)

I’ve included affiliate links below. If you click on a link and buy an item, I earn a small commission. Thanks for your support!

Back-to-School Shopping: What Teens Really Need

Take an inventory of what you already have.

You probably already have half of the items you need floating around your house. The backpack from last year still functions. So does the lunch bag. There are definitely pencils, pens, and highlighters left from last year, too. Dig them out from the closet or under the bed.

Prioritize your spending

Go through the supply list and decide which items are the most important and expensive. If you need a graphing calculator, it’s probably best to reuse the backpack from last year. If the required supplies aren’t that expensive, maybe you can get a few more fun items.

Create a shopping list and budget

And stick to it. Believe me, I know that it is easy to buy more than you need. Glitter pens! Stickers! Colorful journals! It is easier to limit overspending if you know going in what you need and how much money you can spend.

Work the sales

Target, Staples, Office Depot, and Wal-Mart all have good sales on BTS items. Get the Sunday paper or check the sales circulars online. If you don’t coupon, start. Pick up the Sunday paper for the next few weeks and check coupon sites like Coupon Mom or The Krazy Coupon Lady for the best sales. I get supplies for free or pennies every year using coupons. Target’s app also lets you stack discounts with coupons. It’s worth the time to download and scroll through!

Buy generic/ and or plain

There are only a few products that I will buy the brand name (Hi Elmer’s glue!). Almost everything I buy is generic – pencils, scissors, notebooks, binders, etc. In most cases, you are paying for the brand name or the cute design. However, a plain folder works just as well as the adorable one with the donut on it. This can be a tough one. However, if you made a budget (see above), you can usually convince yourself to be frugal. Or you can grab some craft supplies and DIY those generic school supplies!

Back-to-School Shopping List

As I mentioned earlier, while middle schools often still provide supply lists, most high schools do not. Why? Teachers have individuals requirements and student schedules usually aren’t finalized until a week or 2 before school starts. So, the school can’t give you a heads up about what specific supplies you will need. However, you can make some assumptions about what to buy. (And in case you’re wrong, keep that receipt!!)

To help you prioritize, I’ve divided the list into 3 categories – must have, should have, and nice to have. To make your life even easier, grab my BTS shopping checklist and head to the store!

Must Have

These items always show up on supply lists. Buy them now while the sales are good and the color choices are decent.


Remember – smaller is better. Yes, the big ones are SOOOO tempting, but realize they can also quickly become a trashcan of crumpled papers, leftover lunches, and sweaty gym uniforms. Unless you are super organized, buy the smaller backpack. check out my backpack recs here!

Academic Planner 

student planner
Academic Planner from Order Out of Chaos

My requirements for an academic planner: full-size so there is plenty of space to write down assignments, hole-punched so it can go in a binder, and space to add extra-curricular activities. I have looked at LOTS of planners in LOTS of places and only 1 achieves all these requirements – the Academic Planner from Order Out of Chaos. Seriously, it’s the best.

Binders/ Notebooks

You can bet that a few teachers will require binders. Buy what you think you might need, but keep the receipt. If you can, I highly recommend using 1 big binder for all your classes.


I love dividers with pockets because then you don’t need to add a folder to the binder. Just my personal preference, though. You can also easily make these yourself using colored printer paper and sticky notes.


Grab 1 folder with pockets to set up your homework folder. I prefer the plastic ones because they tend to last longer.

Pencil pouch

Hole punched so it can go in a binder. Flat pouches, as opposed to boxy ones, are easier to pack in a backpack.

Pencils/ Pens

Generic pencils work just as well as fancy ones. And there are ALWAYS coupons in the newspaper. I haven’t paid for plain blue or black pens in years. If you love colored pens like I do, I recommend Inkjoy pens. They have great color and last forever.

Multi-colored highlighters

Highlighters have so many uses, such as note-taking and organizing a student planner. I also love color-coding with them, so get them in a few different colors!

Filler paper

This is WAY cheaper to buy during BTS. (I found this out the hard way.) Stock up now. I recommend going to Target or Walmart for this item because they have the best prices.

Should Have

These items help kids work more efficiently. If you have room in the budget, think about buying them. Most teachers keep limited quantities of these items in the classroom for student use, though. (Keep in mind that teachers spend their own money to buy supplies. They can’t buy supplies for 100-150 students.)

Sticky notes

We used sticky notes ALL THE TIME in my classroom. Note-taking, text annotations, jotting down notes, warmups and cooldowns – just to name a few. While generic is usually fine, avoid the dollar store variety – they don’t stick.


Middle and high schoolers cut more paper than you would think.

Markers/ Colored Pencils

Middle and high schoolers color more than you would think. You can get these for $1 or less (even Crayola!) during the sales.


Many kids use the erasers on their pencils super fast and need something larger to use.  Those pink erasers from your childhood are perfect.


Completely required for math and science classes at the higher levels. Most high schoolers will have to get a pricey graphing calculator at some point. However, prior to that, a nice scientific calculator will work just fine. They are reasonably priced and tend to last forever. (I had the same one for over 10 years!)

Nice to Have

None of these are required or really necessary, but they make life easier. If you have the budget, consider purchasing these items.

Glue stick or tape

Many teachers use interactive notebooks which require kids to glue papers into a composition or spiral notebook. The best prices of the year happen during BTS. Buy a bunch now. This is one of the few school supply products that I recommend you buy brand name. I have tried LOTS of generic glue and tape – it’s a waste of money. The brand-name product is worth the extra price.

Pencil sharpener

In my last school, I was the only teacher with a pencil sharpener. Kids came from the other side of the building to use it. And don’t get me started with the kid who has to use the electric pencil sharpener during a test. Just buy a $1 sharpener and be done with it.

Water bottle

Save the planet, yo. Many schools are installing water bottle fillers that make life much easier (and cleaner!) Just be sure to throw this in the dishwasher at least once a week!

Lunch bag

Keep on saving the planet one paper or plastic sack at a time. I have some ideas for lunch bags here!

No need to write all these items down – grab my Back-to-School Shopping Checklist below!

Hopefully, these tips and the shopping list help you save time and money this Back-to-School season! Let me know how it goes in the comments below!

Related Posts: Thrifty Back-to-School ShoppingBack-to-School Routines you can Start Now, Christmas Gifts that Will Make Your Teen a Better Student5 Ways to Make Your Teen’s Back-to-School Awesome

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