Shopping for all the things you need to get back to school—books, supplies, clothes, and more—can put a serious dent in your budget. For the 2013-2014 school year, educators spent an average of $513 out-of-pocket on classroom supplies, instructional materials and other work-related purchases, says Marci Hansen, CMO for SheerID, a company that verifies teacher and faculty credentials. The finding came from last year’s survey of teachers, in partnership with Agile Education Marketing.
It pays to look for deals, coupons, special offers and tools that help you trim the cost of shopping a little—or a lot.
Here are nine tips from NEA Member Benefits. to get you back to school without blowing your budget.
1. Shop educator-specific sites
“As educators work tirelessly to prepare students to become career and college ready, the last thing they should have to worry about is whether they can afford the learning materials that are vital for academic achievement,” says Kate Whiting, CEO of Educents, an online marketplace for affordable educational products.
She notes half of the $3.2 billion that public school teachers spent on instructional materials in the 2012-2013 school year—$1.6 billion—came out of teachers’ own pockets, according to a study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA).
“Our mission with Educents is to provide reasonably priced K-12 curriculum products that challenge educational inequity,” says Whiting. Educators typically wait up to three months to get the classroom materials they need. Educents makes it possible to get them within three to five business days—and reduce out-of-pocket costs—by working with the schools directly, she explains. “And it’s working.” In just two years, they’ve saved educators more than $15 million and have helped more many teachers gain access to affordable educational materials.
2. Share your wish list
If you hand out a classroom “wish list” to tell parents what you need, save on time and copying by posting your list online, suggests Kathryn Lagden, who works for TeacherLists.com and is vice president of strategy for the site’s parent company, School Family Media.
“Declining school budgets make it more and more necessary for teachers to figure out creative solutions to keep try to their classrooms supplied,” Lagden adds. She says TeacherLists.com is a free service that makes posting and sharing wish lists “really simple and effective.”
Right now, there are more than 600,000 (teacher) lists on the site, Lagden says. The most often requested items are basic supplies such as tissues, markers, paper towels, and re-sealable bags.
Lists can be posted for individual classrooms or the entire schools. Make your list, post it once, then maintain or update it as needed. Parents can access your list instantly on their computers or smartphone while shopping in stores, or on any device, any time.
3. Ask for donations
Join a gifts-in-kind organization like the National Association for the Exchange of Industrial Resources, suggests NAIER president and CEO Gary C. Smith. NAEIR collects donations of new merchandise from US corporations such as Microsoft, Stanley Tools, 3M, Rubbermaid and many others, and redistributes them for free to their not-for-profit members, including teachers and schools.
The donated items include free class materials, office and art supplies, janitorial supplies, sporting goods, tools, toys, software books and media, personal care items, party goods and more, Smith says. Teachers browse catalogs of available supplies and ask for what they need. Typically, members pay “a modest annual membership fee, plus nominal shipping and handling costs,” Smith says. (At time of writing, NAEIR was offering educators free membership.)
4. Go social
Shop for supplies and classroom needs online, suggests frugal living, shopping, and travel expert Jon Lal, founder and CEO of BeFrugal.com. “Sign up for emails from your favorite stores, or follow them on social media, to hear about sales as soon as they’re happening,” he suggests.
Try free tools to manage those emails. Kristen Strem, spokesperson for Unroll.me and Slice, says people save money when their promotion and deal emails are organized in one easy-access place. Your “roll-up” (screen) on Unroll.me shows all your special offers, sorted and saved daily, so they’re not forgotten, lost, or buried under the crush of spam.
5. Opt for apps and online coupons
Or, before you buy, search “coupon code” plus the item name, adds Brad Hines, a lesson plan creator on Teachers Pay Teachers and personal finance blogger. “There is zero excuse” not to look for coupons on every online purchase but if you don’t have time, he suggests an app called Honey that finds coupons for you automatically at the time of purchase.
For shopping on your iPhone and Android phone, a mobile app called Shopular can help you save money by delivering “geo-targeted coupons” to your phone while you’re shopping, at the retailer’s doorstep. See who else is selling the product and who has the best price (including tax and shipping fees) with the PriceGrabber app. Yowza uses your location to find deals and coupons near you and sends them to your phone and you show your phone coupon to the clerk when you check out . Yowza also notifies you when your favorite stores have new coupons.
6. Take advantage of free shipping. Look for free shipping offers and plan your purchases to take advantage of the savings they provide, suggests Lal. Many stores offer you free shipping when your order totals a certain dollar amount. If you want to buy one item but it doesn’t cost enough to qualify for free shipping, don’t check out yet. Save your cart and keep shopping until you’ve added enough items to the order to get free shipping.
For example, if you’re buying pencils, erasers, markers and crayons on Amazon.com, look for the “Add-on item” to get free shipping when you’ve put enough items in your cart to qualify—$25 if you choose Amazon Prime, $35 without Prime.
7. Comparison shop
Use price comparison tools to make sure you’re getting the best deal. “When shopping for school supplies, don’t buy the first thing you see. Shop around to make sure you’re getting the best price” or use a price comparison tool like Priceblink.com, suggests company founder and Savings Expert Karl Quist. He says Priceblink finds best deals, free shipping, coupon codes, and more, saving users time—and an average “15 to 20 percent” on everything from highlighters to printers to office equipment including printers, tablets, laptops, and more.
For example, Quist found a Canon MB2020 all-in-one printer priced at $129.99. The deal sounded good because the price was “marked down from $179.99” at Office Depot. But when Quist checked the same printer through Priceblink, it showed “several other stores have it available for $89.99—that’s a difference of $40,” he says.
8. Save after the fact
Saving money after your purchase with tools like Slice that monitor price drops, suggests Strem. The app makes it easier to get a “price match refund if that backpack you bought recently went on sale,” she says. And its handy receipt tracking feature “is great for teachers who buy classroom materials out of pocket and plan to expense later” or claim as a deduction on that year’s tax return.
9. Time your shopping.
Just as holiday products are cheaper after the holiday, school supplies are cheaper after the school year begins. “If you can, wait to buy school supplies until after Labor Day,” Lal says. “Prices will drop severely late in the season.”
And for the super-organized: Shop a year ahead!
Hines takes timed shopping a step further. “Buy with next year in mind” to save even more. When you find a sale or special price on something your classroom will need next year, buy it now and store it for later instead of waiting until you need it, when it may not be on sale. Bonus: if the price goes up during the year, you’ll save even more by buying now.