Stay Connected

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dollar store and Target good bets/bad bets on school supplies

It's that time of year again. Gotta love the Staples ad, with Dad dancing in the aisles to the Christmas song "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year". Just as soon as the 4th of July is over, the stores begin to set up their back-to-school departments. But that's retail for you. Each store knows that the early bird gets the worm. The earlier they set out school supplies, the more likely they'll get a good share of your budgeted dollars. But the savvy shopper can part with less of their hard-earned cash by starting the shopping early, knowing where to buy what, and sticking to your resolve to spend XX amount and no more.

I did a little reconnaissance work this weekend, to find the best of the best deals. I stuck with Target and Dollar Tree.  Target's prices will easily be duplicated by places like Wal-Mart, and Dollar Tree's prices can be found at many, if not most, dollar stores.  Some items were hands-down the best deal at Target, while other items were far and away better buys at Dollar Tree. Here's the lowdown. (All items will refer to the lowest priced brand, most often the store brand at Target.)

At Target -- best deals

small paper lunch sacks, 100 count -- $1.87
pencils, 8 count -- 47¢
felt tip markers, 10 ct. -- 99¢

colored pencils, 12 ct. -- 52¢
crayons, 24 ct. -- 25¢
glue sticks, 2 ct. -- 25¢
school glue, 4 oz. -- 25¢
watercolor paints -- 97¢
children's school scissors -- 74¢
rulers -- 27¢
pencil boxes -- 99¢
notebook filler paper -- 82¢
composition notebooks -- 50¢

spiral notebooks, 70 page -- 17¢
pencil sharpeners -- 69¢
ball point pens, 10 ct. -- 99¢
portfolios -- 15¢
1-inch plastic binders -- 92¢
index cards, 100 ct. -- 49¢

At Dollar Tree -- best deals

construction paper, 96 sheets -- $1
subject dividers -- $1
highlighter pens, 3 ct. -- $1
student assignment notebooks -- $1
erasers, 6 ct. -- $1 (Target has erasers in a 2-pack for 50¢. If you only need 2 then Target is a better deal)
pencil top erasers, 40 ct. -- $1
pencil pouches (the kind that zip and are snapped into binder) -- $1
tape, 2 ct. -- $1
file folders, 10 ct. -- $1
zippered sandwich baggies, 120 ct. -- $1
plastic storage bins, all sizes and colors -- $1  Great deal!
reusable lunch sacks -- $1 (However, the cheapest Target reusable lunch sack was just $3.99 and a superior quality, will last a year or more, in contrast with the dollar store ones, ours from last year fell apart about mid-April.)

A couple of items you may want to shop second hand for or at a places like Big Lots, Ross or Marshall's: 
  • fabric-covered trapper-style binders. Price range on these at Target was $10 to $20 
  • good, sturdy backpacks -- check places like Big Lots, Ross and Marshall's. My kids use Swiss Army backpacks and they are durable. These backpacks are going into their 4th year. I tightened the slider (it was separating) on one backpack's zipper last year, but that's been the only needed repair. I also really like the Jansport brand. When buying backpacks, it really is "you get what you paid for". The better quality ones retail for more, but they last longer. A little searching online could turn up a great deal for one of the better makes.
  • winter jackets -- if used is acceptable, right now, while everyone is thinking summer, check thrift stores. The stock is plentiful now.
So, it was clear that Target had more great deals on school supplies than Dollar Tree. What they're hoping is the low price on basic supplies will get you in the door. Once there, your kids will insist on the trendy character items, like notebooks, notepads, folders, and lunch boxes, not to mention toys, closely placed to the school supply department. Plus they're hoping that  you'll spend all your school clothing budget and then some, at their store. 

What to do! You need to be savvy. Use these prices to set a budget. Shop early if you want to find the lower priced brands. Know what you're buying in advance (get your supply list from your school before you shop). Know where the good prices are. You may find better prices on some items elsewhere. Start reading those flyers that come in the mail, or the online ads. (I know I usually find filler paper for less than Target's price at our supermarket, most years. I bought some at Target anyways, as I can't be certain Albertson's will have the same good deal this year.)  And maybe leave the kids at home with your spouse, grandma or a good friend (swap days to back-to-school swap with a friend -- she watches your kids while you shop, then the next day, you watch hers). 

I know, we live in a culture of getting our kids input on all decisions that involve them. But sometimes I think it's perfectly okay to provide without getting their input first. After all, these are school supplies, not birthday gifts.

One last thought. I use these special back-to-school sales to stock up on art-related gift items. Even if you don't have children of your own, you may want to buy a couple of packs of crayons, some construction paper, some glue sticks, some kid's scissors, markers, paints, a plastic pencil box to store it all in, and for about $6 you have a nice little gift for a child in your life, or a Christmas shoe box mission project.


  1. We have a sales tax free weekend here once a year. We try to pick up school supplies then. Since we homeschool and only have one child left in school it doesn't take a lot of supplies for us. That is kind of nice. However I have a nephew who attends a local store and I'm going to suggest they check Dollar Tree. Thanks.

    1. Hi Shara,
      While I was in Target, I picked up one of the local school supply sheets. I did a rough price estimate while in the store. If you buy everything at the sale price for the basics, and go to a place like Dollar Tree for stuff not on sale at Target, you could spend as little as $10-12 for a child for their supplies (not including backpacks, but those you can use year after year, or buy second hand).

      One other place for folks to look in mid to late August is church giveaways. One church in our community gives away filled backpacks with school supplies every late summer. It's a huge draw. They must give away 1000 backpacks each year!

      We homeschooled all 3 of ours through the 8th grade, and it was kind of nice not bothering with supply lists. Crayons lasted many years, scissors lasted for all 3 children, no need for copious amounts of hand sanitizer, and we always had pencils and pens around. The only supply, besides books, that we bought on a regular basis was paper.

      Now, if only we could get a sales tax free weekend here!
      Thanks for commenting.

  2. We don't have school sales yet since we don't start school again till after Labor Day, but thanks for your legwork with the pricing.

    I absolutely agree with you about kids not needing to have input on every purchase! I shop alone. Saves me money, time, and I'm not irritable with my kids when I'm done. They are happy with whatever supplies they get. I've always done it that way, so they don't know anything different--it might be harder to make the switch if you have always included them in your shopping.

    Another way to save for NEXT year is to shop your stores a day or so after school has started. You can nab lunch carriers, backpacks, etc., for a fraction of the price. This works with clothing, too (you alluded to it with your winter coat comment)--I always buy a size ahead off-season. This may get trickier as they reach adolescence, but it's been truly helpful, and saves me overspending when my kids hit a growth spurt--I can pull out the next size jeans without a panicked trip to the store hoping to find what I need ... right now.

    1. Hi Kris,
      School doesn't begin here until after Labor Day either. But I know Target always begins their set up for school the day after the 4th! And this year Dollar Tree did the same. Crazy!

      I think another advantage to not buying too much in the way of new school clothing until after school begins, is what's "in" can change in a day. If you wait until your kids have begun school, you can find out then what that one "really want" item is, and likely find it on sale, as the stores are moving it all out to make room for Christmas merchandise.

      Thanks for your input! Always valuable!

    2. Fortunately my kids aren't at the "in" stage yet! :) I'll remember your idea for when they are.

    3. And they may never be, as well. My son never cared what his clothes looked like, so long as they were comfortable (think flannel shirts for the first 12 years of his life). And neither of my daughters want to wear the very teenager-y skinny jeans and black t-shirt look. They march to the beat of their own drummers.



Be a voice that helps someone else on their frugal living journey

Are you interested in writing for creative savv?
What's your frugal story?

Do you have a favorite frugal recipe, special insight, DIY project, or tips that could make frugal living more do-able for someone else?

Creative savv is seeking new voices.


share this post