Mistakes I've Made Buying School Supplies

Although I hated school growing up, I absolutely loved school supplies. I've loved them since I was too young for school. At the bookstore, I asked my mom to buy me "workbooks." When I was four, my big Christmas present was a desk, complete with a desk organizer and a can of pencils with my name stamped on them. It's still probably the best present I've ever gotten in terms of how delighted it made me, tied only with the time my brother's friend, visiting from somewhere exotic like Russia or Pittsburgh, gave me a clipboard. As you can imagine, back-to-school shopping a highlight of my year. (It was a consolation, anyway, for the beginning of school.)

I haven't been in school for years, thank God, but I keenly remember the ups and downs of supply shopping. If you're shopping for school stuff for yourself or a family member this fall, maybe you can learn from my history of mistakes. Heck, if you extrapolate a little, they kind of apply to shopping for anything. Except the one about graphing calculators, that's a little specific.

NB: Some of this advice might be dated. I discuss Trapper Keepers and Spacemakers.

Mistake #1: Trying to Get It All Done Before I Really Knew What I Needed
My school never sent home a list of supplies ahead of time; I would always get it on the first day of school. My family and I would try to surmise what I'd need based on past years, but each new teacher would invariably insist on our having some very specific thing we hadn't thought of: an accordion folder, three colors of index cards. brads, whatever they deemed necessary for their highly specific system. Sometimes we'd guess the items right but get the properties wrong: a 1" binder when the teacher wanted us to have 1 ½", or wide-ruled notebook paper when I was supposed to have college-ruled. It's useless trying to guess this ahead of time, so it's best to avoid doing the "main shop" until after the list is released.

Mistake #2: Not Preparing At All
With that said, schools do expect you to have some basic supplies on the first day. I remember feeling very smart one year when I did no shopping and brought nothing on the first day, only to have the teachers react in surprise and annoyance when I didn't have a fresh new notebook for each subject (not just pages out of an old notebook), a dedicated two-pocket folder for each subject, pencil AND pen AND highlighter, a ruler, glue, and other things on the typical back to school list.

So it's a balance between having the basics on day 1, but avoiding specifics until you find out the teacher's requirements. Unfortunately, it never seemed possible to get all the shopping done in one trip, but knowing that you'll need to make at least two trips frees you up, at least, to not feel like you need to be completist each time.

Mistake #3: Rebuying Things I Already Had
There are some things you need to buy every year--fresh notebooks, an academic year calendar--but most things can be reused more than one year. Of course, I always told my parents that it was necessary to have things new, because I wanted a brand new shiny lunch bag, or tape dispenser, or erasers shaped like strawberries. (Last year's erasers shaped like pineapples are all smudgy and brown now!) We had a ton of office supplies lying around my house, so if I'd been smart, I could have "shopped" my parents' office supply closet or even my own room at home before buying new things at the store. As it was, I ended up uncovering about twelve Spacemaker pencil boxes when I cleaned out my room for college. (Of course, now, I can't find one for love nor money.)

This "mistake" was mainly just me being greedy and wowed by all the shiny in the office supply store. Once I was old enough to handle money, my parents began giving me a budget and letting me make decisions instead of just buying me all the things that I insisted I needed. That really cut down on this behavior since I knew that if I wanted a new backpack, any extra dollars I needed for it would came out of my own money, but if I decided to just use last year's bag and managed to get everything I needed under budget, I could use the extra money for REAL treats, like mood lipstick and Seventeen magazines.

Mistake #4: Falling for Fancy New Systems
It happened almost every year: some new variation of the Trapper Keeper would be front and center in the store, and I'd go gaga for it. There was the original Trapper Keeper, of course, which was really just a glorified three-ring binder, but with enough bells and whistles to seem like so much more: interior flaps, and a clipboard clip, and a velcro closure, and an airbrushed dolphin on the front. Later on, in high school, my tastes more refined, I fell in love with an all-black, fabric-covered binder with a zipper all around, and lots of pockets on the inside for your pens and small items, and a built-in calculator. Of course the built-in calculator was useless because it only did basic functions and I needed a scientific calculator for math class by that point, but still. Shiny.

Like clockwork, though, by October, I was back to good ol' one-subject notebooks. The new note-taking system with all its promise would turn out to be too complicated. The giant binder thing would be too bulky and heavy to really carry around. Rather than a one-stop shop for all my school supplies needs, it would be become a giant redundant brick that I'd carry around along with my standard stuff for awhile, then abandon.

The main problem that I always ended up having with "do it all" systems--along with binders in general, and multi-subject notebooks--was that it forced me to carry more than I needed at any given time. In middle and high school, we had so many books that carrying extra weight at any given time was a liability, and the best thing you could do for yourself was to make your system as modular as possible, so that each time you visited your locker, you were only grabbing what you needed for the next class, and no more. In that situation, there's really no way to beat one-subject notebooks, each a different color and clearly marked with the name of the class.

Mistake #5: Spending a Premium for Pretty
If you were a 90s kid like me, maybe you remember Lisa Frank. This was a stationery line which released notebooks, folders, writing paper, and other supplies decorated with neon cute kittens, horses with rainbow manes, candy, and other appealing designs. It was THE THING to have Lisa Frank stuff in elementary school. That, or X-Men stuff. I didn't grow out of lusting after cute notebooks. It just got more abstract: instead of cartoon characters, maybe it was notebook with skulls or stars or pretty swirls. Even as an adult I gravitate toward things with a cute design. But there are many advantages to getting plain things:

  1. Plain is cheap. The price difference between a plain notebook and a designed one is huge: fifty cents versus five dollars, maybe. Same for folders. You can get plain folders for about a quarter.
  2. Plain is trendproof. If I started the year with Lisa Frank, I always ended it with plain. The picture would get boring, or it would start to seem babyish, or I'd become more interested in something else.
  3. Plain is anonymous. Plain things say nothing about you, your taste, or interests. Plenty of kids have plain things, so kids who opt for the simple need not worry that they'll be the odd man out.
  4. Plain isn't trying too hard. At my middle school it was the done thing to cover books with brown paper grocery sacks. Store-bought book socks were geeky, as I learned after goading my parents into buying a pack.
  5. Plain gives you scope for your own creativity. There's a charm to a notebook with a hand-drawn Pikachu that an official licensed merch can't beat. Some of my most prized possessions in school were things all my friends had signed and drawn on. The fact is that you are going to doodle in class either way, so plain things give you more space to work with.

I don't think you need to be totally utilitarian--I think it's nice to have a couple of really special "joy sparking" items--but plain should be the default, and pretty points (i.e. dollars) should be expended only on those things where the upgrade is really special.

Mistake #6: Paying a Premium for Store Atmosphere
My family always went to Staples, where the aisles are wide and carpeted, the merchandise is organized and gleaming, and the air tingles with that special new-computer smell, full of possibility. It was a joy to go there even if you didn't buy anything, just to look at the rows and rows of colored pens, a whole wall of them. One year I went back to school shopping with a friend's family at Ocean State Job Lot, where the shopping process is way less fun, because the aisles are narrow and overstuffed with disheveled merchandise, the floor is dirty concrete, and the air is thick with the smell of old garden hoses. But it was like half the price! And once you get a notebook or a bag of ballpoint pens home, you can't tell where you bought it. The buying process is fleeting and instantly forgotten, so it's not worth paying extra for a nice one. You can always clean the things when you get home. It's fine! It's fine.

Mistake #7: Getting an Off-Brand Graphing Calculator
My parents were fairly lenient about letting me get name-brand notebooks and things, but they balked at the name-brand TI-89 graphing calcualtor because of its $150 price tag. The problem is that they ended up getting me these $75 Casio or Sony calculators that didn't have all the same functions, worked differently (so the instructions given in class or by my math book wouldn't work), and broke within a year or two. Kids who got the Texas Instruments calculator in grade 7 still have them to this day. I don't blame my parents for not knowing that that, in specific, was a good investment, but I just wanted to make it clear that graphing calculators are one thing you don't want to skimp on.


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