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School supplies for a penny

Back-to-school sales have begun -- and even the child-free can benefit.

By Donna_Freedman Jul 30, 2012 6:53PM
Image: A green chalkboard with the alphabet written on it © Ocean/Corbis /CorbisThe loss-leader sales have started up at Office Depot, Staples and OfficeMax. I've noticed that the deals aren't quite as hot as in previous years. But in the past two weeks I've seen a handful of items selling for a quarter, a dime or even a penny.

Some of these deals could be useful even if you don't have kids. For example:
  • Pocket packs of tissues and 100-count boxes of paper clips, a penny apiece.
  • Index cards (100-count) and mechanical pencils (five-count), 25 cents.
  • Hand sanitizer in a 1.8-ounce bottle, also a quarter (the perfect size for a glove compartment, briefcase or handbag).
  • A ream of printer paper, $1 after rebate (which can be filed online).
You can stock up on stuff for your home office this way. I can also think of several other reasons to buy.

If you do have kids, go to the school's website to search for the supply list. Then start watching for deals on the things you need, such as folders (as little as 1 cent this week), composition books (25 to 50 cents), glue sticks (50 cents for four) and crayons (25 cents).

Note that things like tissues, hand sanitizer and dry-erase markers may be on the must-have list. The first two, as noted, are on sale this week and probably will be again. Dry-erase markers have been loss leaders in previous years, so be on the lookout.

Other ways to use these deals

If you provide in-home child care, this is a great time to stash things such as paper, crayons, glue sticks and kindergarten scissors.

Want to help a teacher out? Shop these sales each week and donate a big bag of supplies. (Post continues after video.)
Social-service agencies, foster-care organizations and places of worship may stage supply drives in your area. My sister and I take what we buy over to a food bank. (If you can't afford food, you probably can't afford notebook paper.)

Is there a senior center in your neighborhood? Tissues and hand sanitizer would likely be appreciated; so might pens and pencils for card games, crossword puzzles and the like. Nonprofits would probably welcome donations of office supplies.

Some of these items -- crayons, mini-Sharpies, gel pens, teeny-tiny composition books -- can become stocking stuffers or birthday party favors.

Things to keep in mind

There's usually a limit on how many items you can buy. At times there's a minimum purchase requirement before you can get the loss leaders. On the bright side, at least two office supply stores included $5-off coupons in their fliers this week.

The new ads come out on Sunday, but you can read them online on Saturday to look for the best prices. Shop early because these items don't last long. If they're gone when you get there, ask for a rain check unless the ad says you can't.

Target and chain drugstores are getting into the act, too -- and these stores accept manufacturers coupons, which could help bring costs down to big-box levels. Recently I've seen coupons for crayons, pens, pencils, glue and markers.

Prices this low can really stretch the "giving" section of your budget. A little strategic shopping plus a $10 bill will result in a big bag of supplies to donate.

If money is tight right now, obviously you should tend your own yard first. But if you can spare even a dollar, buy something for somebody else. It might make all the difference in the world to the kid who comes to school without so much as a pencil.

More on MSN Money:

Aug 1, 2012 10:58AM
Anyone notice they do not tell us what store is holding that sale
Aug 1, 2012 10:35AM
I'm a teacher and I would LOVE it if a parent donated a bag of these supplies to my classroom.  
Aug 1, 2012 1:50PM

garage sales are also a good source for supplies.  We had a sale this year and had lots of pencils, we were giving them away with purchases.

some churches also organize backpack drives, where people can donate a backpack full of supplies for the church to hand out.  Check your church to see if they have such a drive.


misprinted pens and pencils are also a good source to give to teachers to have on hand for students.

Jul 31, 2012 9:03PM
Mediocre describes the new Staples. OfficeMax is barely any better. House brands in office supplies are not a winner. Going to the mall isn't fun any more (rude shoppers, whinny kids, obnoxious teenagers, minimum wage employees, frustrating packaging) and the stores mentioned are on cue with that lack of excitement. They only have what everyone else has. Ordering on line at the store to get what you need is not viable--they don't stock enough for a reasonable selection and they don't stock enough of what they do stock. Why go to their stores at all? I don't. From weekly to never without missing a thing. The mall phenomenon is over.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.