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5-cent school supplies: Share the love

Your frugal bounty can help those who need it the most.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 26, 2009 3:56AM

I recently bought two backpacks, five packages of notebook paper and five boxes of crayons at Office Depot for $3.25 including tax, thanks to the magic of recycled printer cartridges and loss leaders. Then I went to Walgreens and bought two-pocket folders and five-packs of mechanical pencils for a nickel apiece, plus two-packs of gel pens and eight-packs of washable markers that will be free after rebate.

I don't have kids at home. I'm buying these for other people's children. You can, too, and I sure hope you will. 

Just as Christmas items show up in stores long before it's time to trim the tree, "back to school" specials are making inroads earlier and earlier. Back in the first week of July, Staples was offering things like 10-packs of pencils and small bottles of hand sanitizer for 1 cent each.

Remember when school supplies weren't on sale until mid- to late August? And remember how we wailed at the sight of notebooks and pencil sharpeners: How can it be school time already? Summer just started!

Welcome to school -- here's your list
I'll tell you who's wailing now, though: Parents who can't afford food, let alone notebook paper. That's why for several years I've been shopping the loss leaders and taking them over to the North Helpline here in Seattle. The prices can be astonishingly low: a dime for a box of crayons, a nickel for a ruler, a penny for that bottle of hand sanitizer.

And yes, hand sanitizer is a necessity. Just check the school supply lists that teachers hand out on the first day of school. Children are also supposed to bring their own tissues plus a whole bunch of things that schools once provided gratis. When I was a kid, we were expected to bring our own paper and pencils if we could; if we couldn't, the teacher had a supply closet courtesy of the school district.

These days, teachers are likely to have to fill supply closets on their own. They, too, should be hitting these loss-leader sales to stock up on stuff they know some kids' parents simply can't provide. A 150-count package of notebook paper will cost a lot more later in the year than the 15 cents that I paid.

Frugal school-supply tactics
A worker at North Helpline told me that parents who come in for the food bank frequently ask if there's any chance of getting pencils, paper or any of the other things their kids are required to have. That's why I love the loss leaders; even when I was broke and trying to pay for a divorce, I could shake loose a buck or two for school supplies.

There's generally a limit on these sales. I could get only five boxes of crayons at Office Depot, for example. But there's no reason I can't shop there the next day, or bring my sister or daughter along to double the haul.

It's best to shop early in the week. On Monday I also wanted to buy the 1-cent vinyl binders that Office Depot advertised. An employee said the 1,200 binders they'd ordered quickly sold out. So watch the ads and get there ASAP.

Don't subscribe to the Sunday paper? Read the ads online. Office Max, Office Depot and Staples consistently offer blowout prices, and other stores like Walgreens are getting with the program, too.

And if those 15-cent paper clips or free-after-rebate gel pens are all sold out? Ask for a rain check unless the ad says you can't.

If you're on a tight budget yourself, these sales are a great help for getting your kids ready for school. Remember, too, that some of these items can become stocking stuffers or birthday party favors. For example, one store recently sold tiny Sharpies for a dime each. This week, Walgreens has miniature composition books for a nickel apiece.  

You may find things you need yourself. That 1-cent hand sanitizer would be perfect for purse, diaper bag or glove compartment. I was happy to get yellow highlighters at Walgreens for 5 cents, considerably less than I'd pay at the university bookstore.

Helping others helps you
Where to take these items? To your local elementary school, so that teachers can dole them out as needed. To social service agencies. To foster care organizations. To churches, synagogues or mosques. To food banks if they, like North Helpline, are willing to hand out notebooks along with food bags.

Why give? Because there's need. But giving is also an antidote to fear or self-pity. It's a reminder that you not only covered all your bills, but have enough left over to help someone else. 

Those backpacks I bought cost $4.99 each, or $1.99 with the $3 credit for the ink cartridge. If you don't have an extra $2 to $5 to give, then by all means take care of your own family first.

But I'm thinking about those penny binders and penny hand sanitizers. Almost anybody has a spare cent. Heck, just walk down the street or look on the floor at the checkout counter and you'll likely find a penny. Pick it up, and go buy something for somebody's kid. It could make all the difference in the world -- to that child, and to you.

Published July 23, 2008
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