Back to school shopping

Our school district generally starts the new year after Labor Day, but this year, the kids go back Aug. 30. And look, I’m not complaining about that. You go to school, kids, and be glad that you can. (Not all girls are so lucky in this world.)

What I’m complaining about is the fact that I have to get my act together to actually procure supplies et al.

I really, really hate shopping.

This might not look like a lot to you, but this is the most we've ever been able to reuse from home.

This might not look like a lot to you, but this is the most we’ve ever been able to reuse from home.

And I was dubious about how that was going to look in light of the project. Thankfully, detailed and mandatory school supply lists are a thing of the past, as Abby is in high school and they trust her to figure out what she will use, and Johanna’s list is simply “suggested.”

Actually, Johanna had the smallest list of her entire school career, and Abby mostly just needed notebooks. I really appreciated that.

Going through the Box of Awesome, I found all sorts of items Jo could reuse — colored pencils, highlighters in three different colors, a handheld pencil sharpener, lots of pencils, an eraser, sticky notes (???), and ear buds. And you bet I tossed in her scissors with the three-inch blades. She’s using those things for the rest of her life.

Johanna LOVES shopping for new school supplies. Every year she starts asking to hit the stores mid-July, but there is no way I’m emotionally stable enough to handle THAT that early in the summer. So tradition holds that we wait until the last possible second, which usually means the week before school starts. And then we’re fighting the crowds and that makes me even more anxious. But I forget that part until we’re in the thick of it. 😉

THIS year, I started a week and a half early (!), by going online to see what sorts of “green” office supplies were out there. I went to sites I trust, I went to sites that might be sketchy, I looked around and saw the options and tried not to cry.

Because here’s the problem: Items might have been made from recycled materials, but they’re still packaged. They’ll still need to be shipped to my door, which means even more packaging. And the prices were much higher, shipping costs aside. (With the added bonus of not knowing what sort of quality you were getting.)

FINE, I yelled, I’ll go to the stores, then.

And there was much rejoicing in the house.

So on Saturday, we headed to the next town over to see what we could find. “Green” supplies were not really a thing. One plus: Unpackaged items were possible. One negative: Some were packaged-only.

We do what we can with the options provided to us. I kept chanting that to myself, and it took me a while to figure out why I felt so vaguely terrible about this whole ordeal. It finally occurred to me that it wasn’t what we were putting in the cart, per se, but the fact we were at the store at all. Being a minimalist really puts a damper on shopping. All I can think about is, how are we going to get rid of this someday?

What did help: Abby has already been through middle school AND that supply list, so she could tell us what Jo actually needed and what we could pass up. There’s no way you need two packs of tab dividers, she advised, no one cares how many highlighters you have, and I used my 200 index cards for five years, so don’t buy that many. Now THAT is info I can use.

Ye olde list.

Ye olde list.

Clothes shopping was easier. Johanna only needed a couple of pairs of jeans, and since she doesn’t care about clothes at all, she picked out a new t-shirt and declared herself done. Abby’s shopping will be a little more involved, but she’s opted to go into Portland with a friend, and we don’t know how that turned out yet, so I can’t report.

So how did we do? Well … I think we did okay. It didn’t occur to me until I started writing this post that I should have emailed Jo’s list to my parents and in-laws to see if they had any supplies we could use — that might have negated the need for new binders. But aside from that, we did the best we could: Jo got a metal ruler that she’ll be able to use for the rest of her school career and that we can recycle at the end of its life. When packages were the only choice, we opted for bulk (like a value pack of glue sticks the girls can share versus individually wrapped). Some items, like the index cards and binder tabs, were packaged, but I know will be reusable next year (and hopefully the year after that, too). Spiral notebooks can be taken apart and recycled after they’ve been used. And we recycled as much of the packaging for the other items that we could — because yes, Johanna came home and right away got all of her supplies sorted and packed in her backpack. She’s so happy. (I’ve already told her that if we ended up buying something she doesn’t actually need, it goes straight into the Box for next year.) Still a lot of plastic.

The solution to all of this might be to look for supplies all year round — get whatever is in good condition at Goodwill as soon as I find it, scope out “green,” unpackaged supplies at various stores, put the word out to family and friends that we’ll take their castoffs. I haven’t embraced this, though, because my minimalism is getting in the way again — I don’t like storing stuff “just in case.” But if it’s hidden away in the Box, what does it matter?

I have to think about that one.

Next up: A conversation at the grocery store.

17 Responses to Back to school shopping

  1. Our list was for 3rd grade, public school. We too tried to recycle from past years, and/or try for minimal packaging with a try for reasonable price. The school & each grade specifies a brand and specific number of items – so “Crayola colored pencils, 12″… and then, the store has another brand or possibly Crayola colored pencils but not 12 – they have 10, or 24… and then we are trying to determine if he will fail 3rd grade because of wrong number of colored pencils, or wrong brand. After three stores’ search, we finally find them at a premium price. On returning supplies to school after our diligence and proper purchases, we find a bin in the hallway to dump all into a communal area. No one checking off that we were correct, our child doesn’t even keep his own items, and guess what – obviously other parents didn’t ‘read’ because other brands and counts of colored pencils are in that bin. Every year I think it will be different. I did protest when the teacher said put everything in the bins. Our 8-year-old had gone through all our home pencils, choosing carefully for erasers and such, sharpening them and putting in his recycled pencil box. I just said “No, he chose his pencils so carefully, he wants these pencils.” and she said ‘ok’.

    • I agree, that is very frustrating. At our school, the teachers would sit down with each individual child to make sure they had everything on the list — that’s how Johanna got busted for not having scissors with 3-inch blades in third grade. This year, all elementary schools are just requiring a $20 school fee and are buying bulk supplies for everyone. We just missed that awesomeness since Jo is in sixth grade this year, but wow, what a great idea. Anyway, glad your son got to keep his pencils, but what a small consolation.

  2. This post strikes a chord with me in a big way! I don’t enjoy shopping and I HATE storing things “in case” they “might” be needed “someday” in the future! Well, I don’t mind storing my homemade jelly, but otherwise… However, I will admit that yesterday, when I made a pie (RARE INDEED) I could not find my rolling pin and, since my husband cooks more, I couldn’t believe that he had let me get rid of it. Today when I mentioned that, he walked into the kitchen and pulled it from a place it had never been before! I guess some things are necessary because my tall drinking glass did not bode well for my pie’s appearance. LOL. Love reading your posts because I hadn’t really thought much about packaging and now I am!

    • LOL. I also don’t mind storing my jams and home canned items! Your pie story made me laugh — points for perseverance in the face of rolling pin-less-ness!

  3. If you can grab a copy of supply lists for future years for your kids. We shop at Target and they have all the local school lists available in store. Although a few things may change, most stay the same and you will know what to save or stock up on for future years. With 4 kids we save and reuse a lot including folders, notebooks and 3 ring binders. My kids have always reused from year to year so they don’t care if they have all new stuff every year. They are minimalists in the making and are a step ahead of where I was at their age.

    • That’s a good idea — that would help keep our stored supplies to a minimum while still enabling me to take advantage of used / unpackaged items as I find them… Thanks!

  4. I tend to pick up necessities year-round at Goodwill. If I see filler paper, for example, I’ll grab it and stick it in the filing cabinet with the rest of the paper. I figure, with a 7th and 9th grader they’ll use it up at some point, and if not I’ll donate it along. I feel better with the not-new option than buying it new from Target. Just my perspective.

    • I agree — better to get something already in the waste stream than buying something new.

      I think sometimes my minimalism and my zero waste tendencies just don’t mesh. I want to be the kind of person who is always on the lookout for zero waste opportunities (unwrapped, used school supplies among other things) … but I’m actually the kind of person who gets overwhelmed by stuff, hates shopping, and doesn’t want to deal with storing anything “for later.” I see bringing stuff in, in any form, as a failure. It’s like I have a mental block. And with zero waste, you have to be prepared to seize the day and think ahead and be okay with storing. I’m still trying to figure out how to be both. Is minimalist zero waste a thing? 😉

  5. We don’t get our supply lists until AFTER the kids are in school and get them from each teacher! Both my girls are now in high school and are still REQUIRED to get specified items – which winds up being so wasteful since my oldest (senior) does her “own thing” with organizing and usually doesn’t follow the teacher’s way BUT still has to have these things since she will get a grade for compliance! This year, we are hopefully going to be able to reuse at least some of her binders (either for her or her sister) since they are in near perfect condition from not being used last year!
    Also, I’m not sure what my younger (freshman) daughter will have on her list since the public school district is transitioning over to giving students chrome books – my daughter is the second generation to hit the high school using these. Not all classes will be converted to the new digital way yet but hopefully this will help cut down expense/waste on supplies a bit.

    • Non-compliance for not bringing in certain items to class — that would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. I haven’t minded high school school shopping so much because Abby is great about reusing supplies and only getting what she will actually use … although we have run into a few items she was told she needed and then didn’t end up using. That sucks you still have lists!

      Elementary school has been the worst for us, because it’s just so much stuff. I was actually feeling kind of good about Johanna’s list for sixth grade … we’ve had lists before where she could reuse only two or three items out of 21, mostly in the younger grades.

      We have classroom computers and iPads, but no chrome books… that’s interesting. I suppose there are pros and cons with that too … but it seems like tech stuff has more of an opportunity to be recycled and/or refurbished, so …

  6. Is there a Buy Nothing group in your neck of the woods? I’ve been amazed at how much stuff gets circulated through the NE Portland group, including all kinds of school/office supplies. I understand your struggle to be both a minimalist and zero waste, but you do need things to be comfortable and to live, it’s OK to see some paper or binders at GoodWill and bring them in to the house! And if they don’t get used, pass them on to someone else. My buy nothing year has been a real education in how much I have, use/don’t use, and how much I’ve been able to pass on without any remorse. Oh, I did go to Double Mountain (25 minute wait, not bad!) and brought my own takeaway container for super yummy leftovers! And I’m going to bulk mecca this weekend! Really enjoying the posts, keep up the great work!

    • I haven’t actually looked into that, but that would have been a good option as well. It’s more the bringing in than the buying that’s my issue, if that makes sense. And yes, you’re right — I need to get over this! I wasn’t expecting a struggle between the two (I thought being a minimalist would be an advantage) and it takes me a ridiculously long time to wrap my brain around “new” developments.

      Wow, 25 minutes is not a long wait for DM at all! They’re super cool there, so I’m sure no one batted an eye at your containers — I mean, they use a certain kind of bottle for their beer that can be brought back and reused, so they’re already onboard. 🙂

  7. Trisha, I have to update you after attending the school’s grade level Parent meeting. She had a request list for more things for the classroom – such as Sharpies, whiteboard markers, scissors. Hmmm, I asked “Scissors??” She then showed her classroom ‘old’ scissors, that have glue stuck on the blades, etc. I asked why these things weren’t on the school list. Teacher said the district office ordered that all school lists be shortened, so they had to remove items from their lists. How crazy is this? If the school would tell the parents, “return your scissors from last year, and please clean them so no glue is on them”… then we would have no waste.

    • Jan! I’m sorry, I just saw this! Thank you for the update. That’s interesting — my first thought was, why doesn’t the teacher just toss those glued up scissors in the sink and let them soak? But maybe that’s not the point. It’s a good lesson for us who are trying to reuse supplies: send what is in good working order! A little effort on our end might mean the difference between landfill anyway and truly getting to reuse an item.

  8. You’ve got a bazillion comments on this one, but to add one more…I thought I was going to be smart this year and send in three ring binders and plastic folders my kids used last year. We carefully covered up “Tues/Thurs Science” with washi tape that each kiddo had chosen to customize their old folders and make a semi-blank slate for the new teacher to label each folder. Then, to my amazement, minutes after turning in school supplies, the parents were given three ring binders, complete with tabs and labeled with our children’s names on them. Turns out, the recycled school supplies I turned in will be used for next year’s students, and each summer, the teachers put together binders adn label folders that the prior year students have turned in. I was slightly mortified that some other kid was going to get our somewhat dinged up supplies covered in washi tape, but once the teachers figured out what i did, I noticed the next set of supplies that headed home were the ones we customized. That almost did not work out well, but sheesh, to buy all new stuff is just nuts!

    • People feel deeply about school supplies! But I’m glad you added your comment too. I had to laugh at your story — I can just imagine the mortification! (Although I can’t see a kid caring too much, but the parents might.) But hey, it all worked out!

      I’m already trying to figure out how I can do school shopping better next year. I have all of the middle school supply lists, so I know what Jo will need for seventh … and I’m trying to tell myself that storing items for a year isn’t that big of a deal.

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