Free and cheap back to school supplies list

How to avoid waste in Canada's second biggest spending event of the year.

Credit: Flickr / sergis blog

Tips for getting an A+ in the three ‘back to school’ Rs—reducing, reusing and recycling


We were talking with a friend the other night and he mentioned that fall seems to be in the air. It caught me off guard; it’s been a beautiful summer and I’m not ready for autumn, nor back to school. And I’m really not ready for the big consumer push that is happening in all the stores.


The average Canadian family spends about $310 getting each kid ready for school, an astonishing number that makes back to school the second biggest spending event of the year. The flip side of this means that if we think about where our money is going; we can actually have a positive impact.


Teaching kids needs vs wants

Use back to school as an opportunity to teach the difference between needs and wants. Your kids may want the 120-pack of coloured pens and a matching lunch box/backpack combo, but they probably won’t need them to be successful in school. We like to challenge our daughter Maia to sort out the difference between what is essential and what would be nice and then ask her to reduce her list of wants to the things she really cares about (and that we can afford!).


Buy the green dress

Almost half of the money spent on back-to-school shopping goes into buying new clothes. But new duds don’t have to deplete the earth’s resources and your wallet.


Hand-me-downs are a great place to get started—check out thrift stores, neighbourhood garage sales and consignment shops. Another great option is to form a clothing exchange with a group of friends who have kids of different sizes and ages. Choose a day and have everyone bring the clothes their kids have outgrown—then let your kids go “shopping” through the bounty.


If you do buy new, go for well-made, high-quality choices made from more sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, hemp or bamboo.


Free back to school

Shiny and new is overrated. Make a list of what each child needs and check it against what you actually have. Most people have enough pens and pencils kicking around their homes to outfit an entire classroom. And pencil sharpeners, rulers, pencil cases, dictionaries and backpacks don’t typically disintegrate on the final day of the school year. Re-use last year’s stuff.


Eco-friendly paper and eco school supplies

If you’ve already shortened your shopping list by crossing off the things your kids don’t need and the stuff you already have, you may find you have freed up your budget and can focus your purchases on more eco-friendly products. Several companies offer notebooks and computer paper made from post-consumer recycled paper (and if you consider that the average school uses 38 tons of paper each year—or the equivalent of 644 trees—spending a few extra cents on a recycled notebook can make a big difference).


Don’t forget to teach your kids to use both sides of the page and recycle it when they are done.


Eco-friendly refillable pens and pencils

Over six billion pens make it into US landfills every year, a number which should motivate us into rediscovering refillable pens. Remember those? There are great options for biodegradable pencils, refillable pens and recycled versions of both. Once you a have greener option in hand, encourage your kids to hang on to each pencil ’til it’s down to the nub.


Reusable lunch containers, lead-free lunch bag

Opt for washable, reusable containers for lunch. Just make sure to avoid vinyl lunch boxes, which have been shown to contain harmful levels of lead. Instead, invest in a solid container that will last for a few years.


About that backpack

Like the lunch box, a well-chosen backpack will last several years. Skip the silly characters and head somewhere like MEC, where your kid can be properly fitted for a sturdy backpack that won’t be out of style before their first report card.


Where do you go in Vancouver to save money on back-to-school supplies? What about eco school supplies? Any tips I’ve missed?