Published Online: May 8, 2013

Teaching Secrets: Spend Less on School Supplies

Jenny, a waitress, noticed at the end of her shift there was a napkin shortage. So she used her tips to stop and pick up a few packs. Alan, a bus driver, got caught in a traffic jam during his route. So he used his personal credit card and filled the bus with gas before ending his shift. Jamal, an administrative assistant, noticed the office supplies were low. On his lunch break, he cashed his check and proceeded to the office supply store to stock up. Nothing special, just copy paper, toner, and a computer monitor.

Sound ridiculous? Who uses their personal funds to supplement items needed for their job? Well, if you’re like me and thousands of other teachers around the country, you know the answer.

In 2010, researchers found that teachers were spending an average of $356 on classroom supplies per year—nothing special, just paper, pencils, and supplements to inadequate curricular materials. And we all know teachers who are spending much, much more—especially given the tightening of school budgets and the impact of the recession on students' families. I have bought everything from books to bookshelves, pencils to printers, and crayons to crafts.

So, what are the alternatives when you need certain supplies for your classroom? Below I have listed a few ways teachers can keep more of their own money without investing huge amounts of time—another commodity of which we have very little.

• Just Ask. This strategy has worked for me throughout my teaching career. That is to just ask for what you need and/or want. This can be done in a variety of ways. For starters, simply post a wish list outside your classroom door. As parents come to drop off and retrieve their children, they will see listed items that you are in need of. Think of this as a kind of "classroom registry" similar to what a bride/groom would share with friends and family. This list could also be sent home in a class or school newsletter. Parents don’t often know what specific needs you have and may innocently assume that when new supplies appear in your classroom that they were purchased by district or school funds.

• Have your students speak up. As part of a literacy lesson, for example, students could write to parents or even community members (stores, local chamber of commerce, wholesale warehouses, local businesses, teacher learning centers, and the like) to request specific items. What business could resist a letter sincerely written in a child’s own handwriting and voiced in their own words? Also, many such donations are tax deductible.

• Lobby the PTA. Candy bar, wrapping paper, and magazine sales fundraisers are often used for technology upgrades, field trips, updating the library, getting new gym equipment, and so on. But you too can share needs that are specific to a particular classroom or grade level. In some schools I have taught, the PTA administers "grants" to teachers to assist them with specific classroom needs.

• Locate donors through nonprofit organizations. DonorsChoose is an online charity that makes it easy for anyone to help teachers in need. Its website states that " … public school teachers from every corner of America post classroom project requests on the site, and then donors can give any amount to the project that most inspires them. When a project reaches its funding goal, the item(s) are shipped to your classroom."

• Prowl the Internet for treasures. Did you know that Craigslist has a "free" section where people list items they're looking to give away? Browse through this section and you may be amazed at what people are looking to get rid of. There is also a section where you can post what you are looking for.

Here are some examples of ads posted in March 2013:

Affordable and/or free art supplies—acrylic paints, canvases, paintbrushes, nice drawing pens, easel, paper, etc. Please make me an offer and email me with any inquiries.

Wanted: Packing peanuts and other packing supplies, bubble wrap, air bubbles etc. Willing to pick up in Lacey or Olympia area. Thanks!

I am looking for free unused 2013 calendars. Full-size or pocket/purse size is fine. Thank you.

As you can see the ads are short and to the point. There are hundreds of such postings updated daily.

• Other Internet treasures can be found on online auction sites such as eBay. For a fraction of the retail cost, I have found pencils and markers by the gross, teaching materials, toys, games, and storage containers.

• Don't shy away from grant writing. The days of spending hours and hours stating your case for funding, presenting a budget and even securing letters of recommendation are fading. Check out grants offered by the Association of American Educators and the NEA Foundation, in addition to those shared on the website Grant Wrangler.

So the next time you're reaching for your wallet to pay for supplies, think twice. Plan ahead, get creative, and you might be surprised about what you find! And, if you're like me, you will be overjoyed to have more money in your personal budget.

Do you have teacher budget secrets of your own? If so, please share them. There can never be a shortage of good money-saving tips.

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