Back-To-School Supplies Your Elementary School Kids Don't Need

Step away from the smelly markers.

First of all, a confession: even at this point in my life, long past any need for them, I love fancy school supplies.

I was a child who always begged for the non-standard pencil case and the unnecessary Trapper Keeper binder, and I have maintained those high standards well into adulthood. I understand the appeal of heading to that first day of school with a backpack full of brand new, very cool school supplies.

I understand the appeal of heading to that first day of school with a backpack full of brand new, very cool school supplies.

But I am also now a parent heading to the store with one of those lists and wondering just how little money I can acquire all of this for. Even the standard lists of school supplies can add up quickly, and that's if you don't have a child who is trying to upsell you as you wander the store aisles.

And if you are on a restricted income, getting ready for the return to school can quickly become stressful and unaffordable — so much so that some districts, like this one in Ottawa, are telling parents that supplies will be handled in-house.

So how do you know which items on that list really are expensive? And how can parents balance a desire to outfit their kids properly for school — and let them express a bit of personality doing it — with their need not to blow the budget or clutter the house with things that aren't really needed?

Here are some tips on which 10 supplies you can avoid buying.

Any backpack that isn't actually designed for carrying stuff

There was one year when canvas backpacks with string closures and leather straps were the must-have item for school. They weren't that expensive, which had to feel like a win for parents. But they also never stayed closed and had thin shoulder straps that made carrying anything heavier than a couple of notebooks torturous.

Say no to any backpack that isn't built for actually carrying books.

Gel pens

Has anybody ever used a gel pen for longer than 20 minutes before it dried up? I refuse to believe it's possible. Multi-coloured gel pens are fun but you'll be replacing the whole pack weeks in. Just get regular, boring pens and save yourself the aggro (and money).

Pens in "fun" colours

There is not a teacher on this earth who has ever wanted to read an entire book report written in lime green ink. There just isn't. Dark colours are standard for ink for a reason: the contrast against bright white paper makes them easier to read, which is pretty important when you are reviewing a classroom full of work, or when individual students are studying their own notes. Pens should have black or blue ink, the end.

Mechanical pencils

The leads snap off. The plastic breaks. Those tiny erasers on the bottom are useless. And nobody has ever been able to find that pack of pencil leads when they actually needed it.

You know what was perfectly fine for decades? Regular old pencils — the kind you sharpen. Bonus: you always know just how much lead you have left to work with. Also: some Scantron systems won't properly recognize mechanical pencils on standardized tests.

Ice packs for lunch boxes

Some lunches do need to be kept cold, even for a few hours out of the fridge, but you can do that without spending a bunch of money on cute ice packs. Those expensive freezer packs will probably get used about four times before they get lost or forgotten at school and then never seen again.

Instead, if you're packing lunches that need chilling make your own cold packs, for far less money.

Markers that smell nice

Look, I wanted a package of Mr. Sketch scented markers just as badly as the next kid when I was in school. But do you remember what happened whenever your teacher let you use them? You all just sat around huffing markers instead of actually doing your schoolwork.

Today's children are no different; save these for the craft table at home, where you can at least borrow them to use in your adult colouring books.

Geometry sets that have 37 pieces

Everyone knows that you are only going to use a couple of those rulers and the compass — at best. Does anybody even know what you do with some of those pieces? They're doing junior high math, not an architecture degree.


Once, when I was in high school, I couldn't get my bottle of Wite-Out to open. In the ensuing struggle I got the top off, but also managed to splatter it all over my face — glasses included. And I was a teenager! Can you imagine that stuff in the hands of a child? It's just a bad idea. They can cross out mistakes, it's fine.

Sanitizing gel

Barring advice from a medical professional geared to the needs of your particular child, or that of a particular child in their class, you do not need to send your child to school with a vial of sanitizing gel attached to their (supportive and well-built) backpack.

Research shows that the best way to clean hands is to wash them properly — teach your children to do that and the gel is usually moot.

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