Back to School Shopping Madness: From Kindergarten through College, It’s Time to Curb the Stuff

dorm roomAccording to a recent article in USA Today, Costly College Prerequisite: Decorate Dorm, 17.6 billion dollars is expected to be spent on back to school shopping for students in kindergarten through college this year. That’s $527.08 per family – an 18% rise from last year. Back to school shopping falls right behind holiday shopping for retailer’s most profitable season.


Sure, there are some necessities that need to be bought when going back to school. My sons both have a page long list of items that they are required to have on the first day of school – pencils, composition notebooks, scissors, a box of tissues, etc. When I was a kid, schools supplied those things, but budgets are ever tightening and now families are required to buy them. I certainly won’t be buying $527.08 worth of necessary supplies, though. I don’t think anyone will be buying $527.08 of necessary supplies, unless their definition of necessary is different from mine.

I was in Target last night, and there was an entire section dedicated to the necessities for a college dorm room. This was separate from the traditional back to school section with school supplies. This section had coordinated dorm bedding, rugs, lamps, wall hangings and desk top accessories. Other items that many college kids consider necessities are computers (okay, I’ll give them that), microwaves, TV’s, DVD players, gaming consoles, mp3 players, hand held gaming systems, and stereos.

Kohls, Ikea, JCPenney, and other mid-priced retailers all have back to school collections of “must-have” items. And let’s not forget the new clothes. Having to show up to school in last year’s clothes just might make a child die of embarrasment.

Whether it’s stuff for a college student or a kindergarten student, many of the “must-have’s” simply aren’t. I can tell you from experience they aren’t. When I went to college, I lugged the bedding from my home bed including the pillow and comfortor back and forth to the dorms. Same with my towels (all two of them that my mom let me take from the hall closet). My stereo consisted of a radio alarm clock that played cassettes. If I wanted to watch TV, I could have gone to the common room. There was no big “our baby is going to college” shopping trip. But that was (gulp) 20 years ago.

Could today’s college freshmen do the same? Of course, they could. For most kids all it would take would be for a parent to say, “No.” Or better yet, raise them to be responsible, sustainable consumers from a young age so they won’t expect $1285 worth of new stuff (what the average college freshmen spends) when they go off to college.

A typical back to school shopping trip for a grade schooler or high schooler consists not only of paper and pencils but a new backpack, lunch box, shoes, clothes, and locker accessories (yes, locker accessories, I’m not making this up). When parents shop like this for kids when they are young, it’s no wonder college freshmen expect so much and retailers make it so easy for them to buy it in one shopping trip in one section of the store.

It’s time to curb the back to school shopping for so much stuff. Reuse last year’s backpacks and lunch boxes and sneakers and dorm bedding. When you do need to buy items, buy with long term in mind so things won’t go out of style. No self-respecting fourth grade girl will want to go to school with last spring’s High School Musical 2 backpack when everyone knows that Hannah Montana is where it’s at this month. So skip the pop pictures on the backpacks and buy nuetral.

If your kid doesn’t really need it, don’t buy it. Your child won’t die of embarrasment. I know this from experience, too, because my kids are still alive and well and carrying the same backpacks they’ve had for years.

If you’d like some ideas about what a college student might want to buy to take to the dorms to be more sustainable on campus, see Back to School Shopping Madness 2: What an Environmentally Concerned College Student Should be Taking to the Dorm.

More Sustainable Back to School

College Dorms Getting Greener and Greener

Think Green for Back to School

Low Impact Living: Back to School Green Style

  1. Stephanie

    We used similar logic shopping for our daughter this year. New backpack and lunch box because the old were thrashed. But we didn’t let her get the Dora backpack because we knew that she’d be getting teased this year about it (first grade) and worse next year. Beyond that, just the contribution to classroom supplies.

    Well, my mother-in-law did buy a stack a new clothes, but size-wise that was going to have to happen some anyhow. But I can’t imagine spending $527.08 on back to school.

  2. Robin Shreeves

    Stephanie – they do grow fast don’t they? I don’t need any new clothes for the fall for the boys, but my youngest went to put on his sneakers today after not wearing them for a few weeks and they don’t fit! Ugh.

  3. Janine

    I’ll be hitting up thrift stores before the new shops this year. Last year’s lunch bags are reusable but kids manage to put holes in all three of their book bags:)

    We made out well with handmedowns (and some very stylish ones I must say that my kids love) and I’m looking into shoes I put away for when they got bigger that were passed along in good condition.

    From reading your post I just thought of how I need to go through last year’s school supplies that were sent home before buying new because I know we have things like pencil boxes and scissor that can be reused.

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