Which Store Is Cheapest for Back-to-School Supplies?

by Travis Pizel · 19 comments

Though stores have had their back-to-school supplies out for months, I’ve been ignoring them. But seeing a day labeled “Schedule pick up” on our giant white board calendar reminded us it was time to print off the list from the school district website — and make sure the kids were ready to go for a brand new school year.

The idea to complete our shopping popped into my wife’s head well into a Wednesday evening, so we headed off to Shopko to pick up the supplies. Shopko wouldn’t have been my first choice, but she insisted they had some good sales. We had to hustle to complete our list before walking out the doors right at closing time.

“That’s the last time we buy our supplies there,” she remarked.

Our total was more than she expected — though that might have been due to the extra things for herself that she threw in the cart in the mad dash for the checkout lane.

Nonetheless, I decided to do a comparison between the three major back-to-school retailers close to my home, so I could find out once and for all which one was the best for back-to-school shopping.

Target vs. Walmart vs. Shopko: Which Is Cheapest?

Here’s what I needed to purchase for my daughter, who’s entering the 7th grade. We had some leftover supplies, so this list only includes the items we had to buy:

  • 12 spiral notebooks
  • 6 folders
  • 1 package wide-ruled loose leaf paper
  • 1 glue stick
  • 1 protractor
  • Colored pencils
  • 24 #2 pencils
  • Highlighter pens
  • Blue/black pens

I gathered the total price for all of these items (using the same brand names as often as possible) from Target, Walmart, and Shopko. Here were the totals:

  • Target: $28.21
  • Shopko: $26.76
  • Walmart: $23.57

It turns out that my wife and I were both right. While buying school supplies from Shopko wasn’t the cheapest option, it also wasn’t the most expensive. Quite honestly, there’s not much of a difference between them. Convenience, rather than price, would likely play more of a factor in which one you’d choose. Walmart, however, is the least expensive option AND is the closest to our home — so next year, we know exactly where we’ll be picking up our supplies.

Have you done your back-to-school shopping yet? Which store did you choose? 

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • David Ning says:

    That’s amazing Karen,

    Some churches do amazing work for those in need. Thanks for sharing.

  • Karen K says:

    I have a fantastic thrift store in the town I live in that has been in business for almost 20 years. They are very selective as to the type of things that they accept and always in clean condition. This time of the year, they start putting together bags of near perfect paper, binders, pens, pencils, and almost every school supply that you can think of.

    If you are really lacking funds for clothing and so on, they donate new items to the school your child is attending or will give you a voucher to go to the clothing THRIFT store in our town that has been in operation for over 40 years.

    These are both run by 2 churches and you can go there (to either one of the churches) as well for food or anything else you might need. They also benevolently offer free lunches and or breakfast to children that go without.

    A few years ago, a beloved member of our community passed way before her time and she was our absolute favorite volunteer and donated and raffled things to help others. When she passed they put this policy of donating a large bag of clothing in her name to anyone in need.

    THAT’S the store I shop at!

  • Blaze says:

    At the end of the school year when everything comes home sort we through it immediately and salvage everything that is still useable and chuck the rest. Test the pens, re-sharpen the pencils, test the rings on the binders, etc. Check the condition of the locker accessories (white board, magnetic baskets, hooks, mirror). Most items have made it through at least a couple of years. We have one drawer where we keep office and school supplies and anything we can salvage gets added to the new stuff so it doesn’t get lost over the summer. Record the combination for the locker lock or it will be forgotten by the fall! In July I review the list of recommend supplies for the fall and start watching for anything not already on standby in the supplies we have. Keep in mind not everything is needed on day one. My daughter’s list recommends 3 white erasers. She has the one from last year to start with so if I don’t find them on sale before school starts it’s no big deal, she has one to start and I’ll eventually pick up a couple more. After years of working through a big package of 30 regular pencils we’ll finally have to buy more. I only ever send a couple at a time and the rest stay safely in the supply cupboard. If I send the entire package of pencils or pens they seem to be “loaned” to friends and lost forever and we wind up buying more. We used to buy the kids new backpacks every year and they fell apart quickly. One year I invested in a Swiss Army back pack for my son and it lasted 6 years, including all of high school. Yes it cost far more initially but it turned out to be the best deal by far.

    • David Ning says:

      So true about the locker combination. I still remember vividly how I came back from break during my high school years staring at my locker for a couple minutes while I frantically try to remember my lock combo 🙂

    • We also do the “go through the items left over to see what is salvageable for the next year” activity, Blaze. My neighbors were able to salvage so much from their daughter’s supplies that they didn’t have to buy anything for the beginning of the year. They may have to refresh some items through the school year, though.

  • I do not have kids, but this is a great time of year to buy office supplies. Many items that are meant for kids work well for the office and are super cheap compared to the “Big Name” office supply stores.

  • When the school year started, I chose to go buy a school supplies that had a promo, like buy 5 pencils get free 1. And I use my loyalty card to get more discounted price.

    • David Ning says:

      Good strategy Kate. Pencils are one of those supplies that you can probably only use a couple for the entire school life. But since everybody (myself included) loses them all the time, we end up having to buy tons and tons every year!

    • Loyalty cards are a great way to save money, Kate….and if you can get points by buying school supplies more power to you! Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  • Very simple, but useful list! I’d love to see a more thorough list — clothes, shoes, backpacks — but this is perfect.

    Walmart almost always wins in terms of convenience and low prices, but I sometimes go out of my way and take the extra expense just to shop at Target (less massive and messy) or even Staples (much more pricey, but the shopping experience is ace). Walmart during back to school season is a nightmare! ~Brenda @ SuperMoney

    • Not a bad idea, Brenda, and a slightly different point from the theme of this thread, but closely allied: products at these stores are not always the same.

      Target, which you mention, in many cases has somewhat better products. For example, in electronics, a while back I wanted a new television. Superficially, Walmart looked cheaper.

      But when I examined the models carefully I found that model numbers were almost the same but not quite. The similar Target models, while a little higher, had features such as the type ports available, that were not on those at Walmart. Overall I found the Target model more appealing.

    • David Ning says:

      What, you don’t like weaving through massive crowds just to see stuff out of stock and then stand in long line ups to pay? 🙂

      Kidding aside, I always wonder why schools, or at least some parents, don’t start selling a bulk pack for people who rather pay a bit more for the convenience. Isn’t that a win win?

    • I agree, Brenda, there are a lot of items that could be on the list that aren’t. As far as the shopping experience, I do most of my shopping (groceries, school shopping, whatever) very early in the morning or late at night…..so I can avoid other people all together. The stores are VERY unpopulated when I go. 🙂

  • A refreshing approach to life’s questions: look at the facts! And to do so in aggregate.

    It is so easy to assume we know the answers to questions without doing real research into the facts. But even when we compare facts, it is easy to use what we could call anecdotal information.

    With groceries people do it all the time. They compare the prices on one or two items and make conclusions that are wrong when looking at the whole picture.

    I am sure a lot of folks will profit from your article. And summer is almost over. School is just around the corner for a lot of families.

    • David Ning says:

      And that’s why grocery stores often price one or two items extremely cheap to give consumers a false impression on everything else in the store.

      Online shopping, though it’s tough to do with groceries, takes care of this problem though because you can compare each item separately and easily. That’s why I do most of my shopping online these days.

    • Thanks for the kind words, James…..and I agree. Like David said, some stores will offer an unbelievable deal on one thing (for example, 1 cent notebooks), and then hope they decide just to get the rest of the items there. thanks for reading!

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