I Have 9-Year-Old Twins. Here’s How I Go School Shopping Without Going Nuts

A father shops for back-to-school supplies with his children
The Penny Hoarder staff writer Mike Brassfield shops for back-to-school supplies with his daughters, Madeleine (hat) and Annabelle, both age 9, at Walmart. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
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I’m a father of twin girls, and let me tell you: It gets expensive fast when you have to buy two of everything.

That’s why it’s always so tempting to just buy my kids’ school supplies on my own. That would be so convenient, so efficient, SO PAINLESS. So much easier to keep costs down.

That’s not how I do it, though. Maybe I’m just a sucker for punishment, but I always take my twins to the store so they can pick out their own supplies. I think they should be able to choose things that suit their tastes. They should have skin in the game. I want them to dive into the school year with some gear that they love.

The tricky part is, that can get expensive. Check this out: Parents spent an average of $122.13 on back-to-school supplies per kid last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Oh, did I mention I have twins? Yeah, I’m the guy who buys everything twice. Just go ahead and double that figure to $244.26, please.

This whole education thing costs too much, I whined the other day. I’m gonna get my fifth-graders to drop out.

But my coworker was able to find everything on a typical school supply list for just $70. What was her secret for spending 43% less than the average parent? And what could a financially stressed dad like me learn from this?

We Found School Supplies for 43% Less at This Store

My coworker spent an entire day trekking to five different stores in search of the best prices on school supplies. 

Guess what? After she checked all the price tags and did all the math, it turned out that Walmart was the affordable option. 

What she found kind of shocked me: The same shopping list that cost $70 at Walmart would have cost $87 at Target, $101 at Staples, and $125 at CVS!

Some stores surprised us. First of all, watch out for dollar stores. #sorrybutitstrue. Some of their school supplies might be overpriced, and they won’t have nearly every item you need. Even an office-supply specialty store was well above the costs at Walmart and didn’t carry everything.

The truth is, I didn’t need much convincing. When it’s time for back-to-school shopping, Walmart has become my go-to destination every August for two simple reasons:

  1. Prices. Duh.
  2. It has everything I need in stock, so I won’t have to shuttle my kids to a second location. Parents, you know exactly what I’m talking about here.

We Saved $30 With This Quick Comparison

Even with my 9-year-old twins in tow (and tugging on my arms and distracting me), I took the time to compare prices in the store aisles. There are two strategies at work here.

First, buy in bulk when you can. According to my kids’ fifth grade supply list, we needed multiple notebooks, markers, pencils, colored pencils, glue sticks and folders for each kid. I’m never buying a single glue stick, not when I can get a dozen in one package.

Second, keep an eye out: Sometimes there’ll be a store brand that’s less expensive than the name brands. And sometimes, you just have to buy the item that’s the best fit for your family.

Here’s an example: I was about to buy two pairs of bluetooth wireless headphones for $29.83 apiece. Then I noticed some wired headphones that were on sale for $14.88 each. Total savings: Nearly $30.

In my family’s case, we didn’t go with the pricier wireless headphones because — let’s be brutally honest here — my kids are going to destroy their headphones anyway. It’s only a matter of time. Of course, your mileage may vary.

We Decided Some Compromises Are Worth It

Twin sisters shop for school supplies
To save money, Annabelle (left) and Madeleine compromised on school supplies with their dad. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Instead of drawing a hard line and refusing to buy every single thing they ask for, find ways to spend less on the weird school supplies they can’t seem to live without.

My kids were digging these Yoobi-brand decorative notebooks that are exclusive to Walmart and are a bargain at $2.97 a pop. Your typical decorative notebook often retails for $7.99 or so.

On the flip side, my kids’ school backpacks from last year are still intact, so no need for new ones this year.

Naturally, the twins weren’t too thrilled with this idea. One of them — the more covetous of the two — argued the point at length. As an experienced parent, I handled this with my usual tact and understanding.

Kid: But we get new backpacks every year!

Me: No you don’t.

Kid: But I need a new backpack!

Me: Not gonna happen.

Instead of backpacks, I caved and let them each get shiny metal pencil boxes priced at $10.97 apiece, decorated with cute little puppies and kittens. The kids begged hard before I handed over the 22 bucks. They used all the moves.

Compromises like this put my final total at $237.99, just below the national average per kid. 

The total would have been lower — and my cost-saving wizardry would have looked way more impressive — if one daughter wasn’t in a gifted program that has its own separate school supply list. If only she wasn’t such a little brainiac.

I left the store feeling good. Relieved. All done.

Maybe I could have been more frugal. But at least I knew I was getting Walmart’s low prices — and helping my daughters choose just the right supplies for them.

And they’re only going into fifth grade. There’s always next year.

Note: I shopped on July 23, 2019 at 201 34th St. N, St. Petersburg, Florida. My coworker shopped at 5929 Georgia Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., on July 1, 2019. Prices and availability will vary by location and may have changed since.

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.