Every August, the war begins. I call it the “Battle of the School Supplies.”

If you’ve ever dived headfirst into a cardboard bin of glue sticks, Crayon packages, or Expo markers, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. By the time my daughter and I usually get around to our back-to-school supply shopping, the pickings are pretty slim, and I find myself weaving my cart in and out of aisles and around obstacles, elbowing other mothers and boxing them out “basketball-style” to grab the last box of colored pencils. I’ve also been known to camp out in front of the spiral notebook section, making myself completely at home as I dig through shelves of notebooks, searching for the “college-ruled” kind.

“Do you think you can squeeze in there?” I ask my daughter, motioning for her to do a Black Friday-esque army-crawl across the Walmart floor between carts and people, all in a quest for the hard-to-find plastic dividers I’ve spotted on the bottom shelf in the distance.

Or what about the never-ending search for pre-sharpened Ticonderoga pencils? Experienced moms and dads know that these are usually found in the office supply section toward the back of the store (not with the school supplies), but even then, they sell out quickly. We’ve spent many an August hopping from Target to Office Depot to Walmart looking for the elusive “World’s Best Pencil,” only to give up and settle for the bitter taste of defeat — sub-standard, unsharpened No. 2 pencils.

In honor of the coming battle, I’ve collected some advice and pro-tips for back-to-school supply shopping to help you navigate the next couple of weeks like a real school supply maven:

  • I know we all want to impress the teacher by sending our kiddos in on the first day with every single item. But can I tell you a secret? If you can’t find something, it’s not the end of the world. If you have a Type A personality and just can’t leave it undone, simply email the teacher and let them know you couldn’t find it. But chances are, the teacher will reach out and let you know if you’re missing something super-important.

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  • Sometimes it pays to wait until the first week of school to see what supplies each specific teacher would like your student to have. If there’s one thing I’ve learned the older my daughter gets, it’s that sometimes teachers (especially in middle/high school) don’t have much say in the standard school supply list that gets sent out. The list might reflect items that a past teacher — not the current teacher — requested of students. I don’t know how many times we’ve wasted money on the requested 2″ binders for classes, only to realize that the binders don’t fit in her locker, or that each teacher would like a 1″ binder instead. Go ahead and buy loose-leaf notebook paper and pencils, but maybe hold off on the more specific items.
  • Purchasing quality items will save you money in the long-run, while also ensuring your child’s success. A durable poly pocket folder will last longer than a paper one and will keep your student’s papers from getting crumpled and torn in the bottom of their backpack or locker. Don’t simply fulfill the requirements of the list; do some research into the products that are most practical and long-lasting so you don’t find yourself replacing everything over winter break.

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  • Know your kiddo. You know how your student’s brain works better than anyone else. If they have trouble staying organized and remembering to turn assignments in on time, this is the time to help them create a system and set them up for success. For my daughter, it’s one simple 1.5″ binder filled with loose-leaf paper and plastic pocketed dividers that she can use to keep all her classwork in one place. Then she goes through it once every few weeks and empties out the no-longer-needed papers into a folder at home. We’ve tried a variety of things, but this system works best for her.
  • If the very thought of school supply shopping is overwhelming, consider doing it all online! There’s nothing better than camping out on the sofa with your laptop (in your pajamas) and peacefully filling your shopping cart (cue the classical music) while other parents are at the local Target doing battle à la Black Friday.
  • If you’re financially able, consider purchasing extras of some supplies to help your student’s teacher stock up on items that can be used later in the year or be distributed to kids for whom money is tight.

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The truth is, I actually love school supplies and back-to-school shopping. There’s an excitement about the start of school — about the arrival of fall, itself — and I was truly disappointed when I realized last year that my daughter was too old for me to label the non-community supplies with a black Sharpie anymore. (‘Cause labeling’s my favorite part!)

Do you have any tried-and-true back-to-school shopping tips to share? What works best for you and your family? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments! Happy August!

Looking for a cold drink to celebrate the end of summer? Look no further.

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