Let's try and fill a backpack for $10 or less!
Start early to give yourself time to shop the best sales.
If you start looking for deals a week or two before school starts, you put yourself at the mercy of the stores. Notebooks may have been on a great special last month, and will appear for that ultra low price again in 3 weeks, but you need them next week. Oops! I guess you'll be stuck buying them at whatever the lowest price is you can find this week. Come on! Give yourself a fair chance and start scouring the office store ads today! Each store puts a few insanely low priced (we're talking $0.01) supplies on their front page each week in the summer. Take advantage of those prices!
Go for the plain supplies, then customize them later.
How often are kids losing their school supplies? Or coming home with a notebook that looks like it fell under a lawn mower? Here's a tip: let your kids customize their school supplies with drawings, pictures, stickers and other craft supplies and they will be less likely to lose them or destroy them. You will save money by not having to buy that Justin Bieber notebook for 10 times the price of the plain one, plus your kids will have fun customizing their own supplies! Have scissors, stickers, photos and glue sticks ready and they'll quickly forget about coming home from the store with just a "plain old boring" folder or notebook. This idea can also be put to use on other supplies. Acrylic paint for standard wooden pencils and you've got 20 custom made, colorful pencils for the price of 2 pre-made ones! You may be more successful if you leave your kids at home here, so they don't throw a fit over not getting the flashy supplies.
Organize a swap.
Best advice here is to find parents with kids in different grades than your own. If your friend's kid just finished 4th grade and your little one is heading into that grade, see if they will let you take some of their grade specific supplies like a compass or a protractor. Use social networks to try and get a group of 5-8 parents looking to swap supplies. The possibilities here are great since you are not paying for anything! Also, keep your eye on Craisglist for people looking to swap or donate school supplies. Additional tip: while you've got those parents together, connect with one or two and plan to shop together. You may save money by buying in bulk and dividing the products and cost up.
This will prevent you from having to re-purchase items due to loss. Customize return address labels or other small labels. Let your kids in on the fun by allowing them to pick the color and design of the label. Slap one on all of their supplies and they'll have an easy way to find their supplies among a classroom full of the same things.
Yard sales and thrift stores can be your friend.
Check out a few local yard sales. Rulers, pens, staplers and binders are commonly found at sales. These same items can be found at local thrift stores as well. At garage sales, negotiate the asking price to bring your cost down. Do you have enough random stuff lying around to have a sale of your own? Sell a few things of your own to help offset the cost of school supplies.
Chat with the teacher.
Sometimes, a teacher will include school supplies on a list that may not be required. Check to make sure you can't just buy 1 large binder to replace the 3 small ones that are on the supply list. What about notebooks? Do you really need to buy one for each of the 7 classes that your kid will be in? Also, there may be a supply related to a topic covered at the end of the year that the teacher does not always get to. See if you can wait until later to see if you actually need to purchase it. Teachers know all about having to pinch pennies and will be more than willing to work with you here.
Look into tax free shopping.
About 35% of U.S. states have tax free days where parents can shop for school supplies tax free. This can help save even more! A simple google search for "tax free weekend _____" where the blank is your own state name will reveal if your state is participating and on which days. That being said, don't pass up the 1 cent pencils or 5 cent folders because it's not tax free. Consider the tax free days for items that you seem to be having trouble finding on sale.
Fall back on the dollar stores.
While you may be able to get better deals elsewhere, dollar stores are great places to round out your shopping. If there are a couple of items that you simply could not find used or on a great sale, check out your local dollar store. You'll be able to find all sorts of school supplies! We don't recommend starting your shopping here though, since you can get items for just pennies if you shop the office supply stores early enough.