It’s back-to-school season, which means that parents are being encouraged to buy, buy, buy. My own son has the usual list of supplies his teachers would like him to bring to school on the first day, but I won’t be going out to buy everything on that list. Here’s why.
Last fall when I was chatting with my sister-in-law, she was genuinely surprised when I told her my son was not getting a new backpack for first grade. Instead he’d be using the one he used for pre-K and kindergarten. It hadn’t occurred to my sister-in-law that she didn’t need to get the kids brand new book bags every year — which means my niece was on her sixth backpack in six years!
It’s not her fault that she was convinced to buy all those backpacks: Our culture in the U.S. is to buy all new everything each school year – and frankly, it makes me a little queasy. It's a waste of resources and money to replace things that still work. With today’s rising costs, it may not even be money you have to spend (a recent survey of 1,045 parents by Credit Karma found that 42% of responding parents plan to take on debt to afford back-to-school shopping for their kids!).
In addition to the financial hardship back-to-school shopping imposes, all those new things are a burden to maintain and keep organized, and since most of us take forever to actually get rid of the things we no longer use (ahem, the toddler-sized backpack taking up room in our hall closet), it’s also a recipe for a very cluttered house (all those school items add up!). Worst of all, this culture of shopping trains our kids to think they need new stuff every time they embark on a new venture.
So, before you rush out to buy ALL the back-to-school supplies, why not assess what you’ve already got? Last year’s backpack, lunchbox, pencil case, or markers might still be perfectly functional. Yes, your kid might get a little thrill of excitement to have a brand new backpack and supplies, but I bet there’s something else you could do to give them that feeling without having to buy in excess.
I do think we should give kids a fresh start. Almost every backpack and lunch sack can be laundered (and if your kid has one that can’t be, consider getting one that can when this one wears out). If you take a few minutes to spot treat stains and scrub the grimy straps and handles, the bags will come out of the wash looking renewed. (Pssst… another common back-to-school purchase that people rarely wash — but should — is sneakers.) If you still feel like your kid needs something new, how about a cute patch or a keychain to add to their backpack? Smaller purchases mean less wasted money and materials.
The smaller school supplies are harder to refresh, but you better believe I will happily cut the five used pages out of a composition notebook from the previous year and send it in to be used again this year. I’ll also revive last year’s colored pencils by sharpening them all back to the same length, so they feel new-ish. I’m not above cobbling together a complete crayon set from various packs we have around the house. I’ll also shop my own house for a few fun additions to my son’s pencil bag: Our drawers are filled with novelty pencils, erasers and other potential school supplies that came home in various goody bags.
Not only do I want to avoid the waste of replacing things that are still functional, I want to teach my son to celebrate milestones without shopping. So, instead of making a big to-do about new stuff, I will be making a list of last-days-of-summer vacation activities we want to pack in, like one more trip to our favorite ice cream shop and another family bike ride. In lieu of going out to buy more clothes that he doesn’t need at the end of the warm season, I’ll ask what he wants to wear on the first day of school and make sure it’s laundered. I’ll also treat my kid to a special last-night-of-summer dinner and first-day-of-school breakfast. I’ll be hyping the new school year in a dozen ways, I just won’t be buying as much.
LAURA FENTON is the author of The Little Book of Living Small and a small space and sustainable living expert. She lives with her husband and their son in Jackson Heights, Queens, in New York City. You can find her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton.