Your classroom is bare, and the school supplies you received are long gone. Check out these tips for finding school supplies without maxing out your credit card.

The principal escorted me, a first-year, middle school teacher, to my classroom for the first time. Excited, I walked in only to find bare walls, a file cabinet, an empty bookcase, a computer, desks, chalk, a stapler, and an empty tape dispenser. That was it. Where are the books? I thought. The posters? The buckets of supplies welcoming me to my first year? There were none. No books, bulletin board materials, paper, pens, markers, folders, or anything else. I smiled at my principal and said, “Thank you. This room has so much potential!” I hadn’t even received my first paycheck, and already I found myself at Walmart with a $200 credit card charge for initial classroom supplies, an expense which continued to grow as the school year progressed.

In subsequent years, I found that the goodie bags provided to teachers at the beginning of the year — stocked with a few rolls of tape, a box of staples, and some sticky notes — just didn’t cover my classroom’s needs. I was continually surprised at how much money I still spent annually on facial tissues, student incentives and rewards, and necessary supplies and instructional materials. One year, my total came to $850. And I wasn’t alone. My colleagues reported spending, on average, between $300-$600 per year on materials. And during 2009-2010, according to the 2010 National School Supply and Equipment Association’s Retail Market Awareness Study, teachers spent $1.3 billion of their personal money on classroom materials, an average of $356 per teacher. After realizing how much money I was spending on my classroom each year, I decided to find other resources besides my credit card to stock up my classroom. Here are some strategies that provided more return with a lower investment.

Hit the garage sales. At the beginning of my teaching career, I acquired as many supplies as I could by hunting for garages sales on Saturday mornings. Within just a few hours, I typically came home with a backseat filled with printer paper, classroom decorations, books, and general supplies — many brand new — for a small fraction of the cost I once paid at the store. Over time, I discovered the deals sweetened when I mentioned I was a teacher, and finally, I started leaving my business card (also purchased with my own money) and said if they didn’t sell their school supplies, books, or other useful materials and wanted to donate it to a classroom, to please call me. Many times they called, and sometimes, they gave me the items right then, for free. Attending garage sales certainly took a few hours out of my Saturdays, but the process is easy, the payoff worthwhile, and the experience enjoyable.

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