Let’s cut to it: Back-to-school shopping can be quite the challenge.
First, it’s expensive. Parents budgeted an average of $122.13 on back-to-school supplies per kid last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
Second, it’s time-consuming. And if the kids are in tow, conditions can quickly deteriorate. And those classroom supply lists? Dang, they’re specific. Of course, you can never find everything you need at one store.
That’s why we’re here to help you out. We spent an entire day trekking to five different stores with a real school-supply list to find the cheapest back-to-school essentials.
Walmart is known for offering low prices, so we put it to the test against four other popular stores for back-to-school shopping.
Our Back-to-School Shopping List
I used a school supply list for a fourth grade class in my town near Washington, D.C.
1. Walmart: Does It Really Have Low Prices?
Walmart is notorious for having low prices on, well, everything, so I started here — even if it meant driving 30 minutes and navigating the most confusing traffic circles I ever did see. (D.C. traffic, am I right?)
Although I was back-to-school shopping in July — before those in-your-face displays were set up — I still easily found everything I needed (which I can’t say for any of the other stores).
Walmart offers a variety of each item, with various brands and quantities. If you want to go cheap, you could opt for generic store brands. If your kids’ teacher requested a specific brand, you can find all those, too, including Crayola, Elmer’s and Five Star.
Walmart was the most affordable option out of all five stores, even when it came to name brands. I found 24-packs of Ticonderoga pencils at Walmart for $1.95. Target only had 12-packs — half as many — for $2.39 each.
Total price: $70.07
2.Target: Will Its Store Brand Help You Save?
I’ve always liked Target, but I was a bit disappointed in its back-to-school selection. In fact, I had to go to two Targets to find every item on the list — the Targets in my area are small, and they didn’t have back-to-school displays up yet.
When available, I priced its store brand of supplies, which sometimes proved cheaper than the other stores.
For example, Target’s copy paper was cheaper than Walmart’s selection. But I could get a 24-pack of name-brand Ticonderoga pencils for $1.95 at Walmart; whereas a generic 24-pack of pencils cost $1.99 at Target. Why pay four cents more for generic?
Other items were just plain overpriced. Composition books cost 10 cents more than at Walmart. More dramatically, plastic Five Star folders, which cost 97 cents each at Walmart, were $1.99 each at Target. If you’re buying multiples, which you’ll probably have to, the difference adds up quickly.
Total price: $87.25
3. Dollar Tree: Is $1 Actually a Good Deal?
Can I admit something? When I started pricing items at Dollar Tree, I was like, “Where the heck are the prices?!”
Welp, I kinda forgot… everything’s $1. Which you’d think would make this our most affordable option on the list, but don’t let it fool you.
Some items, like composition notebooks, were extremely overpriced — at $1 they were double Walmart’s price. Some items were cheaper than at Target and Walmart, but there was good reason. For example, colored pencils were $1. Great! But you only got eight pencils per pack, and they were all neon.
Oh, and the school supplies were mixed in with the toys, which is a nightmare if you want to bring your kids along.
The most frustrating thing was not being able to find everything on my list. I was missing seven items when I left the store. And if I’d purchased the items that were available? I’d be sending my kid off to school with neon pencils.
Although Dollar Tree might lure you in with the promise of low prices, I don’t recommend doing your back-to-school shopping here. You’ll just wind up driving across town to Walmart.
Total price: n/a
4. Staples: Will You Pay More Just to Avoid the Toy Aisle?
Staples is an obvious choice when it comes to back-to-school shopping, right? After all, this is its specialty. And here’s a perk: You won’t have worry about herding your kids away from the toy aisle.
Unfortunately, Staples turned out to be the second most expensive option on our list — despite some of its stellar sales.
I felt giddy when I found 97-cent colored pencils and $3.99 packs of copy paper. However, my subtotal started skyrocketing when I added in the household supplies (disinfectant, paper products and baggies).
Disinfectant wipes cost a full dollar more at Staples than at Walmart. Same with tissues. Even hand sanitizer — a smaller bottle — cost more. If you’re buying multiples, your total will add up fast.
Total price: $101.18 (excluding gallon baggies)
5. CVS: How Much Will You Pay for Convenience?
I remember, as a child, running into a CVS or Walgreens for last-minute back-to-school items my mom and I had somehow overlooked. After all, there’s basically one on every corner.
I was hoping to tell you that CVS is a convenient option for back-to-school shopping, but… I can’t.
I can’t encourage you to spend $2.79 on a composition notebook when you can get it for 50 cents at Walmart. And I can’t tell you to spend $7.79 on a container of Clorox disinfecting wipes when you can get the same thing at Walmart for almost $3 less.
Even with BOGO 50% deals for CVS members, you’ll likely wind up paying more. Plus, you might not need two pairs of scissors or two packs of dry-erase markers.
I suppose if you’re super desperate at the last minute, pop into CVS for an item or two. But go armed with some extra cash.
Total price: $124.95 (excluding big erasers)
Where to Go for Back-to-School Supplies
Y’all. When I got home, I was exhausted. I kicked off my shoes, popped open a beer and started crunching numbers (don’t worry, my editors checked them for me), and honestly, I was a little surprised when one option so clearly came out on top.
In terms of pricing, Walmart beat out the other stores by up to 43%. That’s a savings of nearly half built in — no coupons, no sales, no cash-back apps.
Here are the totals:
- Walmart: $70.07
- Target: $87.25
- Dollar Tree: Disqualified for missing too many items
- Staples: $101.18
- CVS: $124.95
That means Walmart was:
- $17.18 cheaper than Target.
- $26.62 cheaper than Staples.
- $54.68 cheaper than CVS.
Oh, and it was the only store that carried all the items on this list (unlike, ahem, Dollar Tree).
So if you’re taking your kid(s) back-to-school shopping, Walmart’s the place to go to save some money.
At the end of the day, all I can say is… Kudos to the parents who are embarking on back-to-school shopping adventures this year. I’m thankful I have a little more time to practice.
Note: I shopped on July 1, 2019 at these five stores:
- Walmart, 5929 Georgia Ave NW Washington, DC.
- Target: 7828 Georgia Ave NW, Washington, DC and 6831 Wisconsin Ave, Bethesda, MD
- Dollar Tree: 5260 Randolph Rd, Rockville, MD
- Staples: 6800 Wisconsin Ave, Chevy Chase, MD
- CVS: 6917 Arlington Rd, Bethesda, MD
Prices and availability will vary by location and may have changed since my shopping trip.
Carson Kohler ([email protected]) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She used to love back-to-school shopping. *pushes glasses up the bridge of her nose, flashes a smile full of braces* Now, as an adult, it just makes her all sweaty feeling.