Back-To-School Shopping in America: A British Parent’s Survival Guide

Don't forget your list! (CMN)

Don’t forget your list! (CMN)

It’s back-to-school time in the U.S. The stores are full of discounts, the aisles full of pens, pencils and erasers (pronounced with a soft “s” by the way, and not a “z”). Fortunately, many American kids don’t have to wear a school uniform, so there’s no second mortgage for a new blazer or worse, finding that you’ve left it too late and the regulation socks are sold out.

For British parents in the States, back-to-school time can be something of a learning curve. First of all, they go back when? Most of us are used to schools going back in early September, but in many parts of the U.S., the kids go back in August. Given that many of them have had three months off, you won’t complain about the start of school, but the timing can take you by surprise. If your child is on a sports team, they are often required to spend two to four weeks practicing before term even starts. Learn from my errors, if you’re thinking of traveling in the summer, check the sports schedule as well as the school calendar.

Even if there’s no school uniform to purchase, there will be a sizable shopping list, with items that may as well be written in hieroglyphics. I’m talking about Trapper Keepers (fancy, brand name for a binder in which you can insert tons of stuff) and project jackets. Although the kid usually needs a binder or two (not called “files” by the way), said binders can be of varying widths, D-ring or round-ring, tab-closured, zippered or heavy-duty. Please note, they are invariably 3-ring, so don’t use your old 2-rings unless you want to spend hours and hours punching two holes into virgin paper.

Similarly, paper folders aren’t just well, paper folders. You’ve got your 2-pocket, slash pocket, and file folders, as well as pocket portfolios and the aforementioned project jacket (which isn’t part of the school uniform). Not surprisingly, paper itself also has different names, as this handy dandy chart explains. Most of the time, the kids will be using Letter, which, at 8.5 x 11 inches, is almost but not quite A4, but, there’s more than one type of Letter paper, natch. Lined paper can come loose or in notebook format, and the notebooks can be spiral bound or pad format, which in turn can be top bound or side-bound. Your options are also wide, medium or narrow ruled and frequently college-ruled, which sounds very important but is another word for medium-ruled. Kids may also be required to have a Composition book, which is basically a jotter, a smaller, bound book of lined paper.

Many U.S. students have metal lockers, just like you see in the movies. In my experience, the only locker paraphernalia usually required is the padlock or combination lock, which I warn you, are like gold dust in the days before school starts. In addition however, kids might want a locker shelf to maximize the teeny space provided, magnetic pencil holder and even a magnetic mirror for the back of the door. Oh yes, the locker accessory market is big business, with locker wallpaper, magnetic flowers and, wait for it … locker chandeliers.

Like I said, it’s one big learning curve for British parents and kids alike.


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Talulla

    I’m curious, do schools in the UK send out supply lists like they do here in the States?

    • meowingwool

      Nope generally until you start A-Levels (Qualifications that you do in the last two years of school in Wales, England and NI) any books/folders that you need will be given to you in your first lessons, also we don’t get big locker like you, it’s a little bigger than A4 paper cubed in the UK mostly. Even then at A-Level you are 16-18 you are expected to know what to take into lessons by now, so nope no ‘supply lists’. From reading Enid Blyton and also a school I went to for one year before I moved, if you go to a boarding school, you will be given a list. (I didn’t board there, I was just a day kid.)

      • expatmum

        The lists my kids get are very specific to the teacher they are getting. We don’t get a school-wide or even grade-wde list, and it includes things like wipes, Kleenex and other stuff that the whole class needs.

  • Kim D

    I haven’t seen a Trapper Keeper since the 90s…

  • dhr

    Small town Kansas: our public schools have banned Trapper Keepers as too large to fit in lockers. Velcro closures on notebooks (often the only ones sold at Walmart) are likewise not allowed by some teachers. Imagine the sound of 24 Velcro strips being simultaneously ripped open several times an hour.

    • expatmum

      Ha ha ha ha. Also, they get stuck on absolutely everything! That would be a really funny SNL sketch.

  • Almost American

    Hah – didn’t know about the sports practices before the beginning of school, despite having lived here for so long as this is my first year with a kid going to public high school. She’s hoping to be in the school band and also on the JV field hockey team. Both have ‘pre-season’ camps right before school starts, which a) overlap, and b) I didn’t know about so we’re going to be away. Why the heck didn’t they include that info in the orientation meeting back in May?!!

    • expatmum

      That was my exact same experience several years ago in a private school too!

  • Dee Davenport

    I’m so glad my kids are out of school. One is working and one is going to College. When they were in the younger grades and going to public school they always received long lists of supplies, I met with the teachers and let them know I was not providing crayons, markers, paper, etc for the entire class and refused to purchase the abundance of general supplies. I sent my kids with what they required and put their name on e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Once they reached High School they simply took on the task of guarding their own supplies.

    • American!

      Moocher. If you’re living in a system where school funding is scarce and everybody else is contributing you should too. Unless of course, you can’t afford them.

      And of course your kids benefit from the contributions of others.

      • expatmum

        Or you could just demand that more of your taxes get spent on education and not the rubbish that many cities and states seem to think is more important. In my case it’s fancy flowers down the middle of every street and free fireworks throughout the summer.

        • Americonus

          Yes, we don’t, so why don’t you try to fit in.

          Being holier than thou about tax policy doesn’t give expats a good rep.

          What would you think about American expats being nitpickety about British society?

  • JR48

    Most schools have online supply lists on the school’s website for each grade. Some grammar schools make it really easy by passing out a form at the end of the school year that allows you to write a single check to them, and the supplies will be there on your kid’s desk at the beginning of school. (Ask about it, it’s great.) Others will hand out merely the printed list for the next year. Others have lists for local schools on a rack at the nearby office supply stores. Some do all of the above.

    However, if your kid is in anything like orchestra, band, sports or advanced placement classes, check with individual departments for any summer requirements. Most of the time they hunt YOU down to inform you, but sometimes they don’t until the last minute so ASK at the beginning of the summer if you want to make vacation plans.

    As a Mom veteran of all of this, at first it’s overwhelming, and then you realize that you’re buying a lot of the same darn things every year. If its’ grammar school, you will always have glue sticks, erasers, crayons/washable markers, binder paper, a ruler, sissors, pencils and a case. If it’s middle school, one inch 3 ring binders, binder dividers, index cards colored pencils, a calculator, graph paper, two pocket folders, a flash drive, and the aforementioned grammar school stuff. You also get an assignment notebook, but it’s usually not available until school starts. If it’s high school, always college ruled paper, binder dividers, pens, mechanical pencils. (School has to start to find out what individual teachers want with regards to binders, etc. It’s more like college at this point.)

    If a kid has to change out for Physical Ed, there will probably be a t shirt and shorts and a separate combination lock. (If there is a required outfit, always get two as kids will sometimes forget to bring this home.)

    If they have their own lockers, yes a STURDY locker shelf. Get a good one, they’ll last for years. Locker ornamentation is a ‘girl thing’. Set up the locker BEFORE school starts. Anything but a lock and a shelf is optional and only for fun. Sometimes lockers have locks built in.

    Grammar school/middle school teacher supplies: tissues, Clorox wipes, paper towels, pencils and dry erase markers. Some want big pump containers of hand sanitizer.

    There will always be other things for particular teachers with particular specialty subject, but the above is pretty much guaranteed. So buy this stuff on sale when you see it and keep a stash. Dollars to donuts the kid is going to kill a binder, or trash the dividers or say ‘I need another two pocket folder’ and you can whip it out from your stash. Learn to stockpile. And the only brand of glue sticks that will last a school year without drying out is Elmer’s. All kids will need a backpack of some sort. Get padded straps, they’ll be completely stuffed the older the kid gets. Bonus points if they’re washable.

    Btw, high school AP (advanced placement) courses always have the kids do something like read a book or write an essay about X, or ‘fill out this math packet’ before the first day of school. Plan your time accordingly.

    Also know that if this is overwhelming, it is the same for all first timer parents. Back in our day, we bought basic school supplies for ourselves at home and didn’t do all of this so it’s just as shocking to Americans. I melted down the first time around.

    But after many years, I see the pattern and it’s much the same no matter what public school you go to with small variations.

    And let me reiterate: IF the grammar school gives you the option of writing one check and having them do it for you, it’s wonderful. They get exactly what is required, you’re not running around shopping, nothing is forgotten at home, and it’s really good if you have more than one child because you will feel like a pack mule dragging this stuff even with one.

  • Mr. H

    Big difference in the States: Our letters to witchcraft/wizardry schools arrive via pigeon, not owl post.

  • gn

    My child just started kindergarten in the US. One thing I’ve only just realized is that the “supply list” is a suggested donation, and not technically required (I don’t think the schools are allowed to require parents to pay for such things).

    However, I get the impression that, unless you really are penniless, it would be pretty heavily frowned upon to free-ride on the other parents’ donations.

  • BostonKid

    A lot of schools in my area don’t require Trapper Keepers, in fact, it is usually written on our supply list that we aren’t allowed to have them. I’m going into 8th grade this year, and I can’t fit all of my binders and pencil cases in my backpack. In my town, middle school is the time when you need the most school supplies, and it’s pretty crazy. This year, I have seven two inch binders, around forty dividers, five notebooks, three graph notebooks, and three pencil cases filled with all the other stuff, which is pretty normal. I’ve never heard of giving a check for the school to get your supplies, or purchasing supplies for the whole class, but maybe some areas do things differently. Definitely buy in bulk, I went through four math notebooks last year, and everything’s cheaper in the summer.

  • Jess

    My all time favorite school supply….Prang watercolors….not an easy to find brand like crayola…stupid freaking Prang!!!!!!

  • evil_genius_42

    Um, Trapper Keepers are no longer made.

  • EmmaK

    Initially trying to decipher the supplies list and make head or tail of 2-pocket, slash pocket, file folders and the rest made my head explode. Luckily the school now does a ‘service’ where they buy all the stuff for you and give it to you in a box so I am eternally grateful to them and it only costs an extra $5!!