Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
In August 2020, a 12 pack of Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils cost $2.39 at Target.
The next year, $2.49.
This year? The same 12-pack costs $2.99.
It might seem like a matter of cents, but it’s a price increase of about 25% over the past two years.
Inflation is at the highest it’s been in 40 years. And back-to-school shopping is already pricey – last year U.S. parents spent over $600 on average on school supplies, a Deloitte study found.
Robyn Simon, operations coordinator of Albuquerque-based school supply donation center Locker #505, said this year she’s seeing more families use the program than ever.
“Budgets just aren’t going as far as they used to,” Simon said.
More need for donations
Locker #505 is referral based; school counselors refer students to the program, where they can “shop” free-of-cost through the center’s clothes, shoes, toys, backpacks and books.
Simon said that in previous years, the highest number of referrals she’s received in a day was 64.
On Thursday, she received 145.
“That tells me that the need is greater,” Simon said. “These parents need food and there’s just not a lot left over for other things.”
Simon said that Locker #505’s own budget has been stretched this year. If the nonprofit doesn’t receive donations of a certain size or type, they buy them to fill the gap.
“Clothes are more expensive,” Simon said.
Although the center usually only accepts referrals Mondays through Thursdays, she said that she had five kids coming in Friday because “the need is desperate.”
On Sunday, Locker #505 is partnering at a city event at Civic Plaza where children can get free haircuts, sports physicals, backpacks with school supplies and clothing vouchers.
Simon also says that Locker #505 is encouraging people on social media to buy extra supplies during this weekend’s tax-free holiday to donate. During the holiday – held the first weekend of August every year – the state allows some back-to-school purchases, like backpacks, clothes and school supplies, to be sold tax-free.
Tax-free weekend some relief
Danessa Alderete was taking advantage of the tax-free holiday at Walmart on Friday. She said it was the first time she was taking advantage of the annual program.
“Usually the lines are so long it’s not worth it,” said Alderete, who was shopping for her two children. “But we got out early this year.”
She said she normally spends about $300 on clothes, backpacks and supplies for her daughter, who is going into fifth grade, and her high school-age son. Alderete tries to save up for back-to-school shopping throughout the year. Groceries have been a greater cost this year; Alderete said she’s been changing her shopping habits to save.
“We’ve been trying to buy more whole foods, cook at home, and that turns into more savings for back-to-school,” Alderete said.
Brian Fletcher, owner of Computer Corner near Menaul and Carlisle, says that the “tax-free holiday is always a big deal” – both for his store and his customers. On an average month, Fletcher says, the store sells 25 laptops. But in August, that number doubles.
Fletcher has four school-age children of his own, and says he probably spends about $500 or more every year on school supplies.
On smaller school supplies, Fletcher said, the tax-holiday savings can be minimal. But on a more expensive item like a laptop, customers can save more; according to Fletcher, that means people can buy accessories they normally wouldn’t be able to budget for.
“When you buy some pencils and some paper, it’s nice that it’s tax-free, but you’re usually talking pennies of savings,” Fletcher said. “You buy a laptop and a printer and a monitor, and if you get anywhere near that $1,000 cutoff, you can save almost $100.”
Teachers feeling the pinch
According to education nonprofit AdoptAClassroom.org, in 2021, U.S. teachers spend an average of $750 of their own money on classroom supplies.
Billie Helean, Rio Rancho School Employees’ Union president and first grade teacher at Ernest Stapleton Elementary, turned to social media to raise money for school supplies this year.
“I personally spend, usually, well over $1,000 a year on my classroom and that can go from anything from snacks for my kids to pencils to paper – it runs the gamut,” Helean said. “… We only are allowed to deduct $250 from our tax return, so if we spend more than that money, we don’t get it back.”
Helean made an Amazon wish list of classroom supplies and shared it with friends and family. All of her requests were fulfilled this year. Because of the support, she was able to get additional supplies for her classroom that she normally wouldn’t have splurged on – like extra stools for her pint-sized students.
“I only had one stool, so we were constantly carrying it around the classroom,” Helean said. “Now I have three so I can place them where they need them the most. … It sounds like a stupid little thing, but it really helps the kids develop independence.”
Helean says she’s one of many teachers turning to social media to ask for donations using the hashtag #clearthelist.
Eldorado High School science teacher Jennifer Coughlin is also getting ready for the school year. She says she’s seen a difference between back-to-school shopping this year and last year.
“I’ve seen fewer school supply sales, which makes me feel a bit nervous for my students,” Coughlin said. “Prices are high … so I know families are going to feel the pinch.”
Coughlin says she spends several hundreds of dollars on classroom supplies. Every year she gets extra notebooks, pencils and rulers for students who don’t have their own.
“We are compassionate people by nature so I do think that teachers try to fill that gap,” Coughlin said.
But filling that gap has become harder recently. “I do have supply money from my school, but that has been diminishing through the years,” Coughlin said. “… (Teachers) also have families, so we also have less discretionary income so our ability to close that gap is a little bit harder.”
Coughlin said that donations from families of consumables like paper towels are invaluable. By taking care of certain needs in the classroom, teachers can spend more on instructional materials and professional development.
She recommends that parents stay in close communication with teachers during the back-to-school shopping period so they can ensure that every student gets the supplies they need.
“We want kids to be successful,” Coughlin said. “But we can’t help if we don’t know there’s a need.”