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Go Ask Mom

Back to School: The battle against clutter enters a new frontier

Posted August 19, 2019 9:21 p.m. EDT

Photo by Ramakant Sharda on Unsplash

For many of us back to school can be synonymous with back to the store. The supply lists are daunting, and so are our children’s desires for glittered, bejeweled and high tech school supplies. But for parents who are trying to do more with less and streamline possessions, how can we manage all of this back-to-school excess?

Here's what you can do ...

Hit the Closet First – Before the Store

No one can deny the allure of bright shiny new school supplies, but chances are you already have a lot of the items on your school supply lists—some gently used, others not so much.

Before you hit the store, hit your closet! Colored pencils can be sharpened to a uniform size and tied with a pretty ribbon or cool string. Often composition books from the previous year are little used, so you can carefully remove the pages that are written on and save yourself from buying new. If the cover has the name of an old class you can use a simple peel-and-stick label with the new information. Consider injecting some fun with patterned or brightly colored labels. You also can clean up old binders and insert patterned, colored, or custom paper to add excitement.

When it comes to cleaning supplies that teachers often request, you may already have many of the things you need in your pantry, including Lysol wipes, boxes of tissues and hand sanitizer. Walk through the house and fill a bag with these items, taking care to cross off any items that you already have from your shopping list.

Kids may try to talk you out of sending in items you already have instead of purchasing new ones, but here is your opportunity to teach them some basic economics. Let them know that if you are able to save money on items that can be re-used, you might be able to buy that glitter rainbow unicorn pencil case of their dreams or the high tech case with secret spy compartment.

Play the Waiting Game – Don’t Be the First to the Back-to-School Sale

Sometimes the early bird gets the worm, but sometimes patience is the better part of valor. Don’t rush to the store with all the other harried parents, kids in tow. Wait to do your shopping until after the kids have been in school for a week or so. Often school supply lists are full of items teachers have selected when hard pressed by school administrators. Sometimes these items aren’t needed once the school year begins, or they don’t work for your child. Some people work well out of a binder. Others find that a folder with multiple pockets is a better way to organize their work from various classes. Double bonus: By waiting, you can avoid the crowds and take advantage of some good sales as the stores begin to clear out the back-to-school items.

If you can’t wait, be sure to keep your receipts and keep items in their boxes until you are sure they are going to be needed. If you have too much, return it to the store.

Colored paper

Back to School – For Parents

Back-to-school planning and preparation isn’t just a kid’s game. With kids back in school, parents don’t just have more kid-free time – they also have schedules to coordinate, homework and projects to monitor and the dreaded influx of weekly folders and all the paper that entails. That means parents should have a back-to-school shopping list all their own.

Here are my recommendations for managing the mountains of paper that come home with your kiddos.

Horizontal File

I prefer a file that can hang on the wall to free up desk space, but a tabletop file holder can work too. The key is that there is a file holder for each family member. As papers come home, recycle generic work, but put special work or items that warm your heart and make you smile into the corresponding person’s file.

File Box

At the end of every year, I sort through the items I have filed and keep the best samples, which I put in a file box in a folder labeled to correspond with the school year. At the end, you should have two file boxes one for kindergarten through sixth grade and another for seventh through 12th grade. So often what we save gets lumped into one undifferentiated pile, which is hard for anyone to process or enjoy reminiscing through.


I like to manage everything with an electronic calendar that all family members are able to access. When forms come home from school, fill them out immediately and put them in the children's backpacks to go straight back to school. Enter all corresponding event and logistical information to the electronic calendar and recycle the paper. If you like to hold on to papers like this - look for an out-of-the-way place for posting them on a corkboard, I like the back of the pantry door for this but you can find the spot that works best for you.

Alison's favorites

Cozi, family organizer

Snap-and-Store file box

Hanging metal mailbox

Alison Bentley is a mom of two, the owner of operator of Simplify Raleigh, a home organizing and life simplifying business, and a KonMari consultant trainee. You can follow her on Instagram @simplifyraleigh or Facebook at SimplifyRaleigh or find her at