If you’ve been around here for a while, you know how much I love Operation Christmas Child. This year, for my 32nd birthday, I will be packing 32 shoeboxes to donate. And since I am lucky enough to live near a processing center, I will be able to volunteer as a shoebox inspector. Which sounds boring, but it is honestly one of the highlights of the holiday season for me. A room full of people, who love the same thing I love, all united to serve children we have never even met … it’s magical.
Last year, I learned something new. Many of the shoeboxes that are donated have items that need to be removed because they are not on the approved list. (Mostly things that might leak or delay the boxes as they go through cutoms, like liquids and food items.) And since it would be really sad for a kid to open their shoebox gift and find it half empty, the processing centers accept donations of “filler items” – things that the volunteers can quickly grab to add to the boxes to make sure that they’re all full. So this year, I had a crazy idea. Why not make some extra school supply kits? Specifically, in addition to the 32 I was making for my own boxes, I wanted to make 68 more, for a grand total of 100. It was a huge goal, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it. But I was … and I did it for $100!
Now, this isn’t going to be a post that you can read and say, “I can go to that right this minute!” This project was many months in the making. But I’m hoping that I will give you some ideas that can benefit you for next year … and maybe even an idea or two that you can use to donate a little bit extra this holiday season!
So here are my frugal shopping tips:
- Clearance. Seriously, this is my #1 tip. Learn where the clearance racks are at every store that you shop at, and use them! I have learned, among the 4 Walgreens stores near my home, which one has a manager that often marks things down 90%. I have bought cute pencils for 2 cents, hilighters for a nickel, 9-packs of fun erasers for 20 cents, and much more. When my local Target stores hit their best school supply clearance of the year – 90% off, including many Dollar Spot items that were selling for a dime – I went to three different stores and I stocked up. (I do this after every holiday when they’re marking down their seasonal items.) And randomly in the spring, I was at Office Max when I noticed that they had boxes of 60 pens marked down to 52 cents! That’s less than a penny per pen!
- Supplement your budget by earning gift cards. If you have a little bit of free time, try mystery shopping, Shopkick, or Swagbucks. These are all programs that I use regularly, a few minutes at a time, that allow me to earn gift cards to stretch my budget. I often cash in for Target gift cards since that’s where I do a lot of my clearance shopping.
- Shop the sales. This seems pretty obvious, but it’s worth a reminder. I often hear people say that they get the best deals by just going to Walmart and the Dollar Tree. And if you’re in a hurry, go for it! But it is definitely not the cheapest way to shop. During back to school time, I carefully watch the store ads, and I am able to beat Walmart and Dollar Tree prices on almost everything. I had awesome luck with the penny deals at Office Max this year, and there were lots of great sales at Staples and Walgreens as well. And there were times when I could earn rewards for buying things I needed to purchase for my family anyway (like ink and copy paper). I would purchase those items, then use some of the rewards I got back for my school supply stash (such as good kid scissors for a quarter, and the penny items like packs of pencils and glue sticks).
- Ask for help. To be honest, I am new in this area and don’t know a ton of people yet. But I reached out to a few families and invited them to come join me to assemble these school supply kits. They were happy to help, and we all had a fantastic time. I had all of the supplies purchased anyway, but if you are just starting out, feel free to ask people to bring a few items! People typically want to help, and this is a great way to make more than you’d be able to on your own.
- Get creative. I really like having some kind of container or pencil case for each shoebox. I was able to get some pencil boxes for a penny at Office Max, and I found some “slider boxes” on clearance at Target, but I didn’t have anywhere close to 100. So I got a bunch of Hefty slider bags (free, with a rebate), scoured clearance racks for Duct tape, and my helpers and I made all of the bags we needed!
So that’s it – and look at this beautiful pile of school supply kits. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be able to give a small gift to 100 kids that will hopefully be both helpful and fun, and to have been able to stick to my budget. This has been so much fun to do! Now time to move on the the next stage – shoebox wrapping. Wish me luck!