Cure the “broke teacher” syndrome–starting…now!

“Any teacher that won’t give a kid a pencil shouldn’t be teacher.” Someone said that to me once, not long after I started my “no spend” policy. I was a broke teacher and figured the only way to stop being one was to stop buying so many pencils.

He said I should get one out of the testing cabinet for the kids, “Every school has one.” Yes, but most schools have guillotines in front of them. At one school I saw, supplies are kept in an old bank vault safe. True story.

The pencil is a symbol of everything that sucks your teacher paycheck away. I came to hate pencils like I hated the credit card debt I racked up buying them–and everything else for my class. (Here is the original Broke Teacher article I wrote that started this whole movement “The Best Places for Stealing Pencils and Pens.”)

Here are some school spending traps that will suck your money away…

Pandemic spending

Now, with the pandemic, teachers are spending MORE on classrooms, not less.

You may be able to wear the same pair of yoga pants or swishies because no one on Zoom or Meets is going to see your sneakers, That helps your fashion budget. Still, I’m seeing teachers spend more during this pandemic, not les

s. Some of the things teachers are buying to set up home offices and studios are really expensive!

Have you bought a new computer, upgraded your internet, got a whiteboard, tablet, office supplies usually found at school, duplicate copies of books you needed and left at school? Have you bought a microphone, backdrop, lighting and studio equipment to teach from home (that wasn’t reimbursed by your school?)

Are you spending a fortune mailing home notes, cards, and treats to students? My son’s teachers are. As a mom, I’m grateful. He’s smiling. But the inner teacher in me wants you double your emergency fund in these tough economic times instead.

I learned this the hard way as a teacher. Any moment I spent my paycheck on my job was a moment I dug my debt deeper (in the worst times) or failed to make progress paying off the rest.

If you’re a Covid classroom spender, please take care of yourself first. I wrote a chapter on defeating the “They need…” excuse you’re definitely making right now. I’d love for you to read it  but here’s one key takeaway.

“They need” is dangerous. Someone will always need something. You can’t save the world by going broke. And, you are not a bad teacher when you say no to donating your (less than excessive) teacher paycheck back to your job.

Right now, more than ever, it’s important to have (or be building) a solid emergency fund.

Shopping back-to-school “sales”


I put “sales” in quotes because if you’re like “old me,” you spend July and August going to a million stores to get the limit of every classroom doorbuster sale imaginable.

This is the number one cause of ruin for most teacher’s personal budgets. It only comes around once a year but things are so cheap you “invest” a lot to get the sales. You overbuy.


I’m not saying skip back to school sales entirely, since this time of year school supplies are dirt cheap. I’m saying this: don’t buy for the world. Get the special things you need for yourself and your family, and no more.

If you’re deep in “teacher debt,” be very strict about this. For example, I have specific pens I like. I also like a new set of sharpies with the points all nice and fresh ink. So, I get this. What I stopped getting: fifty notebooks “in case” someone needs one, a million sets of classroom art supplies, construction paper, markers for everyone, paper supplies, folders for the class…

You know who you are.

If you’re a teacher-mom/dad, then get enough supplies for your family. I get double what I need and wrap school supplies up for Christmas and birthdays, too. We used to get looseleaf every holiday. It became a joke, but the fact was, I was running low on paper by then when I was a student.  My mom got it on sale and passed it off as a gift. Win-win.

I will say this a million times: You won’t save cash if you’re running around town with sale flyers getting 5-and-10-cent everything. When you add it all up, you didn’t save. You spent. You spent five cents times the number of things in your Mount Everest-sized teacher pile. And, your debt will be that much bigger.

Pencils and pens

Pencil math: If I have 6 classes a day with 125 kids total and 10% need a pencil (that’s roughly 2 per class, which is a very low estimate), that’s 2160 pencils a year. You could say, “Just get them back.”  If you said that you must be confusing pencils with boomerangs. Pencils never come back.

Right now, Amazon Basics has a box of 150 pre-sharpened pencils for $12.49. Walmart has this brand-name pack of 30 Ticonderoga pencils for $5.97 (the once that don’t break in the pencil sharpener–a leading cause of teacher silent swears and pencil waste… little known fact, golf pencils are all the generic pencils that get sharpened and teachers throw away*).

So, the annual cost of pencils alone is between $179.86 (Amazon)  and $429.84 (Walmart).

Let me say that again–that’s just pencils!

You can see why the pencil became my symbol of all teacher spending.  When I worked in corporate America, there was a supply cabinet. I walked over and took a pencil. No one hoarded since there was no fighting for supplies. If we ran low on pencils (or anything… or even if we wanted something reasonable and specific…) we put a note on Terry’s desk and said, “We’re running low on…” and it would reappear.  The supply cabinet was generally full.   That’s how it should be… but it won’t be because schools know if they say “We can’t, it’s not in the budget,” you’ll be trained to spend the money instead.

Art supplies

There’s always that one art thing you don’t have. Glitter. Styrofoam balls. Paper. Snowflakes for the bulletin board. Some project you want to do but you need “just one thing at the craft store.” There is no “just one thing at the craft store” in Teacher Land. 

If you go near an art store, you’ll see the clearance table and your creative brain will start churning. You’ll scoop up that pile–you can see the lesson plan in your mind.  But inevitably, you’ll need just one more thing for those plans, and you’ll buy it. The classroom spending cycle continues.


Covid took the pressure off the rainforests for a while–you’re not near a copy machine. Many teachers are learning to navigate technology and go paperless.  When everyone’s back, I hope the tech flow sticks and the rainforests are safe. But, many schools have limits on paper and teachers buy their own. Don’t.


There are ticket sales for everything–prom, sports, raffles, activities, field trips. For teachers struggling to make ends meet, skipping paid functions is a real struggle. I wanted to go to the prom and see my kids and their joy but I was, in effect, paying to chaperone. They discounted the teacher meals, but still.  Teachers often buy tickets for kids, too. No kid should be excluded–I feel strongly. But, it can’t come out of your pocket if you’re not in a good place yet yourself.


Every kid in America will be selling something for a school, sport, or club once things are back to normal. Not just kids–colleagues selling for their kids, too. The truth is, I don’t want any of those things. I don’t want popcorn, Girl Scout cookies, wrapping paper, or overpriced Yankee Candles. When I spend money, it’s intentional, planned, and has value. If it’s in my giving budget, I’d rather give kids a few bucks instead of buying things I wouldn’t normally buy. As a teacher, I developed some blanket “no” statements, like “I have a budget,” or “I can’t buy from everyone.”

I’ve often suggested this: Have an anti-fundraiser. Make a website showing all the things kids would’ve sold and put a donate button. “We’re going to bother you fifty times this year… or… would you consider donating to the ‘Leave me alone’ fundraiser instead?” Make it funny, and extend it to the community. Showcase the great things you’re doing and give the entire town a chance to get involved in the school by helping.


“José wants chocolate pudding, Filippo wants fruit…” Buying snacks drained my funds worse than my own grocery bill. I was going broke being a coach, advisor, or just helping students after school.

There are a couple solutions. First, have classroom after school regulars turns bringing snacks. Kids will often volunteer for this, too, because you’re allowing food and they get to be the snack rockstar.  Sometimes I brought in homebaked treats for class since I have a full pantry and cook from scratch, so it’s pennies. But, I restructured food I was bringing as treat not an expectation. I’d allow kids to bring their own healthy snacks but I stopped being a one-person snack happy hour at every club or meeting.


I used to go all out for every season and holiday. After I stopped classroom spending, I started upcycling, painting, thrifting, and repurposing. One year, I asked the cafeteria staff to save their #10 (big) cans. We made a Christmas tree by stacking and attaching the cans in a pyramid shape and we decorated it in a Simpsons-donuts paper chain theme. It was huge, hilarious, and fun. Students made their own personalized ornaments and hung them. When we were done, we recycled the tree.

Keep on the lookout for all these spending traps…

Keep your wallet safe…especially now when the economy’s uncertain. Be wise with your paycheck and don’t let your job sink you deeper into debt.

If your bills are paid and you’re out of debt, it’s a little bit different.  Instead of giving to some other cause, by all means give to your classroom instead. Set a limit and have fun. No guilt!

If you’re struggling with student loans, unsure of the current economy, or have bills you’re juggling, please check the classroom spending at the door. It’s a slippery slope, and you’ll slide down it one pencil at a time.

70% of teachers argue with me on this. “I can’t,” or “You don’t understand.”  You can, and I do.  I had to look at why I was spending, and stop. It’s that simple. I went cold turkey. It was hard. But, it works. You’ll have to trust me.



Gwen, an amazing teacher in New Jersey and one of my lifelong friends, read this article and reminded me “Time.” I forgot to mention your time. Every chunk of time I gave above and beyond the norm contributed to my staying a broke teacher. I wasn’t using my time is time to learn new skills, replenish, rebuild, freelance, or do something to help fix my situation.

This is a challenge–I still find myself “helping” where I should be consulting and saying, “Here are my rates.”  More and more people are working remotely these days–by preserving your time, you can not only take some time for you, but you can find some ways to build up your bottom lime.



Photo by Allie on Unsplash