“Any teacher that won’t give a kid a pencil shouldn’t be teacher.”

The pencil is a symbol of everything that sucks your 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. (This is the original Broke Teacher article I wrote that started this whole movement “The Best Places for Stealing Pencils and Pens.”)

Here are some things to watch out for–because they’ll get you spending.

Back to school sales

This is the number one cause of ruin for most teacher’s personal budgets. It comes around but once a year so you feel tempted to overbuy. Don’t. Since this time of year really is the opportunity to save, handle it correctly. Here’s how:

If you are deep in “teacher debt,” skip it altogether. Or, if there are things you’ll really need to do your job but school won’t provide–your favorite personal supplies, for example, then get enough for you.

Also, if you’re a teacher-mom/dad, then get enough supplies for your family. Double that because you can wrap these things up for Christmas and birthdays, too. We used to get looseleaf every holiday. You can also be the relative that gives school supplies instead of an ugly sweater. If this is your plan for Back to School shopping season, you’ll save cash.  Try not to require crazy things because then when you buy one or two for students who don’t have one (against the no-spend challenge rules) you’ll be spending a lot more, too.

You won’t save cash if you’re running around town with sale flyers getting 5 and 10 cent everything. You’ll have Mount Fuji of debt instead.

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 the symbol of all teacher spending.  When I worked in corporate America, there was a supply cabinet. We walked over and took a pencil. No need to hoard in case no one would give us a pencil again (a very real thing in schools–we got our “welcome bag” or $20 to buy supplies in the overpriced catalog, and that was that).

“Parents should pay for this.” A teacher said that. I agree. As a mom, I buy what my son needs and send in extras for anyone who “forgot” so his teacher won’t be in the position I was in.

But, not all situations are created equal. While many families can pay for basics, that’s not always the case. But, that financial stress doesn’t belong to you. Some schools have depots for this, but many push it back to the teacher. This is where you have to stand firm if your budget doesn’t allow.

When does it allow? (There is a detailed chapter on this in A Broke Teacher’s Guide to Success)

If your bills are paid and you’re out of debt. This, then, can become a budgeted item–your giving budget. Instead of giving to the causes you’d usually donate to, make your class and your kids your cause, guilt free because you’re taking care of yourself first. Other than that, please check the spending at the door. It’s a slippery slope, and you’ll slide down it. One pencil at a time.

Art supplies

There’s always that one art thing you don’t have. Glitter. Styrofoam balls. Paper. Snowflakes for the bulletin board. You’ll buy the supplies, the things to make them, and other things, too. If you go near an art store, you’ll see the clearance table and your creative brain will scoop up that pile–you can see the lesson plan in your mind, and it is God-level good. But then, you’ll need just one more thing for those plans, and the cycle continues.


We all want a no-paper classroom. But until we get there, we’ll be skulking around copy machines hoping a colleague forgot a ream… or buying it. Stop buying it today!  If someone questions you, say you’re going zero-waste and the rainforest is burning. You’re not going to contribute any more. But really, you just saved $20 to pay down your student loans.


Ever wonder why you have to buy tickets to everything when really you’re going not only to see cool student things, but technically you’ll be doing several extra hours of work? Sure, we want to support student activities and initiatives, but for teachers struggling to make ends meet, you have to say no or that you’ll go if they comp you a ticket. There are exceptions–for example prom season. Someone’s got to pay for your dinner. Unless they build this into the prom budget–chaperone meals–it may be you. Or, you can stop by after dinner and take pictures and save yourself $50. Either look at it as the dinner you’d go out to anyway that month or put it in your “no spend on school” budget, but really take a step back to see which tickets fit into your giving finances. If they don’t, then you have to take care of your wallet, first.


Fundraisers sneak up on you. It’s not just one kid selling something I don’t want. Every kid in that club is. And, my email’s full of every colleague’s kid selling their things, too. Most fundraiser items I don’t want. So, that’s a hard no. I don’t buy them. 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 to NOT sell me clutter I don’t need. “Donate that to the pile.”

I’ve often suggested this: Have an anti-fundraiser. Make a website with all the things your clubs would’ve sold and put a payment button. “We’re going to bother you fifty times this year… or… would you consider donating a bit now?” Make it funny. If you told me once you were never going to make me feel guilty for saying no again… for the rest of the year… that’s something I’d donate a bit to and share.


“José wants chocolate pudding, Filippo wants fruit…” Buying snacks drained my funds worse than my own grocery bill. I wanted to host clubs and students after school but I was going broke.

There are a couple solutions. First, take turns bringing snacks. Kids will often volunteer for this, too, because you’re allowing food and they get to be the snack rockstar. Otherwise, I planned ahead, found what ingredients were on sale or affordable, and did some baking, chopping, or making things myself once in a while so it was a treat not an expectation. I’d allow healthy snacks in more settings to set an example for students to eat such things.  But, I stopped being a one-person snack happy hour at every club or meeting.


I used to go all out for advisories, birthdays, holdiays, and decor. Then, I couldn’t. I still wanted to give, so I Martha Stewarted some ornaments for my advisory students, made gifts for colleagues, and kept my eye out for perfect things for pennies throughout the year and saved them. For decorations–I upcycled, painted, scrapped and repurposed. It’s part of who I am anyway, and there is such a thing as upcycle-classy. It doesn’t have to look like I picked the trash for milk cartons.

One of my favorites–a Christmas tree made out of number 10 cans decorated in a Simpsons and donuts theme. It was huge, hilarious, and fun. Students made their own ornaments and hung them. When we were done, we recycled the tree.

Keep on the lookout for these eight things…

And keep your wallet in tact. Especially now when more teachers than ever have more student loans at lower starting pay. We can recover that deficit faster by not compounding the problem. Be wise with your paycheck and don’t let your job sink you deeper into debt.


One of my closest friends Gwen, read this article and reminded me “Time.” And this is true. Every chunk of time you donate above and beyond the norm, is time you’re not using to replenish, rebuild, freelance, or do something for you. And that counts, too.



For more on this, please read “A Broke Teacher’s Guide to Success.” This subject is the cornerstone of that book and of your financial health as a teacher, as well.

Photo credit: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash