4 Ways Teachers Can Save on Classroom Expenses

Kelsey Sheehy

Outfitting high school classrooms is big business.

Educators spent roughly $3.2 billion last year to stock their classrooms with everything from disinfectant to educational games, according to an annual report by the National School Supply and Equipment Association.

Of that total, $1.6 billion came directly out of teachers' pockets, according to the report, which surveyed nearly 400 elementary, middle and high school teachers.

Dwindling district budgets, often due to cuts at the state level, often make teachers dig further into their own pocketbooks to fund classroom necessities.

[Learn how budget cuts impact the neediest schools.]

Nearly 80 percent of teachers surveyed for the report said they used personal money to make up for shortfalls and more than 30 percent asked parents for donations, the report notes.

Below are four ways teachers can save on out-of-pocket classroom expenses.

1. Wish lists and donations: Sites such as AdoptAClassroom.org allow teachers to lean on parents and community members for financial support, instead of their own wallets.

Educators can also jump on the crowd funding bandwagon to solicit donations for classroom supplies and special projects.

Elizabeth Monda, an elementary school teacher in Memphis, raised $3,500 for a community garden project and more than $500 for study aids using PledgeCents, a funding site dedicated to educators.

"Teachers often have to pay for these things ourselves. This was a quick turnaround," Monda says of her campaign, adding that crowd funding sites can help teachers raise money for everything from pencils to field trips.

[Discover three websites for teachers to try in 2013.]

Teachers who don't want to solicit donations can simply post a class wish list to the school's website, or send one home with students, and give parents the opportunity to chip in.

2. Back-to-school sales: Tax-free shopping days and early August blowout sales are not just for parents. Educators can take advantage of these sales to supply their classrooms.

Doug Leisenring, a former math teacher and current principal at Escanaba High School in Michigan, makes the occasion a family affair.

@USNewsEducation Staples Back to School sale in August - My kids are used to going multiple times with me to stock up the shelves #edchat -- Doug Leisenring (@eskyprincipal) July 12, 2013

Can't make the sale? Scan the aisles of discount stores such as the Dollar Tree to find basic classroom supplies. Retailers such as The Container Store and Kmart extend discounts to teachers year-round.

3. Grants and tax breaks: Free money is there for the taking, as long as teachers aren't scared of a little paperwork.

"In my 25 years of teaching, I brought in over $25,000 for my classroom from assorted grants," Renee Heiss, a former high school teacher in New Jersey, noted in a blog post last year.

The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of open grant competitions, including deadlines. Local and national educational organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also sponsor grants for educators.

Teachers can also deduct expenses such as books and software on their taxes. These deductions are capped at $250 per year and are limited to qualifying items.

4. Recycled supplies: While some supplies will inevitably run out, others can be used from year to year. Teachers can also rely on colleagues to fill classroom needs.

"One thing I know other teachers are doing is visiting teach websites and bartering, exchanging and reusing materials from other teachers," says Genola Johnson, an educational consultant and former teacher.

Veteran teachers about to retire can also be a valuable resource, Heiss wrote.

"Many times, the retirees are looking to downsize or clean their supply cabinets," she wrote. "I'm sure that teacher will be very glad to share what she has stockpiled over twenty or thirty years."

Have something of interest to share? Send your news to us at highschoolnotes@usnews.com.