Beyond Back-to-School Spending: Teachers Spend All Year Long

There’s a reason the hashtag #clearthelist—which asks people to buy items on teachers’ Amazon wish lists—took off this back-to-school season. Teachers are spending more and more of their own money on school supplies and materials for their classrooms. And many schools continue to push the AmazonSmile program which gives back to schools when friends and family make everyday purchases online.

Out-of-Pocket Spending

The fact that virtually all teachers spend out-of-pocket money on even the most basic things (think pencils, tissues, dry erase markers) for their classroom is not a new phenomenon; but just how much they are spending might surprise some.

MDR recently polled nearly 4,000 educators in the WeAreTeachers community on how much of their own money they have spent for this school year, and 44% said over $500. Many commented that by the end of the school year, it will tally up to well over that amount. With average starting teacher salaries in some states as low as $32,000, that is a big hit to their wallets. According to the latest data from MDR and the U.S. Department of Education, teacher out-of-pocket spending has increased 27% over the past decade, from an average of $378 to $479 per year, and this is probably a conservative estimate.

We also know that teachers don’t just spend one lump-sum at the beginning of the school year. They continue buying supplies throughout the year to replenish necessary resources, decorate for the holidays, and integrate fresh ideas into their lessons.

One teacher from Pennsylvania said her school “starts running out of soap and paper towels toward the end of the year,” and added, “I always ask my parents to bring in a box of tissues, which usually helps, and some churches in the area will send tissues and sanitizer.”

School Expenditures and Budgets

MDR’s proprietary school expenditure research shows that U.S. K-12 public school spending on All Instructional Materials (AIM) hasn’t quite kept up with the rate of teacher spending. Thankfully, after a dip in school expenditures between 2008-2014, following the recession, total spending for the 2017-2018 school year increased to over $13 billion, with a national average for spending per pupil of $268. This marks the fifth consecutive year of healthy increases in school instructional spending.

While some districts offer teachers an annual discretionary stipend (i.e., Chicago Public School teachers get $250 to spend for the entire school year), that funding is shrinking or even disappearing in many cases. According to a September 2019 WeAreTeachers Personal Spending Survey, 32% of teachers said they receive no budget and another 20% receive less than $100 per year.

Teachers Still Go Above and Beyond

Yet, teachers are determined to provide their students with the resources they need to have the best possible learning experience. So, they spend their own money, and if they are especially resourceful, do some fundraising/crowdsourcing to make up the shortfall.

Some don’t mind spending their own money to spruce up their classrooms, as one Massachusetts teacher commented, “Worth every penny. I turned an 86-year-old room into a hip, urban oasis.”

This trend of teachers spending their own personal funds is not showing any signs of slowing down; almost all teachers (87%) said they will spend the same amount or more out-of-pocket during this school year.

More decisions and purchases are being made by classroom teachers, both with school budgets and out-of-pockets funds. Brands and retailers have an opportunity to build affinity and engagement with educators to get on their radar when making school supply purchasing decisions throughout the year.

In my next blog on the topic, I’ll dive deeper into the results of our school supply and teacher spending research, and how brand marketers can tap into this huge revenue opportunity.

1 Comment


  1. I can’t believe the amount is that low. A lot of teachers here in the SF Bay Area spend that much getting ready for the school year. We can’t require students to bring notebooks, paper, pencils, yet all students must have access to any required materials, so teachers buy them. And, those who haven’t spent $500 to start the year will probably spend that much well before Winter Break.

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