Tips For Acquiring Inexpensive STEAM Materials

STEAM, STEM, STEAM on a budget, inexpensive STEAM supplies, Wee Warhols, Austin

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I am a bit of a collector — some may say hoarder — of craft supplies or anything that I think my kids, myself, or my students can create or build with.  I love to hunt for cool items and I LOVE to get a good deal.  Before recycling or throwing anything away, I think, “What could we make with that?”  I realize that not everyone is like this and some people don’t want to sort through trash to find that cool treasure.  If you think that STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) education is costly, I’m here to let you know it doesn’t have to be. Please let me share some money-saving resources with you to help make incorporating STEAM into your home or classroom easy and affordable.

Let’s start by defining STEAM materials.  To me, they are anything you can use to build, design, create, experiment, invent, tinker with…

Lots of items you may already have in your home.  Examples: eggs, Legos, salt, ice, shaving cream, hair dryer, bread…  Wow, that was easy! Now it gets really interesting.

Recyclables are free and make wonderful STEAM materials.  Examples: paper rolls, cardboard, broken toys, plastic jugs, wine corks, lids, egg cartons…  

Tip- Keep a large jar next to your recycling bin and save all your caps or lids.  Gever Tulley Author of 50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do) always says that ‘more than a hundred of anything is interesting’  Lids can be great for sorting,  pattern making, collage, or sculpture.  Setting up a table with a low temperature glue gun and a variety of recyclables can keep kids busy inventing for hours.

A wonderful resource here in Austin, TX is Austin Creative Reuse.  ACR is a nonprofit organization that collects, sells, and distributes donated reusable materials.  They have a plethora of art supplies and maker supplies at super prices.  Examples: recyclables, fabric swatches, corrugated board, craft supplies, wood samples. Taking kids to a reuse center can also be a way to foster the idea of sustainability and smart shopping.  To find a resource center near you, check out

Austin Resource Recovery – Is a Hazardous Waste Drop-Off center, but you can also pick up free materials there such as paint, metal, plastics and foam.  They even have a Re-Blend Program where you can get FREE paint.  Check with your local Hazardous Waste Department to see if they have a drop-off center that you can pick through.

Austin Materials Marketplace has a database of searchable materials that other businesses have as “waste”.  If you are a teacher or a non-profit, most of these materials are free!

I am a big fan of Dollar  Tree stores, where everything is actually a dollar.  Favorite items: plastic animals, balloons, clothespins, magnifying sheets, batteries, masking tape, water beads, popsicle sticks, clamps, craft supplies, straws…

Check Craigslist “Free Stuff” in your area to see what comes up.  Who knows? You may find electronics to take apart and tinker with or old toys to dissect or create cool stuff with.  Craigslist is also a great source for tools.  

  • Always be safe, though.  When meeting someone for the first time, please remember to:
  • -Insist on a public meeting place like a cafe, bank, or shopping center.
  • -Do not meet in a secluded place, or invite strangers into your home.
  • -Be especially careful buying/selling high value items.
  • -Tell a friend or family member where you’re going.
  • -Take your cell phone along if you have one.
  • -Consider having a friend accompany you.
  • -Trust your instincts.

You might also want to check for free stuff in your neighborhood online community, like

Thrift stores like Goodwill or Savers are great places to find supplies.  Always check the Goodwill auction areas.  You may find things like old microscopes if you are lucky.  When doing art projects with kids, I like to start out with materials that already have  a bit of a cool factor and then have the kids add their individual touches to make them into something even cooler.  Examples: records, tapes, sheet music, books, maps..  For the experience, you should find a Blue Hanger Goodwill Outlet Store near you.  It is basically a huge outlet where everything goes that does not sell, where they sell by the pound.  You may want to stock up on men’s button-down shirts to use as art smocks or large t-shirts to make t-shirt yarn with.

Just ask.  Check with socially conscious companies for donations of materials.  Don’t be afraid to ask.  Contact local contractors and ask for their wood scraps at the end of a job.  Just imagine what a child can do with wood scraps.  Endless possibilities!  Or get your community members to donate materials.  Ask tile stores for samples for mosaic projects, Interior designers for wallpaper books…  Search for things like Zero Landfill Events where Interior Designers get rid of all unwanted samples.  Another good resource that I have found in Austin is Spin Fish.  SpinFish partners with large events like SXSW with a mission to keep trash out of landfills.  I heard that hospitals can only use batteries once then they have to trash them, so ask nurses you know to save batteries for you.

STEAM, STEM, STEAM on a budget, inexpensive STEAM supplies, Wee Warhols, Austin

Craft stores are great for things like pipe cleaners, clay, magnets, buttons, butcher paper… but make sure you have their app on your phone so you can take advantage of the coupons.  Those 40% coupons have saved me a lot over time. especially on canvases or large-ticket items.

Hardware superstores are great for PVC pipes and connectors, washers, nuts bolts, play sand…

I usually buy card stock, index cards, paper clips, rubber bands at my local office supply store. Sometimes you can find these items (and some others, actually) for greatly reduced prices at discount stores like Big Lots.

If you like to dig like I do, garage sales, flea markets, and estate sales are fun.  You never know what you will find.

Grocery Items: marshmallows, white vinegar, food coloring, baking soda, potatoes, glow vitamins B-complex or B-50, diet tonic water, rice, pasta, beans, seeds, flour, liquid starch, liquid dish soap, rubbing alcohol, epsom salt, lemons, apples, coffee filters, Borax…

We have a resale toy shop here in Austin, that I adore.  Anna’s Toy Depot  This is where I go to buy Lego wheels, axles, Lego building bricks, old physics sets, toy cars, balls…  

Don’t forget, Nature is free.  Leaves, rocks, sticks, dirt… Go on a nature hunt in your yard or at a park and collect natural items to examine, question, and make art with.

I know some of these resources are specific to my area, Austin, TX, but the point is if you dig you can find resources near you that care about keeping waste out of landfills, that care about recycling and reuse and you can utilize them to find free or next to free materials that you can use for STEAM projects.

Now, wondering what to do with all these free or next-to-free STEAM materials you’ve acquired??  It’s okay, I’ve got you!  

Do —> Join our STEAMKids Facebook Group where you can ask questions and have over 700 other STEAM minded supporters help you brainstorm STEAM lesson ideas (much faster than searching through Pinterest).

How to Get Started with STEAM Today

This 3 page FREEBIE is a great starting point to get you and kids excited about STEAM projects.  It included a cheat sheet with 52 ideas and 2 sample projects to try right now!   The STEAM Kids book comes out on September 14th!!!!

STEAMKids, Wee Warhols, Austin



STEAM, STEM, STEAM on a budget, inexpensive STEAM supplies, Wee Warhols, Austin