The school year comes around every year, so it shouldn't surprise parents of school-aged kids when August (or September) hits and the brilliant white tennis shoes hit the newly-waxed school floors. Since I've had my eye on the start of school for a few weeks, I am not surprised either. But I was surprised to learn that families of school-aged children spent over $630 in back-to-school expenses.
This number from the National Retail Federation includes clothing, shoes, school supplies, and electronics. While clothing is the largest expense on average, the other categories are significant too.
For instance, registration fees and school supply lists are a little bit different from the days when I french-rolled my jeans and used a lot of hairspray (please tell me I am not alone). As schools face budget cuts, more is expected from the parents. And we have registration fees and technology fees to manage as well. If your kids don't need a scientific calculator or an electronic device, your fees will be lower. But still, let's explore a few ways to save.
Let's talk about the biggest expense first: clothing. While I haven't purchased any clothing for our kids yet, I plan on using methods I have talked about before.
- Barter with other parents
- Accept any offers of hand-me-downs from my friends/relatives
- Shop during the 49-cent sale at my favorite thrift store
- Check our kids' closets and create a list for what is actually needed to fill the gaps in their wardrobes
- “Shop” at a friend's free clothing extravaganza she holds twice a year
- If I must purchase new clothing, I will use the coupon codes from online retailers that are already starting to fill my inbox
- And I'll start the online shopping experience by starting at ebates.com to get a small percentage back.
Strategies to save
In general, budgeting for back-to-school, as I mentioned, shouldn't be a surprise. However, it's not a monthly expense, so it is easy to overlook.
A simple way to have enough cash when August rolls around is to figure out how much money you'll spend, divide by 12, and save that amount of money each month.
I give you nothing but earth-shattering tips, eh?
Again, tip number one: Figure out what you'll spend, divide by 12, and put that much money aside each month. Wow. And it's a lot easier to save $50 per month than to it is to come up with $600 at once.
I have two kids in elementary school, so we had two school supply lists. I took both of them (along with our new baby) shopping for school supplies yesterday. By myself. Between bouncing the baby, juggling a bottle, consulting two school supply lists, and barking out directions to the kids to look in the different supply bins, I was a little frazzled. Okay, maybe I was more than a little frazzled, since I wasn't paying attention to the cost of the supplies. My plan was to just get in and get out without losing my mind.
My second tip is to bring along another adult, if possible, or leave the kids at home. This decreases the frazzle factor.
For the first time, our school district had online registration, so I had paid our registration fees in June. (By paying them early, I got a 10 percent discount. Um, yes, please!) Along with paying our registration fees, I also got our children's school supply lists early. That gave me a chance to watch for sales and coupons. I don't usually do coupons, but there are school supply items like a specific brand of kitchen trash bags that do use coupons. Third tip? Don't forget to check store sales and coupons.
Tip number four: Reuse supplies. On the last day of school, my kids came home with bulging backpacks. I took all their unused supplies (scissors and pencil boxes) and put them away so we could mark a few things off their school supply list.
If you want to be really prepared, use my fifth tip and buy the season's leftover supplies (read: cheap) after the school year begins. And save these commonly used items (Crayons, markers, and the like) for the next year.
Tip six: Give your children useful presents. Each year, before one of her grandchildren starts kindergarten, my mom buys them a really nice backpack for Christmas or their birthdays. Can you give practical gifts that also double as back-to-school needs?
For the seventh tip, if your state offers tax-free shopping days, shop then. Also, see tip two again. But remember that these shopping days are bound to be busier and crazier than usual, so plan accordingly.
For my final tip, you may join me, if this applies. When the bus picks up the kids, I think I will enjoy a few minutes of solitude and a cup of steaming coffee (even if it's still really hot outside). I will be celebrating the return to a more consistent schedule.
I am not the only one celebrating, though. My kids have already packed their backpacks with their new supplies. They're ready to spend more time with their friends and maybe even enjoy the opportunity to learn a few things too.
Anyone ready to rename the back-to-school season as the most wonderful time of the year? Do you think $630+ on back-to-school shopping is accurate? What are some of your strategies to save? Or is your strategy, like mine, just to survive the shopping experience?
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).