DENVER—Just as the school year creeps up on your kids, school-related expenses can creep up on you. Paper and pencils are only the beginning. Your daughter wants to try the cello this year. Your son is ready for football. And both kids want the best brand-name jeans and graphic tees to compete with their friends. According to a recent online survey commissioned by the National Endowment for Financial Education® (NEFE®) and conducted by Harris Interactive in August 2010, 91 percent of parents who plan to spend money this fall on K-12 back-to-school or education-related expenses will spend $100 or more. For 44 percent of those parents, the price tag climbs to $300 or more.
"There's no getting around many of these expenses," says Paul Golden, spokesperson for NEFE. "But parents can cut their back-to-school bills with some creativity and planning."
Start With a Plan
Jot down necessary school-related items, such as classroom supplies and after-school-care expenses, and your kids' "wants," such as an after-school rock guitar 101 class. Then, take a look at your family budget to determine the total amount you can spend. See which costs you can spread out, get rid of or at least reduce. When shopping with your kids, stick to a budget. And look for ways to help your kids learn to manage money—a skill that's essential once they head out on their own.
Expect to pay for basic classroom supplies, an up-front cost that accompanies your child's entrance into the classroom. Denver mom Jen Kittleson encourages parents to buy generic or store brands. "Take it from a teacher's wife, I wouldn't buy fancy school supplies," Kittleson says. "They usually all get put in the same community bucket."
Check newspaper circulars from now until just after school begins, as many stores run "dollar days" and other back-to-school promotions with significant markdowns. Compare local deals with what you can find online to make sure you're getting the best deal. Find out if your child's school prints a master supplies list. These usually don't vary much from one year to the next, so you can stock up year-round on items you know your kids will need—pencils, folders and glue sticks—when they go on sale.
In the NEFE/Harris survey, 61 percent of parents who plan to spend money this fall on K-12 back-to-school or education-related expenses anticipate spending the most money on clothes. First, take inventory of what your children already have. Sure, your son may want the latest style backpack. But if last year's pack still fits, consider it a lower priority. Perhaps most of your daughter's clothes still fit, so buy only a few must-have items before school starts and find others later. Accessories also can update and freshen up a stale wardrobe. After you decide what your kids need, determine what you can afford to spend before ever setting foot in the store—or hitting the purchase button online. Then, shop smart.
Give older children a budget for buying back-to-school clothes and shoes. Or, give them a stake in the game with allowance or summer job earnings to fund some of their new wardrobe. Grant younger kids choices within your budget and find opportunities to teach them about money. If your daughter is deciding between two shirts, one $10 and the other $20, explain to her that if she chooses the least-expensive shirt, she still has money left to put toward new jeans or shoes.
Look for clothes at consignment stores instead of the mall. Take any of your child's "lightly worn" castoffs to local stores for credit toward what you buy. Also, check to see if there are any neighborhood consignment events, such as "Just Between Friends" (JBF), in your area. "[The consignment shops] have a ton of kids' stuff," Kittleson says. "They inspect everything sold so the quality is good. And I like that you're reusing good clothes rather than having to buy new."
Find out if your state has an annual sales-tax holiday for back-to-school shopping at www.taxadmin.org/fta/rate/sales_holiday.html. Many states exclude tax for school supplies clothing and computer purchases.
It's hard to say "no" when your kids are motivated and excited about a sport, trying a new instrument or participating in the drama club. But before you know it, you easily could spend $500 for an activity they may quickly abandon. There are ways to keep your children happy and active without overspending your budget. Ask your kids to pick their favorite activity and cut one or more of the others. Many kids are overbooked anyway, and you don't want them to burn out. Find out early what each activity requires in terms of your time and financial commitments. Will you need to bring team snacks or pay for overnight sports tournaments? Look for activities offered by the YMCA, community recreation centers and churches, which may be lower cost than commercial gyms or leagues. "My oldest daughter took gymnastics for two years at the YMCA," comments one mom on MomtoMomChat.com, an online parenting forum. Her daughter also brought in old uniforms to trade in for credit toward a new one.
Other ideas for saving on equipment include:
- Renting instead of buying an instrument until you know your child will stick with it
- Suggesting relatives pitch in to buy uniforms, or even lessons and camp dues, as a birthday or holiday gift
- Asking your friends with older kids what unused gear might be stowed in their storage room
- Scouting secondhand deals at used sporting good stores or on Craigslist
If you're making lunches at home, buy in bulk. A large bag of pretzels usually costs less than a box of small bags with the same total amount. Use reusable food containers for single portions instead of purchasing individually wrapped packages or boxes. Over the year, you'll spend less. Pack lunches with ice packs and ask your children to eat their leftovers after school before they eat other snacks at home.
Give your child a lunch allowance for the day or for the week, depending on age, or see if the school provides debit cards or accounts that can be preloaded for school lunches. Your child will learn the basics of debit use and money management, and you can keep track of his or her spending.
Transportation and After-School Care
Before classes start, determine how your child will get to and from school and after-school activities and how you will deal with sick days or cancellations due to weather. Will you drive your child to school or is your child of driving age? Make sure to budget for gas and parking fees, and try to find carpool options to reduce time on the road. Look to the bus or other forms of public transportation and if you live close, consider whether your student can bike or walk to school instead. For safety, organize a group of kids to walk or bike together.
For each child, budget a week or more of sick days and snow days each year that require you or your spouse to take off work. Or, coordinate with a neighbor, family member or day-care center that can be ready to watch your child at a moment's notice. Also, remember to account for your child's other days out of school, such as holidays, spring break and teacher in-service days.
"After you've stocked up on supplies, figured out after-school care, and decided what fun new activities your child will try this year, take these last few days of summer to talk with him or her about money," says Golden. "It's never too early to start learning—and it starts with parents."
Whether your child is taking his or her first steps into the kindergarten classroom or moving out on his or her own to start college, back-to-school time is a big deal. Visit Smart About Money (www.smartaboutmoney.org/backtoschool) for budget-saving tips on school related-spending and ideas for talking to your children about money.
Harris Interactive Survey Methodology
This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of NEFE from August 4-10, 2010 among 1,016 parents of children age 17 years or younger, of which 815 are parents of children in grades K-12. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, visit