Back-to-school shopping doesn't have to break your budget

When it comes to buying school supplies and clothes, it's all too easy to find yourself overspending. Linda Bruce, family living educator with the Douglas County UW-Extension office has some tips to help you stick with a budget as you shop for th...

When it comes to buying school supplies and clothes, it's all too easy to find yourself overspending. Linda Bruce, family living educator with the Douglas County UW-Extension office has some tips to help you stick with a budget as you shop for the new school year.

"It all starts with having a plan that will involve your children," Bruce said. She suggests a step-by-step process to get you through the back-to-school shopping season.

First, go through school supplies and clothes from last year and list all of the items and clothes that you already have on hand. Does she really need a new backpack, or does he need that new lunchbox? Do the jeans from last year still fit?

Next, determine which items you absolutely must purchase. Use your child's school supply list, and also list needed additional clothes. Tip: If a child is growing rapidly, it may make sense to buy two pairs of jeans or khakis and rotate them, rather than buying several pairs at one time. Waiting to buy a winter coat until fall and pre-season sales allows time for the child to grow and a chance to net some savings.

Come up with a realistic total budgeted amount for supplies and clothing for each child in school.


Now, get the kids involved. Explain that there are many options available for buying the things they need. For example, a pair of jeans might cost $32 at a stylish chain store, $15 at a retail department store, $7 at a thrift or resale shop and $3 at a garage sale. School notebooks cost from 50 cents to more than $5. Let kids check out a thrift store and look through store fliers to price and plan for items they might purchase.

Older kids can take your list of the things they need and come up with a line-item budget. A line-item budget lets them determine how much they will spend per item. Notice that at this point you still haven't bought anything.

Engage younger children in learning about how much things cost, and how you as an adult make spending decisions. While shopping, for example, younger children can look at folders and see that the one with the cartoon character on the front is $2 and the others are 10 cents. You will need to set spending limits on each category or item and help them understand those limits.

Older kids will understand that if they buy six folders at 10 cents as well as other items at cheaper prices, they might have enough money left in their budget for brand-name sneakers. Learning to make decisions based on math skills, judgment and personal taste is what money management is all about. Setting limits on spending doesn't mean a lack of choices, but it does make kids have to think strategically.

If teens are using money they earned, remind them of how many hours they need to work to pay for the items they want to buy. If they are earning $7.50 per hour at the local grocery store, they might take home about $4.50 per hour after taxes. It takes more than seven hours of work to be able to pay for a pair of $32 jeans.

Be careful about using credit. Try to pay for back-to-school shopping with case or from your checking account. If you use credit, make sure you don't spend more than you can pay off in one month, or billing cycle.

Don't forget your calculator.

Get started early. Because new clothes can be expensive, think about garage sales, friends or relatives with kids who are a little older than yours, as well as resale and thrift stores.


"Check out listings for garage sales that list the size of clothes your children wear," said Bruce. "This can save a great deal of time and frustration."

Parents need to plan for fees paid directly to the school. Check school enrollment dates and fees, such as book rentals, band instrument rental or athletic fees, and required immunizations. List these fixed costs in the "must have" category.

"Local community organizations often collect school supplies and donate them for families with difficult financial circumstance," Bruce said. "Check with your school district to see if this may be an option for you."

Paying for lunch can also be surprisingly costly. Free and reduced-price school lunches and breakfasts can ease the pressure on the family budget; you can apply for these programs through your school district. If you pack and send a lunch with your child, consider freezing sandwiches made on the weekend, cutting veggies such as carrots and fruit ahead of time and buying other lunch items in bulk. This can save you time and money throughout the week. Also, check school food prices and weigh the cost (and convenience) of purchasing school meals versus packing a lunch. Either way, food costs should go into the "must have" category.

Even if you need to reduce back-to-school spending this year, use the experience as an opportunity. Involving children and youth in spending decisions can help your kids become wise consumers. And it's not too early to begin thinking about next year. Ideally, parents and caregivers should save throughout the year for the expenses they estimate they will have in August. For example, say that it will cost about $300 per child for all school-related expenses, such as program fees, clothes, supplies and lunch. Divide this by 12 to determine a savings goal of $25 per month per child. This is a good goal for next year.

For more information and educational resources on managing your family's finances, contact Bruce, family living educator, at the Douglas County UW-Extension office, (715) 395-1363.

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