Don’t Break the Bank on Back to School

The beginning of the school year is an expensive time for parents. Historically, this is the second-largest shopping season of the year, behind only the winter holiday season. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent a whopping $75 billion on back to school in 2014. You anticipate extra expenses such as registration and enrollment fees this time of year, but there are several other costs that should be on your radar. Parents also need to consider the cost of school supplies, electronics, uniforms and gear, parent-teacher organization dues and technology fees. Here are some tips to help you plan ahead:

Have a plan and stick to it!

Going shopping without a plan can lead to impulse purchases, buyer’s remorse and empty pockets. Try to anticipate all of the upcoming costs and put together a realistic budget that you are committed to sticking to—and be specific. Most schools provide a comprehensive list of what is needed for the classroom on their website or give it out during summer registration. School lists are a good start, but you’ll need other items beside supplies for the classroom. You know that you will need to buy clothes, but don’t just start shopping for clothes in general. List exactly what you need (two pairs of jeans, one pair of athletic shoes, five collared shirts, five t-shirts, one light jacket, etc.) and be sure to cross an item off your list once it has been purchased so you don’t end up with duplicates.


Look for deals and coupons.

If you’re like me, you get TONs of emails with coupons for stores where you frequently shop. Instead of just deleting them, create a folder in your email called “coupons” and save these emails in the folder as you get them. Before you go shopping, check this folder to see what coupons you have available. You also can use websites and apps like RetailMeNot where you can search for coupons by the name of the store. If you have an AmazonPrime or AmazonMom membership, search for your list items and compare prices. Can you buy it in bulk? Stores like Costco and Sam’s Club offer cheaper per-unit prices when you buy in bulk. If the idea of having a pallet of pencils sitting in your storage room makes you cringe, see whether some other families want to split the cost and product with you. Also remember tax free shopping days!


Don’t be caught off guard.

You know to expect the usual expenses—school supplies for the classroom, new clothes and shoes and registration fees, but don’t forget about the other potential costs associated with school. You may be spending more on gas as your daily commute changes and potentially traveling for sporting events and field trips. You typically need to take the kids in for a checkup to complete all of their health care forms prior to the start of school. You’ll need extra funds for those co-pays and doctor visits. If you are constantly on the go between work, school, practice and games, you may be eating out more, which also can put a strain on the budget. Try to plan ahead by making meals ahead and freezing them. Or be prepared to pack sandwiches or other easy and cost-effective meals.  


Check your stock.

You know that feeling when you come home from the grocery store with peanut butter just to discover you already have three unopened jars in the pantry? Chances are you have pencils, erasers and rulers somewhere in your house, so you may not need to buy any this year. Search your home office area, kitchen drawers and storage closets to take stock of what you already have. Calculators and other electronics typically can be used for several years; they may just need new batteries. Do the kids really need new backpacks and lunchboxes this fall? Maybe last year’s are still in good shape or just need a few patches or a new zipper. Take stock of what you already have before embarking on your shopping trips.


Just say no!

Back-to-school time is one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year, and retailers will be ready for you. Tons of brightly colored kiosks and attractive, strategically placed displays will beg for your (or your child’s) attention. Don’t be fooled by those chocolate-flavored erasers and fancy personalized lunch pails—if you already have what you need, just say no and move on! It might make sense to go shopping for some items by yourself so the kids don’t beg for random items not on your list. When you have so many things to buy at once, it can be tempting to break out the credit card instead of waiting until you have the funds you need to make the purchases. JUST SAY NO! Avoid impulse purchases and stick to the plan so you can start the school year on the right foot.


Get the troops on board.

Setting a budget should be a family affair. Back-to-school shopping is a great way to engage your kids on managing money and budgeting. Put them in charge of one of the items on your list. Tell them the budget and allow them to shop for the item. If they have money left over, allow them to use the excess for whatever they want as a reward for being a smart shopper. They will realize that you can get three packs of plain pencils for the same cost as one pack of Hello Kitty pencils. Don’t let the kids break the budget. If you have budgeted $25 for each backpack and they want the $40 deluxe version, have them figure out a way to make up the difference. Use this as a learning opportunity to teach your kids the value of money and set them up for financial success in the future.


Back-to-school time is a fun and exciting season of the year, but it also can be stressful on your emotions, your schedule and your paycheck. Stick to these tips to avoid breaking the bank on back to school this year.


Jamie Bosse, CFP®, is a financial planner at KHC Wealth Management in Overland Park.

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