Everybody knows holiday spending and the annual vacation will be big-ticket expenses throughout the year. But back-to-school shopping seems to sneak up on many families. And, in fact, some families might spend more money on getting kids ready to go back to school -- especially if college students are involved -- than any other spending event of the year.
Back-to-school shopping is different than it was a generation ago. Purchases stretch beyond No. 2 pencils, a lunchbox, and a pair of jeans. For some students, calculators, personal digital assistants, cell phones, and backpacks on wheels are standard gear. Trendy clothing and shoes can wipe out a school-shopping budget in a single lap around the mall.
American families with school-age children spend an average of $563 on back-to-school shopping, according to the National Retail Federation. Nationwide, it's an $18.4 billion shopping spree.
To cut the waste in back-to-school spending, consider these strategies:
- Plan and budget. Those words elicit yawns, but they're fundamental to using money wisely. School shopping shouldn't begin at the mall. It should start with a conversation. Plan with your children what you must purchase and how much it's likely to cost. That means taking an inventory to determine what supplies and clothing are missing and creating a shopping list. It also means forecasting what expenses are likely to crop up during the school year, such as new cleats for baseball or soccer, spending money for a school trip, or cash for prom or a yearbook. Be clear about how much money you, as a parent, will contribute and what extras must come from the child's own spending money. That should prompt a discussion of the difference between "needs" and "wants." Gym shoes are a need; $150 gym shoes are a want.
- Start early. Start back-to-school shopping closer to the Fourth of July than Labor Day. See the below table for when people say they begin shopping. Get a list of specific school supplies your child needs. Find out if the school or parents organization offers a school-supplies bundle. With bulk buying, it's likely to be cheaper and definitely will be less time consuming than trudging to a store and hunting for just the right color folders and brand of glue. For college students, starting early gives you time to search for used textbooks online or order international editions of texts, which tend to be cheaper but contain the same material.
- Hold a fashion show. Determine what's missing from each child's wardrobe or what's too small or tattered to wear for the next school year. Create a list of items to buy, and budget a specific dollar amount for each child. With teens, set a dollar amount and give them some discretion over what they buy. Explain the concept of trade-offsâï¿½"buying expensive soccer cleats means buying just two pair of jeans rather than three. Of course, mom and dad retain veto power over any purchases.
- Buy short-term items used. Some clothing and school supplies are used for such a relatively short time that they're hardly worth buying new. Ask friends and family for hand-me-downs, or host a neighborhood clothing-swap party. Check out thrift stores for bargains. With younger students, don't call them used or hand-me-downs. Instead, call them "first-grade clothes," as in, "You get to wear these special clothes when you graduate to first grade." Backpacks and scientific calculators are items to hunt for at yard sales or online auctions, such as eBay. If the student needs a computer, consider one with lower specifications. You don't need top-of-the-line computer power to run word-processing programs. If the child wants a high-powered gaming machine, require him or her to pay the price difference.
- Compare. Use the usual savings tactic of comparing prices. Backpacks can cost $10 or $40, and school scissors can cost 50 cents or $3. Personal digital assistants and computers may be cheaper at online retailers. Visit a warehouse club, such as Sam's Club, BJ's Wholesale, or Costco for bargains on clothing and school supplies. Dollar stores are good sources of off-brand items, such as tape and glue. And even if your teenage child refuses to buy clothes in a discount store such as Target or Wal-Mart, they might not mind buying such items as underwear and socks there.
- Buy late. An alternative to early shopping is late shopping. Limit clothes buying until after school starts, which allows you to spread out the expense over the year. And inevitably, your son or daughter will return to school and discover some new fashion he or she simply must have. Buying during prime time in August can be a good plan if you can find true bargains at back-to-school sales, and if your state holds a sales tax-free shopping event in August.
- Spend cash. Avoid using credit cards if you'll carry a balance from month to month. And if teens are doing their own shopping, give them cash too. Tell them as long as they get everything on their list, they can keep the leftover money. Then you'll see some smart spending.
|When Will You Begin Shopping for Back-to-School Merchandise?|
|At least two months before school starts||15%|
|Three weeks to a month before||45%|
|One to two weeks before||32%|
|The week school starts||5%|
|After school starts||3%|
National Retail Federation, 2007