Blog Banner

Family Files

Facts for All Ages
abc 123 002

Back to School Shopping: It's As Easy as A-B-C and 1-2-3

Posted by Cara Allen - Parenting

There are already ads for back to school supplies!  Didn't school just end?  Have kids even had a chance to get bored yet?

A favorite commercial shows a dad shopping for his two children.  He is jumping and dancing down the aisles as his daughter and son look bored....and embarrassed.  The song playing in the background?  "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

It's telling, or maybe ironic, that a Christmas song is playing during that commercial, because according to the National Retail Federation, the money spent during back to school season is second only to Christmas!  Between K-12 supplies and clothing and the back to college group, parents spend more than $72 billion dollars.

So, back to school time is certainly not the most wonderful time of the year for parents and their wallets.  The Retail Federation also breaks out the average amounts spent per child - $581 for elementary students, $682 for middle school ages, and $683 for high school students.  If you have multiple students in multiple grades, back to school can feel like a second mortgage.  However, it doesn't have to be that way.  Here are a few simple strategies to get maximum value this year and how to plan for next year so your wallet won't cry out in pain!

First, follow these A-B-C's:

A - Assemble lists and ad papers.  Find the supply lists for the grades of each of your children and make one master list of supplies needed.  If one child needs 2 boxes of tissues and another needs three boxes - you need 5 boxes total and you can now look for a bulk deal and cover both children.

Also, gather the ad papers for all the stores carrying back to school supplies.  You might be surprised at all the different stores that carry supplies, including some home improvement stores and dollar stores.  Don't assume that the stores saying they have the lowest prices actually do.

B - Budget how you are going to spend your money.  Without creating a limit you will spend too much.  Take last year's total and try to spend less this year.  Use Extension's Back to School Planning worksheet:

If you are truly unsure of how much money you should budget, set your limits in terms of descriptions - buy only what is on the school supply lists.  Only allow each child one "trendy" item like a popular character backpack or notebook, for example, and then purchase plain (less expensive) notebooks after that.  Just buy one or two new outfits for the beginning of school and buy the remaining school clothes as the year progresses.

C - Cash, no credit cards. You don't want to add to the already escalating cost of back to school by adding the interest you will pay by adding these expenses to your credit card balance.  The exception would be if you pay your balance in full every month and you have a rewards card so you get something in return.  Keep in mind, though, that when you use plastic (credit OR debit cards) research shows people spend on average 30% more than when they use cash.  Cash is a great budgeting device - it is a visual representation of how much you are spending and when it is have to stop!

Also these 1-2-3's:

1.  Don't shop for supplies/clothes all at once. Stores are offering deals every week between now and the middle of September.  Buy as much as you can on sale and spend as little as possible on full priced items.  Stores should have clearance sales on summer clothes that will take your kids through much of the first quarter.  Save buying the fall/winter clothes until it is a bit cooler.

2.  Do not take kids with you on most of your shopping trips, if you can help it.  They are masters at impulse shopping which can easily bust your budget.  Two kid friendly strategies:

take them on a special trip for that one special trendy item they must have - a superhero backpack, for example; or

give them a small budget for something - backpack, special notebook, first day outfit.  This allows them some freedom and teaches them about budgeting.  For high school aged kids, give them their clothing budget and tell them how long it has to last (the semester, for example.)

3.  Save a chunk of your budget for items requested by teachers that are not on the list and for items that will need to be replaced during the year because they are worn out or outgrown.

Finally, save all your receipts from this year as well as your budget worksheet.  Grab a copy of the supply list for child's grade next year.  Use these to plan next year's budget and begin putting a little money away each month for Back to School 2016.  It will be here sooner than you think!

I want to thank my colleague, Pam Atkinson, Consumer Economics educator, who wrote this information and graciously agreed to let me use it in the Family Files blog.  If you like the contents of this post, check out other blog posts by the Consumer Economics team at



Please share this article with your friends!
Share on Facebook Tweet on Twitter Pin on Pinterest


Email will not display publicly, it is used only for validating comment