I always dreaded this time of year when I was a kid. The summer seasonal products in the stores would disappear to be replaced by those dreaded items. The very mention of it would strike fear in my heart and put me into a funk for days. There was no getting away from it, but I sure didn’t want to admit that the time had come yet again. I was enjoying my freedom way too much for them to take it away yet again. Alas, there was simply no way to avoid it – BACK-TO-SCHOOL season.
While I still don’t particularly enjoy back-to-school shopping, my wife is quite the opposite. She loves to go through the supplies list and not only do the shopping, but then label and organize everything so that it is ready for the first day of school. Just like in my childhood, there is still no avoiding back-to-school time. Whether you like it or not, it’s here.
School supplies are one item, but for others school shopping includes many other items, including a new wardrobe. Back to school expenses can quickly add up to a few hundred dollars per student, depending on the extent of your shopping list.
Since there is no way to avoid that time of year, as much as some kids may hope and pray, I decided to work on a more proactive method of dealing with back-to-school shopping than avoidance. Here are a few tips to help you endure this painful time of year:
- Get the List – Usually, each school district puts out a grade-by-grade supply list each year. You can typically find these on the district website or in hard copy at the local stores. You may have also received a copy directly from your school or teacher. Use that list as a beginning and add any other back-to-school necessities to it. By having a list made ahead of time, you will be more focused in your shopping, avoiding the other impulse purchases and resulting higher bills.
- Get the Receipts – We have found that, while the district puts out a master list of supplies for each grade, that list is often amended by each teacher. We often end up with supplies we don’t need and needing other supplies that we don’t have yet. Save your receipts so that you can return any supplies that end up unneeded. Also, while school is less than 3 weeks away here, colder weather is a little further off. If your back-to-school shopping includes winter clothing, keep your receipts in case your kids experience a late-summer growth spurt. Yes, we have had high-water jeans with the tags still on them. You will want to exchange those.
- Get the Ads – Look for sales on the items on your list. You have a little time before school starts so spend some time to save some money. While shopping for boxes of crayons, my wife found the regular boxes to be nearly $1.50 at one store while another had the exact same box on sale for a mere $.50!
- Get the Big Picture – Start to think beyond just the next month or so. We have two kids in school. Have you shopped for a backpack lately? It’s like buying luxury luggage. We certainly don’t get the highest priced backpacks, but do spend a little more to get good ones. By getting a little better backpacks, we can get them to last two years. By planning the timing, we are only buying one backpack per year, alternating who gets a new bag each year. Also, some like to travel up to 4 hours to shop for their new wardrobe. By traveling to Minnesota, shoppers can avoid sales tax on clothing. Good deal, right? WRONG! Sure, they save the 6% sales tax that we have here in South Dakota. But let’s look at the big picture. Assuming we are really splurging and buying $300 in clothes for each of our two kids, that tax savings is $36. That little bit of savings doesn’t even buy gas to make the trip to Minneapolis, let alone hotel, food, and gas for the trip back. If you are traveling to save money, look at the big picture and make sure you are really saving.
- Get the Needs – What do they need? I mean really, truly need. Wants are nice if you can afford them, but be sure to get the needs first. If you need to watch your budget, you need to be brutally honest about what is really a need versus a want. Let’s be honest – a brown paper bag can certainly get a lunch to school. How many packages of brown bags can you buy for the same price as that designer lunch cooler? As a bonus, you don’t have to freak out about losing a brown bag here and there.
- Get the Timing Right – Having two girls, my mother-in-law got to a point where back-to-school clothes shopping wasn’t done until after school was well underway. Kids are often a little more isolated over the summer and may not be totally up to speed with what is going to be fashionable over the coming school year. Let them get back around their peers and get an idea of what they will actually wear out of the house before you spend the money to buy their clothes. The clothes will get worn more and you won’t be as frustrated by clothing with tags still attached hanging in their closets. “Cool” is a big deal after all.
Back-to-school time has come yet again. Before we know it, we will be back to the school year routine and maybe even happy about it. And then we’ll do it all over again next year. Will I ever really be excited about back-to-school shopping? Probably not. But then very few shopping trips really get me excited.
If you are concerned about your budget, have a plan. You can make those shopping excursions more bearable. If you would like some help or have already gotten yourself into debt with past back-to-school shopping, the Center for Financial Resources is here to help. We can help you budget as well as work on a plan to get out from under that previous debt.
Go on and enjoy that back-to-school time. I’ll be at home avoiding it.
written by Breck Miller
images courtesy freedigitialphotos.net