Back to school shopping: A teachable moment

August 15, 2013

By Sheryl Smolkin


One end-of-summer ritual for families with school age children is the annual pilgrimage to buy school supplies and fall clothes. But the cost of back-to-school shopping seems to escalate more every year, particularly if name brand clothing, tablet computers and smartphones are on the list.

However, getting ready for the new school term is an ideal time for you to help your child learn the difference between “needs” and “wants.” It is also an opportunity to teach them basic financial literacy skills like budgeting and managing their money.

Start by making a list of what each child requires including school uniforms (if applicable) and school supplies. Then go through closets to see what still fits and what you can salvage from last year. You will likely find clothing items in good condition that are too small for one child but can be used by another. Backpacks and desks may yield a supply of paper, pens and calculators left over from last year.

Then go online with your children to find out the price you can expect to pay for the key items on your list. Check out several different stores to find the best deals. Once you have a price list, create a budget with each child. If you can afford it, you may wish to add some “wiggle room” for unexpected purchases.

Depending on the age of your children, they can shop alone or with you. But regardless of the new gadgets or trendy items they are attracted to, remind them they have to stay on budget. Encourage them to comparison shop and wait for sales if possible to make their money go further.

Try not to shop when you or your children are tired, hungry or pressed for time. In these circumstances, you may end up taking the path of least resistance and overspend just to get it over with.

Here are some other hints for keeping your costs down and making back to school shopping a teachable moment:

  1. Get receipts: You may think you know what school supplies your child needs, but more often than not, this year’s teacher will want something different than the teacher asked for last year (i.e. individual binders for each subject instead of one large binder with dividers). Receipts mean you can easily return anything you don’t need.
  2. Don’t buy everything at once: There are always sales. Children don’t need winter clothing in September, so wait until a better selection at lower prices is available later in the fall. Also, hand-me-downs in good condition will likely surface once other families realize their children can no longer wear last year’s snowsuit.
  3. Name brands: Generally name brands and goods that have logos are more expensive than generic products. However, don’t fully discount your child’s need to conform in order to be accepted. You may be able to meet your child part-way and purchase some of these items at discount malls or end of season sales.
  4. Coupons: Look in the local paper and online for discount coupons. If you or your child have a smart phone, mobile coupons may also be an option.
  5. Lost, damaged items: How many times have you had to purchase a math set because pieces were lost or replace lunch boxes that disappeared on the school bus? Lost cell phones or computers can be particularly expensive to replace.

Some loss or breakage is inevitable. However, you can help your kids to become more responsible if you make it clear that if they are careless they will have to contribute to the cost of replacement items out of their allowance or earnings from a part-time job. Also, make sure that they know that where big ticket items go missing, you may not be able to afford to replace them at all.

Do you have tips for back to school shopping? Share your tips with us at and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

22-Aug College/University Stay at home or go away to school?
29-Aug College/University Credit card options for your college kid
04-Sept College/University What kinds of insurance does your child need?
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