Back-To-School
The Frugal Way

When you're a parent, back-to-school isn't as eagerly anticipated as it was when we were kids. That's because we know that with the start of school comes not only a barrage of paperwork (which will likely give you an old-fashioned, pre-keyboard-style writer's cramp) but also an increasingly overwhelming number of costs, fees and other expenses. Here are some tips to help you can trim costs without triggering too many complaints -- and maybe teach your kids a thing or two about money management along the way.
Little Girl with School Supplies

Back-to-school shopping may seem like an expensive chore, but it also offers several teachable moments, said Carol Young, Kansas State University Research and Extension financial management specialist.

"Ideally, parents might estimate annual school costs per student, divide by 12 and save that amount each month to cover costs without stressing the family's late summer budget," says Young. For example: Divide the estimated annual cost per child ($300) by 12 to determine a savings goal of $25 a month per child.

While that may be a good recommendation for next year, this year's school enrollment fees are coming due in the days and weeks ahead, and the pressures to spend are real. Children typically want what they think others will have, she says.

Stepping back and asking the kids to help you make spending decisions can be a lesson in money management. Even three-year-olds can understand concepts like "We can't buy everything, so we make choices" and "Once we spend the money, it's gone."


The pre-shop talk

Before shopping, talk with your children so that each one has a clear understanding of the items needed and the amount of money available to cover costs, Young says. Learning to make choices -- some good and maybe some that aren't so good -- and learning to live with the results are important life lessons, she notes.

If, for example, if a child chooses to overspend for a trendy shirt or pair of shoes, he should understand that he will have less money to buy the other items on the list, she said. Counsel children, but allow them to make some of their own choices on items they feel strongly about. The results can often be good discussion for planning the next shopping trip.

You should also remind children that you don't need to buy everything all at once.


Where you can cut costs

Young offers these other cost-saving tips:


  1. Find out about all school fees -- such as book rentals, band instrument rental, athletic fees, student body cards, yearbooks, uniforms costs and classroom material expenses -- and also factor in any required medical check-ups and/or immunizations. List these fixed costs in the "must have" category.
  2. Check school food costs and weigh the cost and convenience of purchasing school meals versus packing a lunch. (Either way, food costs should go into the "must have" category.) Check out online meal payment services such as MyLunchMoney.com, MyNutriKids.com and MySchoolBucks.com to see how they can simplify the lunch money part of the rquation.
  3. What is the cost of getting the child to and from school? Is there a charge for riding the bus? Can you carpool with a neighbor -- or can the kids walk? Any costs here should also go in the must category.
  4. Check to see if your family qualifies for reduced school fees or programs, such as reduced prices on school lunches.
  5. Have enough school supplies? Round up notebooks, pencils, binders, backpack, lunch bags/boxes and so forth from last year, and take stock. Compare what you already have to the school supply list (provided by the school district) so you only need to buy what is needed.
  6. Check the school's dress code (no spaghetti straps, minimum length for shorts and skirts, etc) and then schedule time to check clothing and shoes to see what fits and is still wearable.
  7. Prioritize the shopping list, and plan to put the money where it matters most. Shopping consignment shops that offer gently-used items. Thrift stores and garage sales can yield a savings on jeans or khaki pants others have outgrown, but not worn out. Put the money saved into buying comfortable shoes that fit.
  8. Spread out spending. If a child is growing rapidly, it may make more sense to buy two pairs of jeans or khakis and rotate them rather than buying several pairs at one time. Waiting until pre- and after-season sales to buy a winter coat and sweaters until fall and pre-season sales allows you to save while your child grows.
  9. Name-brand merchandise? If your son or daughter wants designer label shoes or clothes, ask him or her to make up the difference between regularly-priced merchandise and a more expensive item. A child's buy-in -- working for and contributing to what he wants -- teaches smart money management.
  10. Don't spend money you don't have. Try to pay cash, rather than charge back-to-school expenses. If using a credit card, try not to charge more than you can pay off in one billing cycle, because interest on a credit card balance will erode any potential savings on sale merchandise.
  11. Check sales flyers, but realize that one store isn't likely to have the lowest price on everything on your shopping list. Weigh prices against the time and money required to drive from store to store when you're evaluating total purchase prices.
  12. Shop with a list for each child, and stick to it. Also, ask the him or her to help you keep track of spending, so everyone knows when it's time to stop shopping.
  13. Stock up and save. If you can estimate your kids' sizes a few months ahead, shop for clothes during the off-season at a substantial savings -- sometimes as much as 50 to 75 percent.
  14. Shop when stores are least crowded, during early morning or later in the evening and on a weekday, if possible. This will give you more time and space to find bargains and make sure what you're buying fits.

Be sure to also track back-to-school expenses to help in planning savings to ease the back-to-school cash crunch next year. In doing so, be sure to add in extras: For example, just how much does it really cost you to eat out on the way to an out-of-town little league ball game? (To save there, Young suggests packing a picnic and share a ride.)


Inexpensive - or free - ways to help your schools

If a cash crunch is keeping you from donating the requested tissue boxes and dry-erase pens to your child's classroom, think about what else you could donate. There are many things that teachers might want for art projects or to use as educational aids -- and they won't cost you a thing. A few ideas: glass jars, plastic tubs, egg cartons, scratch paper from your office, pinecones, seeds, interesting leaves and flowers -- maybe even an abandoned old bird's nest you found nestled in the eaves.

Of course, your time is one of the most valuable contributions you can offer to your child's teacher: Help him or her organize paperwork, supervise class projects, chaperone field trips and otherwise assist. That way, the teacher will have more time and energy to dedicate to everyone's goal: Helping these kids learn and prepare for the future.

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