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Back to School on a Budget

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 Back to school time means there won’t be any more daily cries of, “I’m booooooored!”  It means the end of those impromptu trips to the beach or the pool. It means that your house will be a little tidier, you will get a little more done, and your kids will get to see friends that they haven’t seen since the school doors closed at the beginning of the summer.

It also means that it’s time for mom and dad to spend some money.

When many Americans can barely make ends meet from month to month without any additional expenses, back-to-school time can be the source of a great deal of stress.

The economic collapse has occurred quietly and stealthily.  In fact, many people probably think that it has only happened to them, as job losses occur, utilities get cut off, and the pantry gets more sparse.  They don’t talk about it because poverty is a humiliating state – they suffer quietly, not realizing that the next-door neighbor is probably in the exact same situation.  They don’t realize that they aren’t alone.

Despite the deceptively whitewashed claims of the Job Report that say that things are looking up,  Breitbart released an articl [2]e on July 5 refuting their optimistic assertions.  While there are technically “more” jobs, this is because positions that used to be full time are now part time – meaning that two or more people hold what used to be one job.

According to the article, only 47% of Americans are employed full time. In an age where most families require two parents to work full time in order to make ends meet, this is a devastating economic blow. (source [3])

While we, as adults, can tighten the budget relentlessly on items for ourselves, a lot of people have a much more difficult time enforcing frugality on their children. But by ignoring the financial restraints and spending with reckless abandon on our kids, I don’t believe that we are doing them any favors.  The economic outlook doesn’t appear to be improving any time soon, and showering your children with false prosperity doesn’t prepare them for surviving and thriving in such a world.

Figure out your budget

First things first, a back-to-school budget is a must.  This is dependent on your personal means.  No matter what your child believes that they “need”, it has to fit into the budget.

For years, I have used the envelope method for things like Christmas and back-to-school shopping. It’s fair, it’s efficient, and it’s tangible.  This way, I not only stay within budget, but I teach my kids about budgeting also.

Both of my daughters are very financially responsible and handle money well because they have been making their purchases fit the existing budget since they were old enough to perform the necessary math to do so.  There have been years that they made poor choices that they regretted, but by allowing them to do this, they learned a lesson that you just can’t teach them with a verbal warning.

  1. Make two envelopes with each child’s name on it – one for supplies and one for clothes. Into the envelope goes a designated amount of cash – this may be $20, $100, or more, depending on your personal finances.  (When making the back to school budget, be sure to keep your other expenses in mind – you still have to eat and pay your bills!)
  2. Sit down with the kids and a pile of back-to-school fliers, and tell them their budgets. Expect to hear lots of cheering and excitement as the large number floats around in their heads.  Then hand them a notebook so they can write down what they need in two columns.  Mark one column “supplies” and the other “clothes”.
  3. Once they have written up their lists, have them go through the fliers and choose the things they want.  Generally their desires will greatly outstrip their budgets.
  4. This is the critical teaching moment.  No, don’t increase the budget!  This is the time to teach them to figure out which of the items are necessary and which are optional.  Have the kids consider their lists. Are there any items they have from last year that would allow them to strike some items off the wish list and free up some more funds?  Do they actually NEED a new lunch box or binder, or will last year’s suffice for just a little bit longer? If they get the $80 jeans, can they manage to purchase the rest of their wardrobe for only $20?
  5. Spend a couple of days brainstorming.  Let your kids think about their budgets and their lists.  You may be surprised at their solutions for stretching the money.  They can search online for deals, they can get crafty and remake some of their own items…give them the freedom to be creative and to think for themselves.
  6. Go shopping.  Here are the rules.  When you are in the check out line, have your kids pay out of their envelopes. Receipts go back into the appropriate envelope, which makes it easier for them to see where their money has gone or to make returns or exchanges if necessary.  If they are out of money they are finished shopping, unless they opt to take something back for a refund. This is the key element of teaching your kids to budget. If you don’t enforce this part of the exercise, you’ve completely wasted your time with the rest of it.
My kids also have jobs in the summer – they babysit, they do farm chores, and they do one time projects like cleaning out the garage, painting the fence, etc.  While they are certainly allowed to supplement their budgets with their own money, quite often they save for a bigger item or for spending money throughout the school year instead of spending their cash frivolously.  Other times, they save up for one big-ticket clothing item that they know I won’t be buying for them.  This year my youngest daughter has put aside enough to pay her “pay-as-you-go” cellphone bill over the course of the school year.  

 Budget-friendly tips

With a few suggestions from my 12-year-old junior fashionista, Rosie, here are some ways to stretch your back-to-school dollars.


How do you get the most bang for your back-to-school bucks?  Post your suggestions in the comments below!