The National Retail Federation predicts combined spending for back to school and college is expected to reach $74.9 billion ($669.28 per family) on apparel, shoes, supplies, and electronics, up 5 percent from last year. That’s quite a bit of money for many families, so it’s best to try and make that dollar amount stretch as much as possible. Here are some ways to ace your back-to-school budget problems:
Check the Closet First. It often seems young children grow out of their clothes quicker than you can buy new items. However, before hitting the shops, take a look in the closet to check to see what still fits and what is worn out. Maybe an older sibling’s gently worn clothes could be used to supplement a younger child’s back-to-school wardrobe. Also, don’t forget to check out some resale shops for cool vintage clothing at a fraction of the retail price.
Create a Spending Plan. Now that you have taken an inventory, you can create a spending plan and figure out how many pairs of pants, shirts, socks, etc., your child needs. Remember, buying mix-and-match clothing may be less expensive in the long run than buying pants that can only be worn with certain tops and vice versa. Also, make sure to consult the school’s dress policy first to ensure your child can actually wear what you buy.
Other items to possibly include on your list besides clothing and shoes are sporting or hobby equipment like cleats or ballet slippers; class supplies like notebooks, binders, and crayons; and electronic devices and computer equipment. This is also a good time to find out what items your older child needs for college besides clothing. Dorm rooms are mostly furnished, but other school supplies they are likely to need include bedding, grooming essentials, and cleaning supplies. By connecting with their roommate(s) early to discuss refrigerators, microwaves, and decorations, maybe the items and or expenses could be shared. No matter the age for whom you are shopping, by having a plan in your hand before heading to the mall, you are more likely to stay on budget and not purchase excess items.
Start a Back-to-School Swap. Instead of buying all new items, try organizing a trade among families in your neighborhood, church, PTO, athletic group, or more. There are also several online swapping sites like SwapMamas.com to consider. Remember that items should be in like-new or good condition.
Involve Your Children in the Process. This is an excellent opportunity to teach your children money management skills. Concepts like comparison shopping, distinguishing needs from wants, and sticking to a budget may all be taught during back-to-school shopping. By including your children in the decision-making process, you can help them learn life-long financial lessons early. Further, by forcing them to stick to a budget, you avoid overspending while still allowing them to decide if they are willing to spend their allowance on something that may not be necessary.
Make Sack Lunches. Making meals at home can be less expensive and often more nutritious. You can get older kids excited about taking their lunch by getting them in the kitchen and letting their creative juices flow. With younger kids, give them special surprises like cutting their sandwiches using fancy cookie cutters or include a personalized note, stickers, or drawing with their lunch. Also, buying in bulk can save you money. You can make your own snack-size portions using reusable containers.
Keep Your Eye Out for Deals. Your children don’t have to start the first day of school with a closet full of new outfits. Buy the necessities prior to the first day of class and then keep an eye on sales, coupons, Groupon, and other bargains throughout the year to finish out the rest. Plus, if your child experiences a huge growth spurt, you won’t have wasted your entire year’s clothing budget at the beginning of the school year.
If you buy out-of-season (e.g., buying winter clothes in the summer and summer clothes in the winter), you can estimate what size you think your child will be or you can buy a couple of sizes larger and give your child room to grow. It’s best, however, to only use this strategy with clothing basics. Buying trendy items means you run the risk of buying clothes your children won’t want to wear because they are no longer in style.
Limit Shopping on Campus. For the college students, stores on campus are convenient. However, that convenience comes with a price, and they aren’t trying to be competitive with their pricing. Try to purchase most of your items off campus if you can.
Buying Isn’t the Only Option. College students can often save money renting textbooks or buying ones that have already been used. They can also earn money back by selling unwanted books at the end of the semester. Something to also consider is using digital textbooks when available. You will save money and room in your backpack. Also consider the free pens, pencils, notepads, and other items you may get from vendors or during conferences that could be used for school supplies, especially if these things are just collecting dust in your office.
Consider Student Discounts and Buying Used. Many large retailers, such as Microsoft, Apple, and Dell, offer deals for students. You might consider doing some research for such deals before making any major purchases. Additionally, compare prices of new versus used or refurbished computers, laptops, smart phones, scientific calculators, tablets, etc. Often buying a refurbished model is better because the kinks have been fixed.
To find more information on various personal financial matters, visit the New Jersey Society of CPAs’ (NJSPACPA) public service website at MoneyMattersNJ.com.