Back to school comes around the same time every year, but like the holidays, it tends to sneak up on parents — and their bank accounts. With inflation and rising and falling gas prices, back to school is shaping up to be an even bigger budget challenge this year.
According to Fortune magazine, the parents plan to spend a whopping $661 on supplies, per child. The National Retail Federation estimates an even higher record average of $864 for back-to-school purchases for elementary, middle, or high school children and about $1,199 for purchases for college-aged children. That’s a lot of money for pencils and glue (and MacBooks).
If you don’t want to be caught off guard with spending hundreds of dollars, you’ll need to plan ahead and be a savvy shopper. Here are nine strategies for getting your back-to-school budget under control.
9 tips to keep your back-to-school budget on track
- Assess what is needed
- Set a spending limit
- Complete the back-to-school shopping budget
- Create a sinking fund for school supplies
- Set up challenges to save money
- Be a smart shopper
- Determine which expenses you can delay
- Plan ahead for next year
- Check for free or discounted back-to-school supplies
1. Assess what is needed
Start with the list of requested school supplies provided by your child’s teacher(s) or the school district. Take inventory of the supplies you already have at home. Scour your child’s dressers and closets to see what clothes and shoes he can still put on before heading out to buy a new wardrobe.
When building your list, keep in mind the costs that aren’t obvious. For example, do you need to stock up on masks and hand sanitizer? Will you need to purchase uniforms or equipment for sports or other extracurricular activities? Will your child need a medical examination before returning to school?
As you ponder the obvious back-to-school expenses, don’t forget school photos, PTA fundraisers, and book fairs.
2. Set a spending limit
It’s important to create a spending limit that you’re comfortable with and that covers the basics. Buying school supplies without a budget will only expose you to overspending.
Once you have your shopping list together, you can start pricing items, even if you don’t plan to buy anything until the upcoming school year begins. Create your budget based on regular retail prices rather than current sales. Overestimating your spending will give you a little leeway when shopping.
After totaling the amount you plan to spend, do you have enough money? Otherwise, you will have to adapt.
3. Pay off your back-to-school shopping budget
Earning extra money always provides a bit of financial stress relief. This applies to back to school.
Ask your employer to take extra shifts or work overtime. Find a temporary side job, like walking a dog, delivering errands, or do odd jobs through TaskRabbit.
If you have older children, you might ask them to contribute some of their school expenses, especially if they ask for brand name clothes and school supplies.
Talk to your teens about shopping expectations at school. Ask them to share some of the cost of items that don’t fit into your budget.
4. Create a sinking fund for school supplies
A sinking fund is a reserve of money that you add over time to divide a large expense into more affordable slices.
Let’s say you’ve estimated that you’ll spend $800 for back-to-school, and you get paid four times before school starts. Each payday, you must set aside $200 in your sinking fund to cover future expenses.
If you take money from your existing savings to start the sinking fund now, you can withdraw less with each paycheck.
Setting up direct deposit or direct deposit will help you save money in your sinking fund without even thinking about it.
5. Implement challenges to save money
Saving money can be tough, especially when you don’t have a lot of time. Savings challenges can help you save more money than you think.
If you’re shopping with cash, challenge yourself to save some value every time it hits your wallet. Maybe you save all $5 bills you get as change.
If you typically pay for things with a debit card, your money-saving challenge might be to round up each purchase to the nearest $5 increment and use that difference for your savings on school expenses.
Or try a challenge without spending. Implement a 30-day freeze on discretionary spending so you have more money to pay for school supplies and related materials.
6. Be a smart shopper
By the time school starts, you’ll come across enough sales promotions that it’s foolish to pay full retail price for anything.
Along with taking advantage of great deals, here are some other smart back-to-school shopping strategies to keep in mind:
- Buy generic.
- Compare prices online.
- Don’t snub discount shopping at thrift stores or dollar stores.
- Get items in bulk at outlet stores, especially if you’re buying for more than one child.
- Take advantage of coupons, discount sites or cashback apps.
- Shop while in your state sales tax exemption.
- Sign up for emails to save a percentage at retail stores.
The older your children get, the more likely they will have opinions about what they want for the new school year. Talk to your children about the cost of their school supplies and ask them what is most important to them.
After you identify a few select splurge items, find ways to get everything else cheaply. It’s a great way to teach your kids how to budget.
7. Determine which expenses you can delay
You don’t always have to buy everything in time for the first day.
Your kids may not need new clothes right away, especially if the weather is still warm and they don’t need to wear fall clothes yet.
If you can, wait a few weeks or more to buy the “fun” supplies, like new backpacks and lunch boxes. Retailers will often have big discounts after the back-to-school rush ends and they try to get rid of this merchandise.
8. Plan ahead for next year
Some schools don’t post supply lists until it’s too late to spend a lot of time shopping. Think about what your student is likely to need next year, especially the more expensive items. For example, buy clothes or other items that you know they will need in the future.
9. Check for free or discounted back-to-school supplies
Various not-for-profit organizations operating at the local level such as The Salvation Army offer back-to-school programs. Check locally for programs with your local public library, police department, or town recreation center.
Another option is to ask other parents in your social circle if they have any second-hand items or unused supplies your child could use. Also, Groups without buying anything can be a great resource for getting most of the school supply list without spending a penny.
Contributor Veronica Matthews writes about North Carolina lifestyle topics. Nicole Dow is a former writer for The Penny Hoarder.