Back to School on a Budget

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By Daisy Luther

If your kids are headed back to school, it 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.

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 a 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 wishlist 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 back in the day from when my junior fashionista was 12 years old, here are some ways to stretch your back-to-school dollars.

  • Clean your room.  You might find pens, pencils, and art supplies – then instead of buying new ones, you can allocate that money to other things.
  • Check out the business supply store.  Our local Staples has a great selection of 25 cent school supplies.
  • Check the fliers for loss leaders.  Wal-Mart is selling looseleaf paper two packs for $1. Just don’t fall into the marketing trap of buying the overpriced items that are displayed by the loss leaders.
  • Visit thrift stores.  You can get nice things for a fraction of the price if you shop carefully. Plus no one else will be able to copy your unique vintage style.
  • Go to the dollar store.  Items like pens, pencils, sharpeners, pencil cases, etc., can be found inexpensively there.
  • Focus on accessories. Fashionable accessories can make last year’s clothes look new.
  • Look at new ways to wear old clothes. (This works better for girls than boys.) Last year’s cool dress might be a cute top with leggings this year.
  • Refashion old clothes.  Make outgrown jeans into a purse, revamp old tee shirts, use fabric from old shirts to make headbands, scarves, or other accessories.
  • Do a dye makeover.  If you have some faded black items from the previous year, invest in a package of clothing dye, like RIT. They’ll come out looking as good as new. You can also get other colors and dye things like jeans or tee shirts. If you have an item with a stain that won’t come out, dying it a darker color than the stain can give it a new life. These are also great techniques to use on thrift store finds.
  • Wait until after school starts.  If you wait until after the first day of school, you may find that you require different items than expected. Shop for all but the most basic needs after you have gotten your list from the school. As well, many clothing items go on sale a few weeks after school starts, which will help your money to go further.

What do you think?

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

Daisy Luther

About the Author

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, gun-toting blogger who writes about current events, preparedness, frugality, voluntaryism, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, The Organic Prepper. She is widely republished across alternative media and she curates all the most important news links on her aggregate site, Daisy is the best-selling author of 4 books and lives in the mountains of Virginia with her two daughters and an ever-growing menagerie. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, and Twitter.

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