The Average American Spends $687.72 Per Kid for Back to School Shopping

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By Daisy Luther

If your kids are enrolled in school, you know that back to school shopping can make this the second most expensive time of the year.

This year, the National Retail Federation expects back to school spending to reach $83.6 billion dollars. This is a 10% increase over last year’s spending. The average expenditure is $687.72 per child. (source)

Here’s the spending breakdown:

  • Clothing – $238.89
  • Electronics (computers, calculators) $204.33
  • Shoes $130.38
  • Supplies (includes backpacks and lunchboxes) $114.12

Ouch.

I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever spent anywhere near that amount of money on back to school stuff for both of my kids combined. It does not have to be this way.

When many Americans can barely make ends meet from month to month without any additional expenses, the pressure to spend money on back to school shopping can be the source of a great deal of stress.  Add to this that now, many schools send home a list with kids requiring parents to supply boxes of kleenex, hand sanitizer, and other classroom supplies that can really strain a budget. It’s embarrassing to be put on the spot like that, but don’t be afraid to say no or simply ignore the request. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it.

While we, as adults, can tighten the budget relentlessly on items for ourselves, it’s can be a lot harder to enforce frugality on the kiddos. 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 for many families, as jobs get cut and prices continue to go up.  In a world like this, showering your children with false prosperity doesn’t prepare them to survive and thrive.

It doesn’t have to be like this. You can create a budget and stick to it.

Figure out your back to school shopping budget (and teach the kids, too)

First things first, a budget is a must.  This is dependent on your personal means.  There is one simple rule here: no matter what your children believe 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 stayed within budget, but I taught 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 with a verbal warning.

  • 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!)
  • 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”.
  • 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.
  • No, don’t increase the budget!  This is the critical teaching moment.  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?
  • 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.
  • 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.
If your kids have summer jobs, then they will have the freedom to buy some of those expensive “want but don’t need” items. My kids always had jobs in the summer – they babysat, they did farm chores, and they did one time projects like cleaning out the garage, painting the fence, etc.  While they were certainly allowed to supplement their budgets with their own money, quite often they saved for a bigger item or for spending money throughout the school year instead of spending their cash frivolously.  Other times, they saved up for one big-ticket clothing item that they know I won’t be buying for them.

10 budget-friendly back to school shopping tips

Here are some ways to stretch your back-to-school dollars.

  1. Clean your room.  Your kids might find pens, pencils, and art supplies – then instead of buying new ones, they can allocate that money to other things.
  2. Check out the business supply store.  Our local Staples has a great selection of 25 cent school supplies.
  3. Check the fliers for loss leaders.  Wal-Mart is famous for dirt cheap deals like loose leaf paper two packs for $1 and erasers for 25 cents.  Just don’t fall into the marketing trap of buying the overpriced items that are displayed by the loss leaders.
  4. 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.
  5. Go to the dollar store.  Items like pens, pencils, sharpeners, pencil cases, etc., can be found inexpensively there, although I’ve found that during back-to-school sales, Wal-Mart and Target provide better quality items for the same price or lower.
  6. Focus on accessories. Fashionable accessories can make last year’s clothes look new.
  7. 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.
  8. 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. (This book has some fantastic ideas.)
  9. 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.
  10. 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 tips can you share?


Have you ever spent nearly $700 per kid to get ready for back to school time?

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

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3) PreppersDailyNews.com, an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • I can’t imagine spending that much for each child maybe all 3. Including homeschooling curriculum for two I homeschoolers. I use free and second hand resources. I am in Canada so clothing is expensive… Second hand can save money if you know regular price and don’t pay over half what item would be an sale…

  • I did that many years ago with my grandchildren for Christmas! I allowed a certain amount of money per child. Of course, their eyes were bigger than the amounts.

  • We raised three boys. Two of them really weren’t concerned about their clothes. The oldest one was a way different body type, so passing down his clothes wasn’t an option. The second one was the “fashion” guy, so the youngest one benefited from that, although he could have cared less.

    We always had a budget. I will say that this was some time ago. (the youngest will be 40 next month) and so we didn’t have to consider computers and other electronics. Also, the shoes back then were much more reasonably priced.

    One year the middle boy wanted those fancy Z-Cavarechi pants. I told him he could have them, but when he realized he would only get ONE pair of pants, he decided against it.

    The youngest son was happy to shop at Good Will. He was my garage sale buddy from an early age.

    When they were a bit older, they did have summer jobs and they all contributed some money to the budget.

    School supplies were much less expensive then as well and so I had a foot locker stocked with supplies. You know boys are notorious for saying on a Sunday night that they need something for school on Monday a.m.

    The teachers in elementary school would quite often tell the boys to tell me they needed crayons or kleenex or something and so finally I asked about it. I couldn’t believe they were going through that many crayons! Turned out I was supplying the children who didn’t have any crayons at all.

  • I think while you are shopping if you can afford to designate an amount to spend on a donation item or a whole school supply kit for someone else, this seems to shift the whole mindset of the shopping experience when a child starts thinking about how someone may not be able to do any school themselves.

  • I was blessed to have family that helped out. Our Church or some other organization would give away school supplies which sometimes included a backpack and it made it easier. Woolworth’s (oh how I miss them) would have a back to school sale starting in July to beat all sales; loose leaf paper, 10 cents a pack (limit of 10 packs) per trip. My way to get around that was to take all 4 children and they each bought 10 packs. Each week something different was on sale and you were able to get everything your children needed and it didn’t cost a fortune. Like you, I was a single mom also so I had to make every penny count.

  • Many teachers are now specifying Ticonderoga pencils which are more expensive than the colorful patterned ones your kids may want. There is a good reason for this. The “pretty” ones are covered with a plastic film which gums-up the classroom pencil sharpener and the teacher may on get more than one supplied from school stock per year (if she is lucky that is). As a just retired teacher, I also found the cheap pencils had off center an even broken lead in the. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.
    The idea of a donated fund to restock supplies during the year, or supply needy students, is a better idea than trying to coerce parents into I thinking they need to fund the whole classroom in August. Also make sure you kids are responsible for their “stuff”. At the end of each year, our teachers would go through the cleaned out lockers after the students left and find tons of supplies that kids didn’t want to bother taking home.

  • Ahh, back to school time. The budget I had growing up was around $200-$500 dollars. For 4 children. This included:

    – $100 dollar shoes that would last for years.
    – High quality uniform that also lasts (no worrying about style!)
    – $0.01 cent notebooks (I’m not kidding. They had notebooks for 1 cent, and we got a hundred).
    – Cheap pens, pencils, notebooks etc. Never more than $1 for each item.

    Remember, while being thrifty is important, high quality clothing items will last, even if they cost a bit more. Also helps if your child has no fashion sense and so doesn’t mind wearing jeans and a t-shirt all year.

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