Save on Back to School Shopping and Teach Your Kids These Money Skills


August 2, 2017

Back-to-school shopping can be overwhelming, and for good reason! Between required school supplies and those extras your kid begs for, it’s an expensive time of year, and can eat up a bigger chunk of your budget than you might expect.

What if it didn’t have to be, though? What if, in fact, back-to-school shopping could be an opportunity to save and teach important financial lessons to your kids? What if—call us crazy—it could be fun?

This back-to-school season, try out these savings strategies that double as teaching tools—they might even bring you closer together.

Make a budget using your assigned classroom list. Don’t go shopping before you get that list—you’ll end up buying things you don’t need. Once you receive the list, estimate how much you want to spend on each item using online tools like Google Shopping or big chain store websites like Target and Walmart to compare prices. Have your child write down the price estimates in a notebook and add up the total you plan to spend.

Lesson: Planning in advance is an important part of being responsible with money.

As you shop, have your kids sum up the prices of the items you actually buy. Make sure they bring a calculator on any back-to-school shopping trips and sit down together at the computer during online shopping sessions. They can compare the estimates in their notebooks with the actual prices of what goes in your shopping cart, and if they see you’re over budget, you can work together to get back on track. Maybe they’ll need to buy regular yellow pencils instead of Dora the Explorer ones—talk through these decisions and teach them about trade-off’s!

Lesson: By calculating your total as you go you can make sure you don’t overspend. Plus, don’t be tempted by those little splurges—they add up.  

Take inventory of what you already have in your own house. Pay particular attention to reusable hand-me-downs that can be refreshed to be exciting to your kids. An old lunchbox with new stickers from your kid’s favorite movie stops being their brother’s boring old bag and becomes theirs. “Shop” your own home as if it were a thrift store, getting creative with ways to make each item feel like new.

Lesson: Be creative with how you “shop” to save money. “Old” hand-me-downs can seem new with a little creative twist!

Go grassroots: ask families with older kids to pass along any unwanted old school supplies. To widen your net of potential donors, check Facebook swap groups and neighborhood yard sales, or ask other parents at start-of-year school events. Maybe your daughter’s male classmate didn’t want any of his older sister’s stuff, and his parents would be happy to pass along their daughter’s school uniforms or items their son deemed too “girly”.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to ask friends, family, and community members. Reusing and recycling is great for your wallet and the environment, so tap the resources around you.

Buy in bulk. Don’t have enough kids to make this worth it? Team up with other parents in your kid’s class or on their sports team! Everybody’s shopping from the same lists, so there’s no need to pay retail prices on things like pencils, athletic socks, or graphing paper when you could buy the 200-pack of pencils, 20-pack of socks, or 1,000-page ream of graphing paper. You’d never use these quantities on one kid, but split amongst several kids—your own or others—you can save a chunk of change. Try wholesalers like Costco and Sam’s Club for bulk deals.

Lesson: Buying in bulk can be a great deal, but only if you use everything you buy.

Look for deals online. Your kids may have a blast running down aisles full of colorful notebooks and Disney-themed everything, but online savings can be too good to pass up. Start with a search on Google Shopping, which compares prices across websites, or use Amazon to find discount brands not available in stores. Once you know exactly what you’re looking for, you can look for used versions on websites like Nextdoor or Craigslist.

Lesson: Shopping in a store may be fun, but some of the best deals these days are online. Plus, online shopping is a great Internet skill to teach your kid—when they’re ready, of course!

Shop post-peak sales. Wait til the end of summer or Labor Day, or better yet, til clearance sales in September. Even if it’s too late to get this year’s supplies, take advantage of “Must Go” sales to prepare for next year. You’re pretty much guaranteed to need things like pens and pencils, printer paper, and three-ring binders. A word of caution, though: e wary of trends your kids will outgrow—your Moana-obsessed daughter may lose interest in the movie by this time next year, so stick with basics when you’re planning so far ahead. Just because something is on sale does not mean you’ll save money.

Lesson: With a little patience and advanced planning, you can save a bunch of money—and end up with the same stuff, for far less money!

Bonus: let your kid splurge a little if you come in under budget. Once you’ve checked off everything on your list, check your child’s math. If you’re below budget, surprise your kid by letting her pick out a splurge item. Be sure to have her deposit half of the savings in their piggy bank, though. Years from now, the habit of splitting windfalls and bonuses will stick, padding their savings accounts and emergency funds with exponentially more than whatever they’ve got in their piggy bank today—but it’s never too early to encourage healthy money habits!

Lesson: Savvy shopping leaves room in the budget to spend on special things and save extra for the future.

Back-to-school shopping doesn’t have to be a stress on your budget—or stress you out. Turn this time of year into a chance to provide your kids with experience making real-life money decisions. Working together as a team can be a great bonding experience, and you might even have fun!

Some day, all these financial lessons will pay off, and soon, your kids may be leading the back-to-school savings campaign. Once they learn that responsible financial choices means a splurge at the end of the day, what would otherwise be an end-of-summer chore turns into a chance to earn a treat—and what kid passes up that opportunity?

How do you save on back to school shopping?

Article by Katie Simon

Katie Simon Katie Simon is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Business Insider, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. She earned a BA in creative writing and marketing at New York University and an MA in nonfiction writing at University of East Anglia in England. She is from Boston, MA.

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