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Back to School Shopping on a Budget

How do you shop for school supplies on a budget? Leave the kids at home? That’s a natural response if, like so many of us this year, your family is watching the pennies. But think again: how about turning back-to-school shopping into a teachable moment — a real-life exercise for your kids in wants vs. needs and sticking to a budget?

   My older child is just starting kindergarten, so I am a newbie when it comes to this issue. However, I was a bit startled at the length and specificity of the supply list the school sent out. Ten packets of Post-It notes? What is he going to do, answer telephones? In all, we need to buy 24 items, including tissues, wet wipes, and Band-Aids. I can only imagine what it must be like for older children?

   It turns out that the annual back-to-school shop is a notorious parental challenge. “Every mom I know hates it,” says Laura Lecours, mother of Alex, 11. “It’s always last minute, and you have to negotiate crowds of frantic mothers and over-excited kids rifling the under-stocked shelves to find the right color folder. God forbid you buy a light blue one instead of the specified dark blue!”

   For most kids it isn’t enough simply to have the box of 12 for $1 erasers, or the no-name brand crayons. Kids want whatever is cool, whatever is the most colorful, sleek, and exotic — and typically this means whatever is the most expensive.

   Author and financial expert Neale S. Godfrey suggests that you start by explaining to your children that you are all on a budget, and that you have to set limits for yourself and the family. Then go to work on budgeting. Have your children draw up a list of everything they need: pants, sneakers, pens and pencils, book covers, a backpack, etc. Have them be very specific and do research on the costs.

   “Make sure they note that a Hannah Montana backpack is more expensive than a generic one,” says Godfrey. “Go through the list and approve (or not) what the budget will be for each item. You will agree to pay for needs. They can choose the Hannah Montana backpack but they pay the extra money — a want.”  

   Laura Levine of the Jump$tart Coalition advises parents not to try to squeeze too many lessons out of this one teachable moment. It’s a good opportunity to practice budgeting, but don’t try to also teach use of credit or debit cards at this point.

   “With the youngest children,” says Levine, “try simple comparison shopping. For example, the shoes you want are $15 at the mall, but only $10 at the outlet store. Where should we go to buy them?  For older kids, throw in variables, such as the time and distance to travel to each location, or whether one pair of name-brand sneakers is worth the price of two store-label sneakers. The answer may be different for different kids and different items — for example, the kid who wants name-brand sneakers might be happy with store-label jeans.”

   For Laura Lecours, this year will be an experiment in budgeting.
   “When I introduced the idea to Alex not long ago,” she says, “his first question was, ‘What’s a budget?’ His second was, ‘Can I still buy the Lego brick erasers I saw in the catalog?’ Even without knowing the price of the Staedtler multi-pack I would normally purchase, I’m fairly certain the Lego brand erasers are no bargain. He’ll have to make a choice, I guess.” 

   Lecours points out that her son could also choose to use some of the thousands of crayons and other school supplies he already has at home. “If he is smart,” she says, “he can probably fill the requirements of his school supply list with things he already has. Then he could keep the remaining money.”

Tips for Saving
• Source as much as you can from your kids’ existing supplies.

• Try doing the whole shop online. Your kids will get a lesson in navigating the Internet as well as in comparison shopping. Look for sites that offer free shipping.

• For younger kids especially, how about trades? Your kindergartener may have lost interest in her Princess lunchbox and willingly trade it for a friend’s Hello Kitty one.

• Can some items wait till a week or two after school begins? Then you can pick up post-back-to-school-frenzy sale items.

• To incentivize bargain hunting, make it clear that your child can keep whatever money is left over from the back-to-school shop.

KIRSTEN DENKER is a freelance writer and mother of two, living in Brooklyn.

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