8 Back To School Spending Tips For Parents & Teachers

nwabr-neuroscienceDon’t Buy That! How To Survive Back To School Season Without Going Broke

by Dawn Casey-Rowe, Author of Don’t Sniff the Glue: A Teacher’s Misadventures in Education Reform

Parents and teachers–you’re about to go broke! It’s back to school season.  

Parents–you’re looking at The List sent from school. You want to cry. Teachers, you see your empty classroom and your credit card statements from last year. You can’t cry because you haven’t stocked up on tissues yet.

According to the National Retail Federation, there’s some good news–the American public is getting a little more frugal. After a record breaking 2014 Back to School season, we’ll spend slightly less this fall–only $68 billion down from $74 billion. This still breaks down to $630.36 per family, about thirty bucks less than last year. Americans spend more on Back-to-School than any other period except Christmas, where we go through over $600 billion. That keeps Santa’s elves employed.

We’re spending a little less than normal this year. I guess we figured enough is enough–our kids have plenty of pencils. Although overall spending for Back to School has increased 42% over the last decade, it hasn’t kept pace with college tuition increases, which makes me wonder about the point of buying all these pencils if nobody can afford to use them in college. That’s a topic for another day. Perhaps more pencils equals more scholarship applications? Someone should do a study on that.

We’ll spend $68 billion sending our kids back to school this year. As a mom, it’s a small price to pay to get the “I’m bored” out of my living room, but as a teacher it’s approximately $67.99999999999 billion more than I am allocated for my classroom. The good news is marketing research shows students are cracking open their own wallets for Back to School, much like teachers. The average high school student will spend $33 on his or her school supplies. The average teacher, though, spends $500–$1000 annually on classroom and teaching supplies not furnished by work.

Kids spend more on sneakers than they do notebooks. I don’t judge, I just report the numbers. Sneakers are important–they’ll help graduates run faster as they work two and three jobs to get ahead and pay off their loans. Debt and extra jobs–that’s where we’re all headed, not just teachers. It’s why getting a good education is so important in a shifting economy.

A Story

I ran into one mom who was upset about sneakers. She was stressed that the new Jordans were releasing–she had two boys and was working double shifts to keep up. Two pairs of Jordans is roughly a car payment and a half for me. I told her, “The answer is ‘no’ or ‘get a job.’”

We are a consumption society, but we have to be conscious of our spending–both parents and teachers.  Every penny adds up at a time when many of us are squeezed pretty tight.

I used to go store to store for the doorbusters and to stock up my class. I’d go to a teen cashier and say, “Look, I’ll come back ten times today for the ‘limit 8,’ so can we cut right to the chase?”  The teen, who probably asked his teacher for forty-two pencils last year, always let me buy what I wanted. It’s the unwritten teacher-student code.  We help each other out when we can.

I’d see parents in the stores with scroll-sized lists for their kids. There’s an amazing amount of pressure on students to have the latest stuff when they walk into school on the first day, especially by middle school.  That can be tough.

As a teacher, I’m grateful when parents prepare their kids so I don’t have to spend my paycheck on notebooks and pens for two hundred kids, but I feel parents’ stress.  Some school lists seem a little outlandish, or certainly not well-considered. I only have one kid, so it’s not a big deal for me, but some parents have three or four lists to contend with.

Does a kid really need a flash drive when we all have Google? Will a twenty-dollar tabbed notebook get that kid past the Common Core? Do students need scientific calculators when schools could let them use apps on their phones?

“Miss, we always get these lists of things to buy that we never use!” say students. It’s a valid point.

If you’re wondering whether to choose between buying school supplies or groceries, stop right now!  Here are some tips to avoid breaking the bank whether you are a parent, teacher, or kid.

Back To School Spending Tips For Parents

1. Go through your kid’s drawers and see what they really need.

Kids confuse Back to School with winning the lottery or being runway models on Fashion Avenue. Before shopping, I cleaned out the dark spots in my son’s room–the parts no mom dares enter–closet corners, under the bed, “laundry” pile. I gave away the too-smalls, tossed the ripped clothes, then took inventory.

I only had to buy a couple “cool kid” t-shirts and replace the shoes he lost at camp. I saved a ton of money. Have your young fashionista learn to combine wardrobe basics with a few new outfits. Adding a patch, sparkle, some fabric, or a new-to-him (hand-me-down) pair of jeans can go a long way toward helping family finances.  

2. Give kids a set budget.

There are things kids want. Then, there are things they need. I wanted a Trapper Keeper notebook–all the cool kids had them. They cost a ton and it didn’t make me cool. Go through sale fliers together. Prioritize and let them make some decisions, but when the pre-determined amount is gone, the spending stops–or is done by them.

3. Learn to earn!  

Let your student earn a back to school clothing or supply budget. Younger kids can do chores. Teens and tweens can start to find their own small jobs like yardwork or babysitting. Kids value money they earn and you won’t have to say “no” since you’re giving them an action plan to “yes.” It’s parenting with an entrepreneurship twist. Kids who learn money management skills early bring it with them into life.

4. Look carefully at “The List.”  

You’ll be sent a list from your child’s teacher. Buy the reasonable things, but don’t be afraid to ask questions if the list looks excessive, overly brand specific, or you’re wondering how your child will use the items. I’ve seen expensive wishlists with things that never get used.

Back To School Spending Tips For Teachers

5. Set a budget.  

The IRS deduction for classroom expenses is $250. That doesn’t mean you’re being reimbursed $250, rather it’ll look like you made $250 less income and you’ll save a couple bucks on taxes.  

It’s a good number to stay under, but if you have a tight budget in your family, do not spend a ton on your class. Although I’m firmly of the camp that your job should supply what you need, many teachers crowdfund, use Craigslist, or get things from the community. Put out the word on social media. Ask, and you will often receive.

6. Never set up your classroom on your credit card.  

I use my credit card to itemize and record expenses. It’s helpful. If you can’t pay off your credit card that month, don’t charge things for classroom.  You might say “That’s easier said than done,” but when I stopped my excessive spending, I became more creative and no student loved me less. I was able to pay down my debt rather than accruing debt because of my job. Look at your classroom spending as donating to a good cause.  If you wouldn’t have the money to donate to a charity, don’t spend it on your classroom.

7. Consider what you’re asking parents to buy.  

I’m a frugal parent and teacher. As a teacher, I send the following list. “You need something to write with, something to write on, and your brain.” I have some things to share, but if students want specific things, I ask them to bring what they like to use. I never require expensive organization systems or equipment. There’s always a frugal option.

8. Use free tech.  

Why should students buy and lose flash drives when Google’s free? By learning to use standard, free technology, teachers provide a richer experience–without breaking the bank. Using platforms like Google, Asana, Slack, Dropbox, and Evernote gives students access to professional productivity and collaboration tools, giving them a distinct advantage in the workplace. Free tech doesn’t stop there–you can make PDFs that replace textbooks or create Facebook or webpage to involve families and the community in your class.

9. Encourage student responsibility.  

My classroom isn’t Pencil Christmas.

I give away a thousand pencils a year, gift notebooks, feed kids, and create lessons that require me to buy things out of my household budget. Sometimes, students begin to expect this. There’s a fine line between students being in need and students being unprepared because I’ll bail them out. Have these conversations with students, and teach them to respect classroom materials as well as the supplies their parents work hard to buy.

Think about Back to School season as the season for savings, not spending, and you’ll soon begin to remove yourself from the madness, concentrating on what’s really important.  For parents and teachers, that’s getting the September routine in order so each of your kids does their best.

If you still feel tempted to buy in to the crazy spending, take a moment and a deep breath, use the tips above, then ask yourself “Is this expense critical?” If it is not, walk away, and save your money for another day.

Dawn Casey-Rowe is a teacher and author. Her book, “Don’t Sniff the Glue: A Teacher’s Misadventures in Education Reform” will make you think twice about teacher spending, school reform, and the day-to-day happenings in the classroom; adapted image attribution flickr user nwabr