New Shoes and Backpacks Add Up. Here’s How to Budget for Back-to-School

Mother and kids holding hands going to school
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Back-to-school season comes around the same time every year, but like the holidays, it has a tendency to sneak up on parents — and their bank accounts. 

It’s like one day, you’re relaxing on the beach and planning backyard barbecues and the next, you’re shelling out hundreds of dollars for school supplies and new wardrobes.

The National Retail Federation predicts the average U.S. household will spend $696.70 to get their kids ready for the upcoming school year. If you’re the parent of a college student, it’s even worse. The NRF estimates the average household will spend $976.78 on college students.

It’s enough to make parents dread the end of summer vacation, just like their kids do. These seven tips on creating a back-to-school budget can make shopping a little more bearable. Plus, some are as easy as switching up where you shop.

1. Total Up Everything You Need

Start with the school supply list provided by your child’s teacher or school district. Take inventory of what supplies you already have at home. Go through your kid’s dressers and closets to see what clothes and shoes they can still fit into before going out to buy a new wardrobe.

When creating your list, don’t forget the costs that aren’t obvious. Do you need to stock up on sandwich bags for packing lunches? Do you need to schedule a physical exam with your kid’s pediatrician to participate in sports? Will your child need a fresh haircut before the first day? 

2. Establish Your Spending Limit

It’s important to create a spending limit you’re comfortable with and that covers the basics. Going school shopping without a budget will only set you up for overspending.

Once you have your shopping list together, you can start pricing items, even if you don’t plan on actually buying anything until closer to the start of school. Create your budget based on regular retail prices rather than current sales. Overestimating your expenses will give you a little wiggle room for when it’s actually time to shop.

After you’ve totaled up how much you expect to spend, do you have enough money? If not, you’ll have to adjust. 

3. Pad Your Back-to-School Budget

Earning extra money can always provide a little financial stress relief. That holds true for back-to-school season. 

Ask your employer about picking up extra shifts or working overtime. Find a temporary side gig, like dog walking, delivering groceries or doing odd jobs via TaskRabbit.

If you have older children, you could have them chip in on a portion of their school expenses. According to the National Retail Federation’s back-to-school survey, parents expected their preteens to contribute an average of $26.40 and teens to contribute an average of $36.71.

Talk to your teens about school shopping expectations. Have them share some of the cost of items that don’t fall within your budget, like an expensive jacket or trendy sneakers.

4. Create a Sinking Fund For School Costs

A sinking fund is a pool of money that you add to over time to break a large expense into more affordable chunks.

Let’s say you’ve estimated you’ll spend $600 for the back-to-school season, and you get paid three times before your kids start their first day. Each payday, you should set aside $200 in your sinking fund to cover the upcoming expenses.

If you take money from your existing savings to start the sinking fund now, you can take out less each paycheck.

Pro Tip

Setting up a direct deposit or automatic transfer will help you save money in your sinking fund without even thinking about it.

5. Implement Saving Challenges

Saving money can be hard, especially when you don’t have much time. Saving challenges can help you put aside more money than you’d think.

If you shop using cash, challenge yourself to save a certain denomination whenever it hits your wallet. Perhaps you save all the $5 bills you get as change. 

If you typically pay for things with a debit card, your money-saving challenge could involve rounding up each purchase to the nearest $5 increment and putting that difference toward your school expense savings.

Or try a no-spend challenge. Implement a 30-day freeze on discretionary spending so you have more money to pay for school gear.

6. Be a Smart Shopper

Between now and the start of school, you’ll encounter enough sales that it’d be foolish to pay full retail price for anything.

In addition to taking advantage of sales promotions, here are some other smart back-to-school shopping strategies to keep in mind:

  1. Buy generic.

  2. Compare prices. (We already did it for you!)

  3. Don’t snub discount shopping at thrift stores or the dollar store.

  4. Get items in bulk at warehouse stores.

  5. Take advantage of coupons and rebate sites.

  6. Shop during your state’s sales tax holiday.

  7. Ask other parents in your social circle if they have hand-me-downs or unused supplies your kid could use.

The older your children get, the more opinionated they’ll probably be about what they want for the new school year. Talk to your kids about what is most important to them. After identifying a couple select splurge items, find ways to get everything else for less.

FROM THE BUDGETING FORUM

7. Figure Out Which Expenses You Can Delay

You don’t always have to buy everything in time for the first day.

If the weather’s still warm for another few weeks, you might be able to hold off on buying clothes for the fall. Your college-aged student can get access to a computer at the library for a semester if buying a new laptop doesn’t work out for your budget. Of course, some expenses you don’t want to delay. If your child needs extra academic help, check out this list of ways to get cheap or free tutoring.

If you’re in a tight money crunch, reach out to your child’s teacher about what you can and what can’t provide. Maybe your kid can share a calculator with another student for the first few weeks until you’re able to purchase one. Your child’s school might even have donated supplies available, which can be a big help.

Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.