Originally created 08/15/04

Back-to-school shopping can take bite out of family budget



NEW YORK -- With two boys in grade school, Lisa Jackson Galloway has had to come up with a strategy to manage hefty back-to-school shopping expenses each year.

Galloway, of Beverly Hills, Calif., buys clothes for her sons throughout the year, rather than in the weeks just before school starts, when prices can run higher.

For paper products, she gets the school's lists of required supplies, then heads with her sons Austin, 10, who is entering the fifth grade, and Wyatt, 9, who's going into fourth grade, to the local office supply store. And she tells the boys they're on a budget.

"I give Austin and Wyatt their sheets (of supplies) and let them pick what they want - but it has to be on the list, or they can't get it."

Back-to-school spending - second only to Christmas holiday spending - is expected to total nearly $40 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation trade association in Washington, D.C.

A survey conducted by the group found that most families expect to spend an average of $483 this year for children in grade school and high school, up more than 7 percent from $450 last year. Costs for college students are considerably higher.

Many of those expenses end up on credit cards. Catherine Williams of Money Management International, a financial counseling and education agency based in Houston, said families who create a back-to-school budget - and set aside money from several paychecks to cover the total - won't risk running up a balance. They can check to determine if they can put off some purchases.

"If parents can't afford to buy everything all at once, they can have a conversation with the teacher and space out purchases," Williams suggested. "Ask, 'When do you expect them to need this material?' Teachers ... can tell you that you won't need this fill-in-the-blanks book until October or that workbook until November."

She also suggests families compare prices on supplies at a variety of outlets, from dollar stores to stationery shops, discounters and office supply stores.

Williams, whose daughter is in college, believes it's important for parents to involve their children in back-to-school spending decisions because it provides useful training about shopping within a budget.

With younger children, she advised giving them choices, such as "you can have this $14 backpack and the lunch box, or this $35 backpack and no lunch box."

Older children should be allowed to do their own shopping, she said.

"I say, 'I'll buy the basics and I'll give you X dollars for the rest," Williams said. "If they mess up and spend $120 on a pair of jeans or a pair of shoes, then they'll learn they have to do without everything else until their next clothing allowance."

Lori Mackey of Agoura Hills, Calif., author of the children's book "Money Mama and the Three Little Pigs," said she found a way this year to greatly reduce back-to-school spending on clothes.

She had her children, Briana, 11, and Devin, 8, go through all the clothes in their drawers and closets. Digging deep into drawers to recover long-forgotten outfits gave them the sense of finding new clothes, she said. On her side, "it saved me a ton of money because all I had to do was buy them one new outfit for the first day of school."

Ann Shannon, a single mother in Ipswich, Mass., said back-to-school spending for daughters Tay, 13, and Zara, 11, can create a big dent in her budget. But she's got help.

"Their grandmother takes them out for a full day of clothes shopping, and I just kind of fill in the gaps," she said. "It's a real godsend."

Shannon said her daughters "look forward to their shopping day as a very special thing, and their grandmother loves it, too."

Although she makes up a clothing budget, she finds it hard to do that for supplies. "They just keep going up," she said.

On the Net:

www.nrf.com

www.moneymanagement.org