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How to Navigate Back-to-School Without Breaking the Bank

By August 3, 2016December 29th, 20202 Comments
navigate back to school

Back to school montageIt’s that time of year. Back to School Sales. Everywhere you turn you are bombarded with purchases your kiddos “need” to start school. How do you navigate back to school best?

As the parent, it’s your job to get what your kids need to start school, and if possible, a few of their wants. But it’s not your job to spend an entire paycheck or more on supplies.

How does a parent navigate the sea of school supply lists?

Here’s a few tips that helped me:

  1. Set a budget and stick to it. Yup, I’m using the “b” word: Budget. Think Christmas-time. If you don’t have a budget, you’ll end up spending a lot more than you need to or want to. Therefore, take time to sit down with your spouse and plan out how much you can afford to spend on all back to school items, including clothes.
  2. Do some pricing research. Sale ads are everywhere. Take time to peruse them for the items your kids need. Then make a list, either on paper or electronically, of those items and the best prices. Perhaps you go to one store for all stationery items and another store for bigger ticket items. Or, perhaps you purchase some things online with free delivery. Doing a little research ahead of time will help you stay on budget.
  3. Check your ego. Before you take offense, think about it. Are you okay with sending your kids to school with standard supplies, backpacks, and lunchboxes? Or, are you embarrassed? Is there something internal that says you are a bad parent if your kids don’t have top-of-the-line everything? As parents we need to self-evaluate to make sure our egos are in check. Your kids school supplies don’t have anything to do with you being a good or bad parent. They are consumables.
  4. Identify your “big ticket” items. Does your high schooler need a graphing calculator? Do your kids need new backpacks? What about sports gear? These big ticket items can break the bank if you aren’t prepared. Identify those items before you ever enter a store. Then do a little research (Item #2 above) beforehand based on your budget (Item #1 above). While that backpack with four compartments and lots of zipper pockets is cool, does your third grader really need it when a less luxurious backpack will suffice? More importantly, does it fit within your budget? Identify those must haves and the amount you are willing to spend on them before you ever darken the door of the store. If not, impulse buying pressures may cause you to break the bank.
  5. Decide which school items will be general and which will be special. Just because that notebook has adorable kittens or the latest media craze on the cover doesn’t mean your child has to have it. Allow your child to pick one or two items that might be a bit more “special” than the standard items. But make sure that child understands that picking that special item reduces the amount they have to spend on supplies overall. Therefore, if they want the more expensive notebook, then they are getting off-brand crayons, pens, or such. Not only are you staying within budget, you are also teaching your child sound financial management. Also, just because the school list specifies a certain brand of facial tissues or crayons, you don’t have to purchase them. Generic facial tissues wipe noses like the more expensive brands. Don’t be coerced into breaking your budget.
  6. Clothes will break your budget unless you keep yours and your kids’ expectations in check. If your kids attend a school that wears uniforms, that’s good and not so good. It’s good because clothing choices are simplified. It’s not so good because it can be tricky budget-wise depending on the uniform requirements. If your kids don’t wear uniforms, you have a different challenge—their likes, dislikes, and peer pressure. Shop around. Find the best deals and stick to your budget. Here’s a few recommendations to help you stay on budget:
    • Mix and match is your friend. Depending on the uniform requirements, you can make this happen as well. Coordinate clothes for five days. Your kids can have a couple pair of pants, a couple shorts, a couple skirts or dresses if your girls desire. Then coordinate shirts and sweaters to go with these items, again think 5 days. When they all mix and match, your girls especially can have fun making different combinations.
    • Your kids grow quickly. You may need to replace everything within a few months, so keep it simple and realistic. I learned this lesson the hard way. The first year my kids were in uniforms, I bought too many pants. In just a few months, my kids had grown out of them but had hardly worn all the pants. Now I had pants they couldn’t wear and a broken budget because I didn’t plan well. Remember, your kids grow quickly.
    • Don’t go crazy on shoes. Your kids’ feet grow quickly and at the most inopportune times. Therefore, determine what they need for school. With uniforms this can be tricky. However, unless they’ve stopped growing, get one pair of shoes at a time, e.g. one pair of shoes for gym class, a pair of dress shoes if required, and a pair of sandals if allowed. You could be replacing them in a month because their feet have grown—again.
  7. Determine which items can wait until after school starts. Go over the supply list and identify which items you can supply at a later date. If you are able to purchase those items now, during the sales without breaking your budget, great. If not, purchase them later when they fit in your budget. For example: Your school supply list says four boxes of Kleenex and you have four children. Chances are very good that these four boxes are for the entire year. Think about it. If there are 30 kids in each classroom and they all bring four boxes of facial tissues the first day of school, where is the teacher going to put them? School classrooms aren’t usually known for great storage capacity. Let your child’s teacher know you will send the boxes of tissue with your child as needed, maybe one each quarter. Then, make sure you do this to navigate back to school.

What are some ways you’ve found to ramp up for back to school needs? Please teach us your tricks by leaving a comment below.

Back to school time is filled with excitement and change. Enjoy the process without breaking the bank. It can be done and you can do it.

Capture the extra-ordinary in the ordinary.

Kirsten D. Samuel
Aftershock Recovery Coach
8-week Program, Custom-paced Coaching, Remote, or In-person Sessions


  • Kirsten D Samuel

    I empower Christian wives to discover they are seen, loved, and heard. These women find the freedom to be who they are beyond their partner’s struggles, and find hope that there is a life worth living.

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  • krokala0923 says:

    Great tips! With triplets all needing a $150 calculator and realizing it’s a tough item to share we checked with the school. They offered a rental for $50. Returned if we returned the calculator. So basically free! Because I didn’t need 3 of the same calculator in my home!

  • Erin Gerster says:

    High-end second hand stores always have uniforms for a fraction of the price all year. Every time I go in, I pick something up in a larger size. Eventually it’ll fit one of the kids and they will need it with the school dress code. Same goes for $1 sales at these stores; i stock up on the necessities the next size or two up so replenishing the closet doesn’t catch me off guard. My kids also must change out of their school clothes the minute they get home. This allows them to stay nicer longer and, in some cases, allows for solid hand-me-downs the next year. Second hand stores like Once Upon A Child will sometimes buy used uniforms from you, giving you cash or trade for new stuff.