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How To Afford Back To School Costs

Afford back to school costsWhen I read an article last year about the average family spending $350 per child on back to school items, I thought that was insane. I know my kid is young,  but her school supply list has never been anywhere close to that amount. We were able to get all the things on the second grade list for under $20.I even have a post about where to get the cheapest school supplies! Why can’t people afford back to school costs?

I assumed these parents must be out of their mind buying new shoes and clothes for their kids. Then, I started thinking about all the other things we spend money on at back to school time. I’m not sure if those are added in with the average cost estimate, but if they were, I can see how it might cost hundreds of dollars to go back to school.

Obvious Costs

The obvious costs include things like backpacks, pencils, notebooks, all those items in the bins up front at big box stores right now. You also have to dress your child and make sure they have shoes. There are a million ways to save money on these things, like buying used, comparing prices, and making sure you don’t already have the supplies in a box or closet at home. I won’t beat a dead horse with ways to save money on this expense.

Costs You Might Not Think About

As I’ve said many times, there are hidden costs with pubic education. Most can be declined, but that might be psychologically hard on your child. I guess you can always “toughen” them up for life in the future, but I often have a hard time doing that.

Your child will have book fairs, school spirit sticks, or pickles and popcorn Fridays that require money. They also might participate in sports where buying equipment or special shoes are required. There might be clubs they want to join or optional field trips they would like to take. Schools always seem to be doing some sort of fundraiser, and there are pictures and yearbooks. All these costs don’t come at the beginning of the year, but they will pop up before you know it.


I’m not sure why, but many, many people wait until the last few weeks before school starts to go to the dentist, eye doctor, hair stylist, or to have a school physical. While there is no rule that you have to do this stuff right before school, I guess people are so busy enjoying summer that they just forget. Hopefully, you have good insurance, but if not, these expenses can cost hundreds of dollars.

Kids Are Expensive!

So, I guess when you look at all the expenses, it’s easy to see how someone could top $350 or more on back to school. Why does anyone ever have kids? Well, because they are so cute, but that isn’t a good reason to go broke every August!

Planning For Once a Year Expenses

If you write down every back to school expense from the box of crayons to dental x-rays and divide that by 12, that’s how much money you need every month. After you pay necessary bills and hit your savings goals, put this amount in a savings account every month, preferably one at a different bank or in an account that’s harder to access than your main one.

A little planning goes a long way. For a few years now, I have automatically deducted $75 from each paycheck that goes into an online savings account for these and other annual expenses. You almost don’t miss it after the first few drafts, and then money is magically there when you need it.

Give Your Kids the Budget

I love this idea from my fellow bloggers, Shannon from the Heavy Purse and Laurie from the Frugal Farmer. They let their kids plan the budget for certain expenses. By making it their choice and not being the mean parent who always says no, kids learn that they can have what they want, just not all at the same time or every time.

But I Barely Have Enough to Pay the Bills

I know. It’s a new concept. When you live paycheck to paycheck, it’s hard to imagine how to come up with extra money to save for annual expenses. Instead, you just hope something will go your way and the money will be there.

In my experience, waiting for fate to throw you a bone usually results in having a car break down or trip to the emergency room, all during your most expensive month. Instead, try cutting back on things like groceries, entertainment, or fuel costs. If you’ve cut back and still are short, you’ll have to earn more money. Anyone can do it, trust me.

I Have Older Kids and They Are More Expensive

Do you see how I’m cutting down every potential excuse? Yes, I realize older kids cost more money. They could balk at buying used clothes. They probably will want to drive at some point. I’m sure they even might die if they don’t have a smartphone.

You know what, they can have all those things. If you can’t or don’t feel it’s your responsibility to provide them, young people can earn money too. Maybe a few years ago, there weren’t that many jobs, but even in our small town, we’ve seen growth over the last year or so.

We have a new gas station, new hotel, and several new restaurants. All of them have been hiring. If you aren’t 16, you can mow yards, babysit, shovel snow, help seniors with everyday chores. I can come up with probably a million ways kids can get paid if they are respectful, dependable, and talk in complete sentences. Us adults also love to spread the word, so if you are a good babysitter or fence painter, you can bet I’ll tell all my friends about you.

If you make your kids do for themselves from a young age, you are also setting them up for success later in life. I’d rather have a hard talk now than when my kid has $50,000 in student loans and no idea how to make money.

I guess this turned into a pretty long post, but maybe my biggest goal as a blogger is to let people know that you don’t have to follow the trend. If you find yourself with big expenses at this time of year, do something about it. Hopefully, next year, you’ll be easily able to afford back to school expenses!

Do you set aside a monthly amount for annual expenses? Why is back to school such a hard financial time for many families?

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. I’ve spent $170 so far getting supplies and shoes for my two boys to go back to school.

    Last year when they brought home all their supplies at the end of the year, I put all the supplies that were still in good condition in a bin. This year we were able to mark off half their lists by checking that bin and gathering boxes of tissues and reams of copy paper from our own supplies before embarking on our bac-to-school shopping. Both boys will re-use their backpacks. I bought them very sturdy ones from Lands End a few years ago. We have always been a family of re-users so they do not expect to get everything new every year. I spent $55 at Target to buy all the remaining supplies needed for 2nd and 6th grades.

    They both needed new tennis shoes for school and the older one wears men’s sizes so that is our biggest expense. Tennis shoes for the 2nd grader: $40, for the 6th grader: $65. The older one will use his tennis shoes for the cross country team as well as school.

    I still need to get the younger one a new lunch bag and a set of division flash cards. Other than that, I am done shopping. I don’t do medical appointments right before they go back to school. Those happen throughout the year whenever they are due again from last time. I get new clothes for them when they outgrow their current wardrobe, not at the beginning of school.

    An unexpected expense this year was the much higher fees at the 6th grader’s new school. At the elementary school, the fees are about $150 per child and can be paid any time all year. At the new school, his fees were over $300 and were due immediately (yesterday) if he wanted to get his class schedule and locker assignment. I was not expecting that and I will have to include that in my August budget next year. so I can cut back in other areas ahead of time.

    • “We have always been a family of re-users so they do not expect to get everything new.” I think that’s huge. Learning not to always expect new stuff all the time when your old stuff works just fine is a great life lesson and much easier to learn as a child than as a 40 year old.

  2. I wish my kid would stay as kid. I just appreciate my daughter so much when making a request “Dad, buy me a new pair of shoes” or the like. I’m just thankful when I say “no” which is followed by encouraging words of explanation, she would just nod and understand me. More importantly, hugging her after the conversation completes the trick!

  3. If the kids are responsible for their own expenses, they’re probably less likely to scoff at used clothing and other cost effective alternatives as they grow older.

  4. Great article Kim! I don’t have to worry about school supplies quite yet, but I like your tips. I think I will put my son in charge of a budget and let him be responsible for what he buys when it comes time.

  5. Our school supplies were around $20 for my kindergartener this year. We didn’t need any new clothes or shoes- thanks to garage sales! I did buy her a new school outfit to mark the occasion and a new lunchbox.

    • Crayons and glue are cheap. It’s all the other stuff that’s expensive. If you can control clothing costs and stuff like that, that’s a win.

  6. I don’t have kids, so I am spared the annual ritual of back to school expenses, but I have to say that having the kids make their own budgets sounds like a capital idea!

  7. I don’t have to worry about this for a few more years, but I always see really great deals on school supplies at Staples…especially if you know how to play the Staples rebate/rewards game. I definitely fear spending when kids get older and are more stubborn about buying certain things.

  8. We’re definitely thinking alike today, Kim! And thanks for the shout-out too. 🙂 It’s amazing how those back-to-school costs add up fast. And like you said, it’s just not clothes and school supplies, but activities, fundraisers, school events … the list goes on forever. People don’t think about budgeting for their school expenses because they don’t realize how much they end paying per year. But add up the cost and it’s probably far more expensive than most parents realize.Teens definitely cost more but it’s also a great opportunity to have them earn the money for the things they want. Teach them some discipline now when it comes to how they spend their money. If they realize those pair of jeans cost them a 5 babysitting jobs, they may decide that jeans aren’t worth that much work or happily pay for them. Either way, it’s a good lesson for them to learn.

    • I think it’s hard to plan for school expenses because they are not posted or really discussed. At registration this year, the PTA was selling these new spirit sticks that you tie on your backpack. Through the year, you can buy more banners to put on them. They gave the first one for free and the rest are to be paid for. It wasn’t expensive, but just one more thing that kids will feel like they need to have or they will feel left out. I’m not sure why that bothers me so much, but it really does.

  9. I don’t have too much to add since I don’t have kids, but I remember when I was younger going to back to school shopping and my mom dropping a ton of money on clothes for us. If I look back now, I wonder if that was really necessary. Probably not.

    • It’s funny, but I don’t remember back to school shopping at all. I do remember that there was this really kind of overpriced trendy kid’s clothes store outside of Nashville that my Mom always lusted after. They had a blow out sale once a year, sometime in the summer. So we all got up before dawn to head to this store to fight the insane crowds to buy clothes that I could have cared less about but that made my mom feel happy, I guess. They didn’t have a changing room, so you had to try on clothes in front of everyone, and it mortified me. I think that’s why I try to avoid crowded shopping at all costs.

  10. I think pretty much any article about kids on personal finance blogs is a form of birth control for me. Back to school expenses – one thing I don’t have to worry about for a long, long time!

    • I used to feel the same way. At least when you compare school expenses to diapers and day care, it’s way cheaper.

  11. Thanks for the mention, Kim! I’d be real curious to see what you come up with when you track all of these little things for a year – I’ll bet they add up big. Homeschooling allows us to forego a lot of these expenses: all of the school spirit stuff, etc., and there isn’t that pressure to have name brand clothing and the latest smartphone (EVERYONE has them – insert eye roll here). So, I know we have a ton simply by homeschooling and probably don’t have a clear idea of what traditionally schooled parents spend.

    • I have a really, really hard time with kids and smartphones. I realize it’s nice to be able to get in touch with your kids as they get older and more independent, but I don’t think it takes a data plan to do that. I think cell phone games and keeping you head down to text like an antisocial animal are not good things to spend the majority of your free time on. I guess we’ll see if my attitudes change as our daughter gets older.

  12. We have an “annual savings account” for expected big purchases: Christmas, vacation, and life, disability, and auto insurance premiums. Maybe I should be adding “back to school” to the list now that our little guy will be going to kindergarten next year? I’m going to attempt to stock up on school supplies throughout the year to see if I can’t get them cheaper, and if that doesn’t pan out then I’ll add to the annual savings fund.

    • It’s very comforting to know you have that account to fall back on if you have unexpected expenses that come up throughout the year. With an annual savings account, you aren’t ever forced to use the emergency fund or put things on credit.

  13. Great tips Kim! We do the monthly saving for annual expenses regularly and have done so for quite some time now. I hate surprises and this helps mitigate that as we know exactly where the money is coming. As for why it’s a hard time of the year for parents, I think it goes back to how heavily it’s marketed as well as many parents believing they HAVE to buy everything and it be new.

    • think not having real time TV helps us so much in avoiding all the marketing ploys. I still can see something on sale and start thinking I need it. It’s better just to avoid all the back to school hype as much as you can.

  14. I also really like the idea of having kids establish their own budget. What a great way to teach financial literacy AND explain to them why they can’t have everything they ask for!

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