Don't Let Back to School Break the Bank

Turn back-to-school shopping into unexpected savings with a bit of thrift and some careful budgeting.

By Navy Federal July 21, 2014

For the average family's financial calendar, this time of year signals the return of back-to-school expenses.

It's easy to get caught up in the hype and promotion of the season, but before you hit the stores, it's important to take a step back and build a plan and a budget.

Calculate how much you can afford to spend on school-related expenses without blowing your overall budget or racking up debt. Make a comprehensive list of anticipated expenses for each child and build in a cushion for unexpected costs. Scoring bargains won't help your bottom line if you end up paying interest on unpaid balances. Examine previous years' bills and compare notes with other parents.

Every parent knows that back-to-school spending encompasses a whole lot more than pencils and paper, with the majority of emphasis on clothes shopping. Before you start building each child a brand-new wardrobe, review school dress codes and embrace the idea of thrift to avoid inappropriate purchases or otherwise overspending in this area. Spread clothing purchases throughout the year and take advantage of off-season sales, ensuring your kids won't outgrow everything at once. Consider organizing a clothing swap with other families or checking out the selection at thrift and consignment stores for deals on basics and beyond. See if there are any items for hand-me-down from your older children to the younger ones.

If gently used or pre-owned simply won't do or can only supplement, employ some savvy habits when you hit the mall. Seek out coupons, both in the newspaper and online, for the stores you're looking for. If it's a particular item you're on the hunt for, do some comparison shopping online before buying to find the best deal. Keep in mind that many stores will match competitors' prices even if their own items aren't on sale. If you go the online shopping route, recognize that although shopping online can save money, time, and gas, there may be hidden expenses in shipping and return costs, which could undo any net savings.

Use the same approach when it comes to supplies. Take a look at the items required for your student and determine what you may already have at home, and what you can shop smartly for. Consider pooling resources with other families to take advantage of volume discounts and sales.

Beyond the two biggies of wardrobe and supplies come other less-thought-of expenses, like meals, medical, travel and extracurricular activities. Don't neglect these areas in your budget, and take time to weigh your options. When it comes to meals, consider the convenience and nutritional value of school lunches and snacks versus food you prepare yourself and build the cost of your choice into your budget. Be aware of your school's policy on immunizations and see what's covered by your insurance—or which ones you can access free at health fairs or community clinics. Factor in any costs to get your students to and from schools and activities, including gas, public transportation, school bus, or carpool expenses. Find out how much extracurricular activities (e.g., athletics, music, art) cost, and account for related expenses such as uniforms, membership dues, private lessons, field trips, and snacks.

The logistical stress of getting your students ready to head back and hit the books can be enough of a burden. Taking the time to build a budget and shop smart limits the financial strain and can be a great opportunity to start a dialogue with your child about financial responsibility.

This article is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.