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3 Ways to Ease the Pain of Back-to-School Costs

Whether you’re sending your child off to kindergarten or college, here are a few tips to ease the financial burden.
Image: A child uses a credit card machine
Back-to-school season can be a good time to teach children about the value of money.Getty Images

The back-to-school season is rife with expenses. For one, shopping for school supplies is notoriously expensive — an elementary school student’s supply list runs over $660 this year, and that number is closer to $1,000 and $1,500 respectively for middle- and high-schoolers, according to Huntington Bank’s 2017 Backpack Index.

Add that to the cost of mid-year school project materials, extracurricular activities, college prep tests and transportation, and you’re looking at quite a chunk of cash. There’s also the “just a few dollars” you shell out semi-frequently for lunch, miscellaneous donations, PTA fees and more.

An elementary school student’s supply list runs over $660 this year.

“[The cost] is far more than I ever thought it would be,” says Jesse Mecham, Founder of You Need A Budget (YNAB). “It seems like [children] bring home notes all the time on really pretty paper that tells you you should spend money.”

It’s enough to stretch any parent's budget — and patience. But whether you’re dropping off your child at their first day of kindergarten or planning their first college visit, we’ve got a few tips to help pare down the costs ... and handle the pressure.

Build irregular expenses into your budget.

“If school shopping is something that comes up every year, this is no longer a surprise,” says Sophia Bera, founder of Gen Y Planning, a fee-only financial planning firm specializing in twenty- and thirty-somethings. “Unexpected” leans more towards emergency costs, and “irregular” denotes costs that don’t come up every month.

The key here: You can expect — and plan for — these irregular costs by building them into your annual budget. Put an “irregular expenses” line item in your monthly budget, and treat it like a regular bill you save for. You can put the money straight in a savings account, and if you don’t use it for irregular expenses that month, it can roll over to when you do need it — like for back-to-school shopping, teacher gifts or your kid’s pricey field trip. If you’re not sure how much to save, an extra $50 or $100 a month could be a good benchmark, or sit down with paper and pencil to brainstorm potential school costs for three to five minutes. And if you’re finding yourself dragging your feet? “You know it’ll cost more than zero,” says Mecham — meaning it’s important not to use perfectionism to procrastinate.

Cut costs on extracurriculars.

Kids’ extracurricular activities (sports, dance, music, art classes) are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to expenses you might not have planned for. To save, mark your calendar to register early instead of putting it off — in some cases, there is a discount for doing so, so make sure to ask. The other perk is that you’ll avoid pesky late registration fees.

Before handing over the money, ask if there are any discounts available — especially if you have multiple children participating or your kid has been a part of the program for multiple years. If it’s a no, check coupon websites like Groupon to see if the program pops up. If your child is starting up an instrument or sport for the first time, opt to rent equipment over buying — and call a few different rental services to compare costs. (Use the other offers to barter a lower price.) Finally, since every little bit helps, organize carpools with other parents to save on gas, and pack your kids’ snacks ahead of time so you don’t have to shell out extra cash a few days a week.

Talk with your kids about money priorities.

Another thing to consider? Involve your kids in some of the money conversations you’re having with yourself or your partner. It’s a good — and relevant — time to talk finances, and back-to-school season can be a good teaching tool. “They should know $50 is a lot of money, and if you don’t spend that much, you can save the rest,” says Bera. Point out the price difference between notebooks with colorful paper versus the run-of-the-mill store brand. And if you’re able to find great deals on project supplies or back-to-school clothes, talk about how much you were able to save together — and why that’s important.

With Hayden Field.