As a child, my parents constantly told me that money does not grow on trees. Now, as a parent myself, I get to tell my kids the same thing. I probably say it more than I should, though—especially when it comes to saving money on back-to-school shopping.
While you can’t avoid school-related expenses altogether, here are six ways to control them so they don’t bust your budget:
1. Before setting out to buy back-to-school clothes, make a list and stick to it. Closets are usually full of clothes from every season dating back a few years. Summer is a good time to go through your child’s wardrobe and discard any items that can no longer be worn. Have a good idea of what is left and let that guide you in your new purchases. Try to replace only the things you discarded instead of purchasing new versions of clothing your child already owns.
2. When buying back-to-school clothes, don’t buy an entire wardrobe. Your kids will continue to grow throughout the entire school year, and the seasons will keep changing. Spread these purchases over the school year to avoid buying a closet full of clothing that might be wearable for only a few months. Focus on late summer/early fall clothes first, and worry about winter clothes as the season gets closer.
3. If you have more than one child, pass down items to the younger ones. I’m sure I am not the only parent who finds new and like-new items in my children’s closets. Consider passing these down to your younger children, or offer them to friends or family. Donate items that are left over, and keep records of these donations for tax time.
4. Take advantage of tax-free weekends. This is a no-brainer. Check to see if your state offers one of these weekends and then plan your shopping in order to take advantage of some significant savings—not just on clothing but also on school supplies and technology.
5. Consider shopping at clothing consignment stores and discount online retailers first. Hit the malls last—you can find new and nearly-new clothing in all the brands that your kids consider cool for a fraction of the price you’d pay at department stores. Shop these online retailers first and hit the malls and department stores for only the items you can’t find elsewhere.
6. Save expensive items for holiday and birthday gifts. It’s natural for your children to want the latest sneakers or a cool backpack to show off this school year. But if these items fall outside of your back-to-school budget, give your child the option of adding them to a birthday or holiday wish list. Your child will get something that he or she really wants, and you’ll make Grandma’s job easier by telling her exactly what to buy.
Keep in mind that it is OK to tell your child no. Clothes are a need, but the latest designer jeans or shoes are wants. You have the final say in what you will purchase.
If you don’t want to tell your children no, give them choices instead: gently worn instead of new, one expensive item instead of two affordable ones, name-brand tops but generic bottoms.
Consider letting your older children do their own shopping. Drop them off at the mall with a universal gift card preloaded with your budget and a list of items that they need. Let them make the difficult decisions when it comes to limited resources and unlimited options. Your child will either impress you with his or her ability to stretch a dollar or you will have to make some exchanges, but either way it will be a learning experience.
If you have done your job, you can take comfort knowing that your kids will grow up one day and have children of their own with whom they can share the age-old lesson: Money does not grow on trees!
Steve Repak, CFP®, is the author of Dollars & Uncommon Sense: Basic Training for Your Money.
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