Budgeting is important for back-to-school shopping

August 09, 2010

University Park, Pa. -- Big-box stores are featuring prominent and colorful displays of back-to-school gear, hoping for excited parents to quickly make choices and move on. But by budgeting for back-to-school clothing and supplies, a family can purchase exactly what is needed and save money, according to experts in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Cathy Bowen, professor of agricultural and extension education, likens back-to-school shopping to grocery shopping. "Smart shoppers keep a running list of what they need. When preparing for a run to the grocery store, they evaluate what they have already and what they need in order to prepare the coming week's menu," she said.

A budget is always a wise choice. "People have to spend money not only on school supplies and clothing, but for groceries, housing and more," said Bowen. "Budgets allow people to spend money on paper first, before going to the store and releasing it. And by planning how money would be spent, people will be more content with their final choices, and the items purchased will more likely be needs instead of wants."

Step 1: Determine what's usable

"Kids have only been out of school for three months, so those items left from last school year still have some value," said Bowen. "Blank paper, pens and notebooks may still be in good, usable condition. Assess what new materials are needed before going out and buying all new items that kids think they need."

The same goes for clothing. "Unless children have had a growth spurt, many of last year's clothes should still be wearable," she said. "Try extending the wear of last year's items by buying a couple of new shirts, pants or blouses to add to the existing wardrobe."

Some schools require a uniform and most others have a dress code, both of which can help parents and kids decide what to buy.

Step 2: Assess what the school requires

If possible, find out the school's standard material requirements early. "Parents can use school supply lists, often available at area stores, to decide what to purchase before school starts," said Bowen.

"Before going to the store, parents should determine the total amount they can spend and talk to their children about that amount before they leave home," she said. This is an early step in teaching children how to use a budget or plan their spending.

Step 3: Shopping

Take a shopping list. "The list defines the difference between what you want to get and what you need to get," said Bowen. "This planning keeps people from purchasing items that are simply the most attractive store display at the time."

Allow the child to have a voice in selecting items. "This is a teachable moment," she said. "When they know the total amount that is budgeted for school needs and the running total of all purchases, it will help them narrow their choices to what is needed."

Parents can enforce the limitations of a budget but also guide teenagers to school-appropriate clothing, all without dictating wardrobes. "Children should be involved in shopping because if they don't like the clothing, they won't wear it," said Jan Scholl, associate professor of agricultural and extension education. "Older teenagers may find it useful to purchase their own clothing, given a budget."


Scholl offered some tips for purchasing clothing with a different avenue in mind: thrift stores and off-peak sales. "Watch for used uniforms to go on sale, so when youngsters grow out of theirs or when the new school year arrives, the family doesn't need to scramble for new items. Thrift stores offer affordable, gently-used items at low prices, especially during sales, when items can be half-price or purchased for $5 or less per bag."

For supplies, she suggested scanning advertisements for coupons and sales and paying attention to store prices to find great deals. "When I see a good price, I can purchase things I know I will need -- folders for reports, notebooks, pencils and erasers."

This method of purchasing has several benefits. It makes the trips for special purchases easier, is not a large one-time drain on a budget, and serves as a reserve of supplies for any last-minute projects that children may have forgotten.

Whether approached like grocery shopping or using the value of thrift stores and liquidation sales, both are effective methods for back-to-school shopping. Bowen and Scholl agree that the budget is key.

"Parents will spend a lot of money getting their kids ready for school," said Bowen. "The budget is a tool that should help control costs and ensure the family's money is being spent where it's needed the most."

  • Children should be involved in shopping because if they don't like the clothing, they won't wear it.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010