Keeping Back to School Costs Down

by Thursday Bram · 9 comments

We’re getting close to the start of the new school year. With that comes shopping lists of school supplies, new clothes and school fees. Whether you have a child starting kindergarten or one in college, keeping back to school costs under control can be a problem. There are plenty of ads out there based on exactly that premise: how many television spots have you seen in the past few weeks where some parent is stressing out about the cost of getting her child ready to go back to school, only to be saved by the low, low prices of some specific store?

Unfortunately, there isn’t one individual store that can automatically drop the price of all your back to school purchases. But the spending can be controlled, with a little planning and a willingness to consider options beyond the obvious.

Why Buy New?

For many parents, fall seems like the best time to buy new clothes for quickly growing children. Considering how quickly kids can move from one clothing size to the next, though. It’s rare that children’s clothing gets worn out — and that includes school uniforms, if your school requires them. There are quite a few ways to outfit a new wardrobe for your child without going over budget at the local department store, from trading clothes with other parents to choosing a good second-hand shop.

But the principle doesn’t have to stop with clothing. There is a lot of gear that can go along with school attendance, especially when your kid has extracurricular activities. Musical instruments, sports gear and a whole host of other things can be had without shelling out for the newest version. If you’ve ever had to rent a violin in order to be able to keep moving up in sizes as your son or daughter grows, you can see why buying new just doesn’t make sense.

Editor’s Note: Good point about the instruments, but judgment is key. If your child is playing an instrument for pleasure, then buying used may make sense. However, if he shows potential to become a real talent and extreme interest in the field, then perhaps making some sacrifice on other things to afford the best may be worth it for your children’s future. This goes with music, but also sports and other activities. Like I said, use your judgment and discuss this with your spouse.

Actually Read the Paperwork

Between school supply lists, forms and syllabi, you may be facing a big stack of paperwork at the beginning of the fall semester, but it’s worthwhile to actually read through all of that paperwork. As a kid, my dad put me in charge of most of my own paperwork and told me to just summarize what he needed to do. It saved him some work, but I always wanted the newest or best version of whatever was coming next. I got all the optional school supplies and may have snuck a few extra things on to the list that my teachers didn’t expect me to need.

When you’re dealing with school activities like Photo Day, actually knowing what’s going on is important. If you want to buy photos through the school, you can save money by something as simple as remembering which day photographs are taken on, rather than needing your child to be photographed on the makeup day. Being aware of what’s coming up and planning for it can go a long way to keeping school costs down.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Printable Coupons says:

    Great tips. I’ve been doing these as well. It’s amazing how many things you really don’t need that are already around the house. Don’t forget the list and if possible, don’t bring the kids. Use coupons too..

  • CreditShout says:

    Most college students know that it’s better to buy books online or used–or both. It’s great to include sports gear and instruments in this category too.

  • I agree with some of the other posters, look for coupons. Also, if you can wait until the last minute you can usually find the best deals. Perhaps after school has started for about a week.

  • You know, for example I don’t see a need to save on books. Of course, buying all textbooks is useless, because they are of no value. But my children, like me, are keen on reading and collecting books. So, I like to buy books for me and for them. But saving on other school stuff sometimes makes sence.

  • TheInfamousJ says:

    As a school teacher, I want to add a few “things I think parents should know” points:

    (1) You NEVER have to buy photos for your child to be photographed for the yearbook. I know why this isn’t made clear to the parents – because if it were then we wouldn’t get free yearbook photographs – but still, you should know it.

    (2) I have never wanted to generate a school supply list for my students. However, I am required to because, as my principal and department head explained to me, “Parents expect one.” The instant you get a supply list, know that you have every right to contact the teacher – which is why my/our contact info is included – to ask if any item is necessary, necessary at that moment, or necessary to be that brand. You might be surprised. There are only two items on my list that must be exactly as stated (the brand of calculator – else the student will be calculatorless for their annual state exam – and the type of pen – because it is water insoluble and I teach chemistry) and even then, for the more expensive item, I have plenty to lend.

    (3) NEVER buy a year’s supply of glue sticks at once. The things dry out and are useless. Buy them one at a time, if necessary. Same with markers packages.

    (4) Learn to make your own hand sanitizer. You can buy a bottle of isopropanol/rubbing alcohol for 99 cents. It makes many, many, many bottles of hand sanitizer. Or you can just forego the gelling agent and squeeze a dime sized amount of rubbing alcohol into your palm and use as a drippier version of hand sanitizer. This is what I have taught my students to do, when they don’t have access to a sink for proper hand washing. Keeps costs wayyyyyy down for all involved. You pay extra just so that the alcohol is gelled.

    (5) There really is a difference in between Mead 5 Star spiral notebooks (and the Office Depot brand which is the same size) and other spiral notebooks. The 5 Star ones come at a higher price, but also allow students to put full sized worksheets in them with no trimming. In this case, you should pay for quality. Though overpay less by buying the Office Depot brand ones.

    (6) If your child is bringing steal-able expensive electronics (cell phone, ipod, faux ipod, $100 calculator, etc.) to school, contact their math teacher to ask about engraving the items. If your kiddo is in elementary school, then the media specialist (aka librarian) is the one with the engraver. That makes it much more likely that the items will find their way back to you/your child in the event that they are forgotten in a classroom – which happens much more often than the items actually being stolen.

    (7) Though it is illegal and should absolutely not happen, it is quite often the case that your child’s teacher/teachers do not have any 504 or IEP paperwork when the school year starts. (Though I have to give props to the last two schools I worked at for being on the ball and giving me the info before Day 1.) Typically it is because schedules are still being changed around for the first week of school and so the student services department waits for things to calm down before distributing that information. We teachers WANT to give your child the accommodations they are entitled to. Please let us know. Our lack of knowledge is not a lack of caring. I promise.

    (8) You can call you cell provider and block calls/texts (except to/from your number) during school hours. As kiddos, they aren’t quite at the adult level of willpower – though I’m sure they’ll get there – and being able to gossip at all times is an unavoidable temptation.

    (9) Have a great school year.

    • KM says:

      Where would you get the gelling agent for making your own sanitizer? That would be really cool to make my own.

      Also, what I did when I went to school is buy what I thought I would need for the class and I never had any problems. Some of the lists are so ridiculous that you wonder why a child would need all of those things. I had my own organizational system and teachers never cared if you had one at all. You could write on loose-leaf paper or in a notebook, you could have a binder or just stuff it all into your backpack, etc. I even won an award for being the most organized, so what I plan to do with my kids is teach them the value of staying organized and allow them to develop their own system, while somewhat following the required supplies.

  • Jane Sanders says:

    I would also mention renting textbooks instead of buying them. It can save a huge amount of money, and odds of you reading those books again after you finish the class are very low.

  • Jenna says:

    Coupons are great this time of year, from getting school supplies to dorm supplies. Keep your eyes peeled for savings.

  • KM says:

    I took a year or so off from college to live abroad, so coming back now, I am shocked how much tuition went up. Thankfully, I only have to buy one $30 book this semester. And I am much more worried about when my son is at the age where he will be going to school and needing all those supplies I remember having to get myself. Even more so, the expenses of such interests as music or sports are scary. Of course, I would want the best for him and as an engineer, I am sure I will be able to afford it, but I can’t help but be selfish and wish he will be like me and just be interested in books and tinkering in the garage or on the computer.

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