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Back-to-School Budgeting

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For students, the end of the summer holiday heralds the beginning of a new academic year. Creating – and sticking to – a budget for your children's back-to-school needs will allow you to manage the costs and help the youngsters get off to a good start in their studies. While families spend on what they need, parents must also work with their children to determine what they really do not need.

Start early, and take time to get ready
It does not take much to turn the school's supply list into a full shopping list. But you can do better than that.

Before you buy even one notebook, estimate how much you can afford to spend overall and what the costs are likely to be. Do not leave anything out! It is better to know ahead of time if things will be tight. (Keep reading for a bunch of creative ways to handle a shortage.) Give some thought to what you will do with any extra money in the budget. Will the kids get something special from their mile-long wishlists? Or will the surplus be added back into the household budget?

Think ahead to find the best deals. Be on the lookout for the big back-to-school sales and go early. Even the big stores can sell out at the last minute.

Get the kids involved
And not just with the shopping. Have them join in as you prepare; they will learn great lessons about budgeting, finding a good deal, and the difference between wants and needs.

Younger children can help cut coupons (be careful with the scissors). And older kids can compare costs and tally them up. You might even put them in charge of looking for deals to stay under budget. Use back-to-school shopping as an opportunity to lay the foundation for helping your children develop sound money management habits early. Before you shop, review these tips:

  • Set a realistic back-to-school budget before you go shopping.
  • Have your kids prepare a budget with you.
  • Take a printout of your estimated budget with you when shopping and have your children enter in all of the actual expenses.
  • Encourage your children to follow the budget. Stress that getting a more expensive item might mean sacrificing something else.
  • Encourage your kids to consider ways to cut costs and manage cash flow, like clipping coupons, looking for sales or buying supplies each year.
  • Teach your kids to comparison shop to avoid impulse buying or paying for overpriced items.
  • Differentiate between "needs" and "wants." Encourage children to contribute their own money to fill the gap between what they "need" and what they "want."
  • Continue the budgeting lesson by starting kids with an ongoing monthly budget.

Be willing to compromise on a few things
Sure, kids will want to have the same cool stuff their friends do. If your budget has the room, you can help them learn to prioritize.

Talk to them about how choosing a more expensive item means they will have to go cheap on another item, and give them a chance to think their choices through. If they have money of their own, you might ask them to help fund that special lunchbox or name-brand backpack.

Get creative to slash the shopping bill
School clothes are likely to take up a big chunk of your back-to-school budget. But who says they have to be brand new? If your children attend the same school, check whether the used uniform of your older kids will fit the younger siblings. Trade clothes and books with other families. You should check whether the school has a trading or discount program for uniforms.

Buying online
Play it smart! Order together with enough friends to save on shipping costs. Or buy bulk packs of supplies to share.

Shop the sales
Some stores start their back-to-school sales earlier than others. Before you recycle your newspapers, scan them for retailers' sales on clothing and school supplies. Watch for coupons online, postcards in the mail, and in-store promotions to look for deals. Some items are worth scooping up on the spot, while you might wait for end-of-season sales to replenish your kids' closet and bookshelves. For big ticket items like electronics for your older kids, do your homework on price comparisons before giving in and buying the coolest new laptop for your teen.

Learn from experience
Make your savvy back-to-school approach an annual tradition. Keep track of this year's expenses to help figure out the budget next year. Keep notes about what you discover, like where the best stores are and when the store shelves start to empty. They will come in handy a year from now. And if your kids' cost-savings decisions help you come out ahead, use it as a teachable moment to talk to them about what to do with the money that was saved. Practise these smart shopping habits each year, and by the time the kids graduate, you will have saved a bundle. And they will be much more prepared for the real world.