7 Ways Parents Can Save On Back-to-School Expenses
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7 Ways To Save On Back-To-School Expenses

  • Back to school can cost families of 5 upward of $3,000 for supplies and extracurricular activities.
  • Recycle school supplies from last year, buy new supplies during off season sales, and plan year round.
  • Set a sports budget and gauge what you can afford each year.

With back-to-school season in full swing, parents around the country are bracing themselves for more than the strict school schedules their little ones need. They’re also mentally preparing to shell out some fat cash.

According to a recent study from Huntington Bank, school supplies and extracurricular for the 2015-16 school year activities will cost an average of:

$649 for elementary school students
$941 for middle school students
$1,402 for high school students

In other words, a family with 3 kids – 1 in elementary school, 1 in middle school, and 1 in high school student – will pay over $3,000 annually for education costs, not even counting tuition.


If those figures sound high, it’s because they are. The Huntington Bank survey notes that the cost of supplies and extracurricular activities for school-aged children has risen 85% at the elementary level, 78% for middle school students, and 57% for high school students since they started tracking these numbers in 2007.

Unfortunately, many families feel the heat of these rising costs, struggling to keep up when wage increases don’t make up for the difference. Huntington Bank Director of Economics, George Mokrzan, says, “With the ongoing slow growth in wages, it is difficult for many families to meet the rising costs of sending children to school. For a family of 5 living at the poverty level guideline of $28,410, the cost of sending three children to school would consume as much as 10% of their income.”

7 Ways To Save On School Supplies And Extracurricular Activities

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways that parents at any income level can save, both on back-to-school costs and on extracurricular activities all year. And while these tactics can’t make school free, they’ll take a bit of the sting out of your child’s education costs.

Tip #1: Reuse And Repurpose School Supplies.

School supplies aren’t always cheap, but at least they don’t expire. Last year’s pencils will work great again this year, and probably the next one after that.

But pencils aren’t the only reusable back-to-school item. The key is staying organized and keeping barely-used supplies in a place you can find them the following year. That way, you can quickly take inventory before you shop.

Andrea Deckard of SavingsLifestyle.com comments, “We reuse a lot of school supplies from previous years like binders, pencil punches, scissors, backpacks and lunch bags. That helps keep the supply costs low.”

Tip #2: Shop Off-Season For Kids’ Clothes.

Whether your kid wears uniforms or picks their own outfits for school, the best way to save is to shop for clothes at the end of each season for the next year. So this fall, you could save a bundle by buying warm weather clothing for next year.

“In early fall, retailers are getting rid of their summer stuff, and there’s often incredible markdowns on high quality garments,” says Trent Hamm from The Simple Dollar. “The same thing is true with winter items in early spring, and spring and fall items at the end of those seasons.”

This strategy takes some guesswork around what size clothing your kids will be in, so it pays to err on the larger side. If you buy too big, you can always stash the item away for the following year. Buy too small, on the other hand, and your kid will be wearing capri pants in the middle of winter.

Tip #3: Set A School Clothing Budget – And Stick To It.

What’s the trick to back-to-school clothes? You don’t always have to go shopping for them.

“Shop your closets first,” says Tracie Richmond Fobes of PennyPinchinMom.com. “We first shop our closets – so we know what they really need. We don’t have to have a lot of jeans, long sleeve shirts, etc. to start the school year,” she says.

By building on the wardrobe your children already have, you can cut down on the amount of new clothes you have to purchase. And this is where budgeting comes in. Once you determine how much your kids really need, you should set a realistic clothing budget and make them stick to it. Lucky are the parents of kids who wear school uniforms!

“We budget $100 per kid for clothing for back to school, says Lauren Greutman of IAmThatLady.com. “Our children wear school uniforms, so it is easier (and less expensive) to have to purchase them.”

Tip #4: When It Comes To Activities And Sports, Realize You Can’t Do It All.

According to Travis Dorsch, Utah State University professor, recent research on the financial implications of children’s sports shows that many parents are spending up to 10.5% of their gross income on extracurricular activities and travel sports.
“A family bringing in $50,000 a year could be spending $5,500,” Dorsch told The New York Times.

Unfortunately, most families can’t bear that kind of expense without consequences. Even worse is the fact that some parents justify the expense because they think their kid will earn a scholarship. Most won’t. The bottom line is, parents should realize they can’t do it all when it comes to extracurricular activities, nor should anyone expect them to.

Tip #5: Try One Sport At A Time – Or Set Up A Sporting Budget.

With the costs involved in extracurricular activities at an all-time high, a good strategy is to stick to one “extra” activity at a time, especially for families with more than one child. Activities get expensive, and they also eat into quality family time.

Greutman recommends taking the most expensive sports completely off the table if needed. In her household, the kids “are not allowed to be on travel teams at this point because we just couldn’t keep up with that,” she says. “The activity must be under $100 to sign up and not require the entire family to travel for meets or games.”

Another strategy: Set up a cost and time budget for sporting events. “It’s difficult to manage the time and money associated with extracurricular activities, so a good best practice is to give each kid a time and money budget,” suggests Shannon McLay, financial planner and CEO of FinancialGym.net. That way, one child won’t take up too many resources.

Tip #6: Whatever You’re Budgeting For, Plan Year Round.

Elisabeth Kelly of MatterofLifeorDebt.com homeschools her kids, but still finds herself dealing with the same set of expenses. Her answer? Budget for it all year on a weekly, or monthly, basis.

“We began saving for “back to school” much like we save for the holidays using the 52-week method that became so popular about 3 years ago,” explains Kelly, adding that they bump up their contributions when they know bigger expenses were on the way. “We’ve doubled our contributions at times knowing we wanted to accommodate activities including baseball, ballet, spring break camps, and other events.”

Tip #7: Use Apps To Compare Prices.

Saving and budgeting for school supplies is a huge step in the right direction, but how can you save when it’s time to actually buy? Use apps to save, says Greutman, including apps offered by stores that sell school supplies and other back-to-school items, like clothing and shoes.

As for Greutman, she uses the Favado app to compare prices across stores. “If I am looking for a great deal on markers, I can use that app to find the price of markers across all my local stores,” says Greutman. “It helps save time.”

To avoid trekking from store to store, Greutman suggests using Walmart’s price-matching policy to get all of your items in one place. “That helps me save money on gas and time as well.”

The Bottom Line

Even when you don’t consider the costs of education and extracurricular activities, kids are expensive. They need food and shelter, as well as healthcare, social interaction, furniture, and all kinds of things that aren’t cheap to come by. That’s why it’s important to brainstorm ways to save on recurring expenses like school costs. With kids heading back to school every single year, even a small amount of savings annually can add up in a big way.

So consider these tips, but whatever you do, don’t fail to plan for the costs of educating and nurturing your child. With the cost of being a parent surging to greater heights each year, you’re going to need all the savings you can find.

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This article has been updated and was originally published on September 2, 2015.

The content contained in this blog post is intended for general informational purposes only and is not meant to constitute legal, tax, accounting or investment advice. You should consult a qualified legal or tax professional regarding your specific situation. Keep in mind that investing involves risk. The value of your investment will fluctuate over time and you may gain or lose money.

Any reference to the advisory services refers to Personal Capital Advisors Corporation, a subsidiary of Personal Capital. Personal Capital Advisors Corporation is an investment adviser registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Registration does not imply a certain level of skill or training nor does it imply endorsement by the SEC.

Holly Johnson is a financial expert and award-winning writer whose obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel plays a central role in her work. In addition to serving as Contributing Editor for The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for inspiring publications such as U.S. News and World Report Travel, Personal Capital, Lending Tree, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns two websites of her own - Club Thrifty and Travel Blue Book. You can follow her on Twitter or Pinterest @ClubThrifty.
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