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Back-to-school shopping: 8 tips to stay within budget

How to get what your kids need without breaking the bank

by Single Ma  |  8806 views  |  5 comments  |        Rate this now! 

Back-to-school shopping isn’t a big deal for me. Why not? Because I don’t do it. Yes, I have a child. And yes, she’s in school. In fact, she’s 16 and starting the 11th grade this year. But I don't see the point of “back to school” shopping? In my opinion, it’s just another marketing ploy to get people (i.e. primarily mothers) to spend ungodly amounts of money on STUFF at a predetermined time of the year. I mean, think about it...

School just ended two months ago -- TWO months! What is so different in a span of two months that makes you want to go out and buy all new stuff?

Did li'l Johnny outgrow the clothes he was just wearing last week? Why does he need new(er) clothes to go to school? It’s still hot outside, so what are you gonna buy -- MORE summer clothes? Or are you going to send that baby to school in a long-sleeve shirt and sweater?

How about the shoes you just bought him last month? Did he wear them out already? Are they no longer good enough? Is he going to a place to learn or to a fashion show?

You’re probably saying, "But Single Ma, li'l Johnny needs school supplies too!" True. But where are all of those pens, pencils, crayons, erasers, binders, and filler paper you bought last year -- did he ever use them all? I bet not. Where are the left overs? In the closet? In the toy box? In the trash? Disappeared in thin air? Do you have any idea? They NEVER use all of that crap.

The book bag. Why does li'l Johnny need a new one every year? Unless the strap or zipper is broken, the book bag is still usable. All it does is hold books anyway.

The lunch box. Did the other one perish with last year’s food?

Now, don't get me wrong, I do realize that notebooks (I’m not talking about binders with filler paper) aren’t reusable and pens and pencils are lost, but the former are $2 to $3 each and the latter are 50 cents for a pack of 10. So what’s the point of all the other crap?

Why are families spending HUNDREDS of dollars on “back to school” shopping? Did you know retailers consider this time of year as one of the most profitable shopping seasons, only third in line after Christmas and Mother’s Day? I don’t get the hype, and I won't allow you to fall for it either.

Here are eight budget-conscious preparations for back to school.

1.) Inventory. Do an inventory of leftover school supplies from previous years.

2.) Organization. If an inventory isn’t possible and you MUST buy all new supplies, try to be more organized this year so you can be prepared for next year. Buy a plastic bin to store all of the supplies. My daughter has a pink plastic cabinet with five drawers. She uses them to keep her pens, pencils, hi-lighters, sharpies, protractors, compass, calculators, index cards, notebooks, filler paper, etc. When she runs out of something, she knows exactly where to find it. When she says “I need,” I check there first before I buy more.

About the Author

A working (single) mom and author of the personal finance blog Fabulous Financials @

Read more by Single Ma

5 comments so far...

  • I appreciate the list from the school and usually let her choose one new outfit for the start of school. Local discounter runs great sales in the "approved" before school time that you NEVER see the rest of the year.
    However it isn't an all new wardrobe, I think she got one "character" notebook this year, the rest are whatever was the $.50 a piece version.
    Other "I wants" become suggestions for the Christmas list.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Mich on 23rd August 2010

  • I did the back-to-school thing for the first year or two of my children's schooling. Having been homeschooled till they were ten or so, we were all kind of intrigued by the whole back-to-school excitement, and wanted to experience it all! It didn't take me (and my wallet) long to come to the same conclusions you've reached here.

    When my kids reached high school, and wanted the new things because of social pressures, I was always very understanding... so long as they were buying these non-essentials themselves! Because when you have a perfectly good backpack in a closet in your room, and you want a new one because it's this year's colour or label or whatever? That's a luxury, honey, not an essential, and you can buy it with your own money. It's astonishing how quickly a "must-have" becomes a "non-essential" when they have to pay for it!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by MaryP on 27th August 2008

  • This is my son's first year and I am glad to read this article. I have been feeling bad because I cannot afford to buy like that. He does have everything he needs but I have bought through out the year when I found good deals in preparation for him starting. I do shop thrift and yards sales but everything is in like new condition so no one will ever be the wiser. Thanks Single Ma for a great article.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by blessedmom2sweetboys on 12th August 2008

  • hahahaaa I do all of this!!! luckily for me my kids schools send a list in the mail of the supplies needed.. especially when it requires a dang scientific calculator!!! it gives me time to budget for said items and look for the best deal. As for clothes.. I don't buy for that same reason.. they get a few pieces to mix and match with what they already have and I'm a sucker for a new pair of shoes LOL

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by BK on 12th August 2008

  • I agree! My daughters (6 & 7) only need a few filler items to be completely "back to school" ready. Luckily, because they are close in age, my youngest daughter gets hand-me-downs that she is completely thrilled to have. :) My oldest daughter, frugal little miss that she is... loves bargain shopping with mommy. At the end of the school year, we go through items that no longer fit/are damaged etc., and we decide what we'll do with them. Salvation army, uniform swap (at the beginning of the school year), garage sale, etc. After that, we go to the Salvation Army and check out what others have returned. There is often an entire rack devoted to school uniforms. I purchased 6 pairs of pants, 8 shirts and two jackets for $37. I see NO reason to spend a lot of money on clothes that they tend to mess up. I also shop on e-bay. I just recently won a bid for 8 brand new French Toast shirts for $14. That included shipping. Over the summer, I'd pick up something here or there if it was on sale, etc. As far as an item such as shoes, we generally shop at Payless and Target for their shoes. There are plenty of quality shoes there.

    I run a home based business on the side, so I always have supplies. My kids go shopping in my supply cart for the school year. I rarely have to buy more than a few items for them. Even when i do, it's normally something special on the teachers list. If I didn't have a business, I'd probably get most of what's on the list from the dollar store. Local convenience stores like Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid often have GREAT deals for supplies as well. Sometimes even better than the larger stores. It's definitely a good idea to check the ads.

    Overall, there are so many things going on that we'll have to pay for at the beginning of a school year, I'd rather save when I can and where I can.


    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Kells on 12th August 2008