With a new school year under way, costs for new clothes and supplies can add up quickly. According to a National Retail Federation survey, the average family intends to spend about $527 this year for back-to-school supplies.

Strategic purchases can save money and provide an opportunity to model for children how to use wise budget strategies throughout the year.


Bill Cirone

First, it’s a good idea to involve children in making a list of what they already have and what they need. Help them prioritize the list in order of the items most needed, then draw up a budget.

Next, read through newspaper ads with your children and seek the best sales. You can also check online for deals, then show children how to do comparison shopping for the best prices.

Because of the speed at which children grow, it’s best to resist buying fad clothing, which can be expensive. Show children that they can buy more items if they buy fewer expensive pieces.

It’s also important to make sure the clothes fall within the school’s dress code. Basic, durable and adjustable clothing can stretch your dollars significantly. 

Use every opportunity to impart “object lessons.” Children may want colorful notebooks with logos or their favorite heroes, but the plain notebooks may have more paper and be less expensive. While shopping with your children, compare prices, count the number of items and add up the bill. This will acquaint them with using math in their daily lives.

Although students sometimes prefer to use messenger bags to carry their books, be aware that the weight of the bag will fall on one shoulder and can lead to neck and back pain. Consider a two-strapped backpack that distributes the weight more evenly over the body. As with other items, remember that fad logos can add to the price of the bag.

Of course, using slightly worn hand-me-downs can save a lot of money. Garage or yard sales are great sources for a vintage lunchbox or a nearly new calculator.

For some items, such as shoes, it’s important to pay the difference for good quality. For example, children love to wear inexpensive flip-flops, but spending more for your children’s shoes most likely will provide safety and allow for proper foot development. Don’t look to the future for growing room. Buy shoes that are comfortable now. It’s best to choose shoes with a stiff heel and flexible toe and are rigid in the middle for support.

If your children need a computer, consider shopping at an outlet store for a refurbished model, which can save 50 percent to 60 percent from the retail price. If you’re considering other high-tech tools, know your school’s rules first. Some cell phones, iPods and MP3 players are banned from schools.

If your children insist on buying more expensive items, consider having them put part of their allowance or paycheck toward the purchase, or have them eliminate a lower priority item from their list. This will teach them the value of budgeting. It also could cause children to lose interest in the item and forget how important it once seemed.

If you don’t need to buy supplies now, it’s best to wait. School supplies are often placed on clearance by mid-September. 

Above all, stay within your budget. Using a credit card is good only if you know how you will pay it off. Otherwise, the interest rates and fees may cancel out any savings you made from finding sales and bargains.

Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools.