7 Ways to Manage Unexpected School Expenses

Americans are expected to spend more than $27 billion to get their kids ready to go back to school this fall, with the average family dishing out nearly $700 on school supplies, clothing and electronics, according to survey findings from the National Retail Federation. And while the shopping rush may have subsided, spending on school-related activities and supplies is far from over.

[See: 12 Shopping Tricks to Keep You Under Budget.]

The costs for extracurricular activities like sports and band practice represent an ongoing financial burden for families on a tight budget. On top of these set expenses, parents often find themselves facing a variety of unanticipated costs that crop up throughout the year.

Jeanette Pavini, a savings expert at Coupons.com, says budgeting for school expenses such as clothes, supplies and tuition is a no-brainer, but parents need to plan ahead for additional costs. “Without properly planning for things like sports, music, pictures, teacher gifts, field trips, dances, fundraising events and other extracurricular activities, parents will find themselves struggling to come up with hundreds of dollars or more throughout the year,” she says.

While some of these expenses are unavoidable, families can alleviate stress and financial strain by accounting for unexpected school expenses and looking for ways to save. Read on for seven tips to budget strategically and stay prepared for unforeseen school costs.

Learn how to plan for unanticipated expenses. Factoring in unfixed costs into your budget doesn’t have to be complicated. Predictable costs such as school pictures, teacher gifts and sporting equipment can help you create a preliminary budget. It’s also a smart idea to create a separate savings fund to account for the less-obvious costs that will catch you off guard.

“Whether you label it as fun money or unplanned expenses, putting aside money weekly into this fund will keep you from blowing your budget,” says Julia Carlson, financial advisor and founder of Financial Freedom Wealth Management Group and author of “Fit Money: 7 Steps to Get Your Financial Life in Shape.” This can be a few dollars a week or more, depending on what you can afford, she says.

Automate savings. Setting aside even small amounts of money will give you some wiggle room for unexpected expenses. Danielle Fehring, mother of two and founder of the lifestyle blog www.livingawanderlustlife.com, suggests stashing away $10 from every paycheck as soon as you receive it for miscellaneous school fees. You can further pad your bank account by setting up an automatic small payment from your checking account into a separate savings account on a weekly basis that you won’t miss, even if it’s just $5.

[Read: Best Back-to-School Sales for 2018.]

Buy used items whenever possible. Parents are often caught off guard by their children’s need for technology. However, today’s students rely heavily on laptops, tablets and other mobile devices. Since the costs for such electronic tools can be exorbitant, parents need to budget and shop wisely.

Rob Webber, a consumer advocate and the founder and CEO of MoneySavingPro.com, says parents shouldn’t spring for new gadgets when you can find high-quality, refurbished electronics for far less. “By buying refurbished [electronics], parents can save a bundle but still get their kids what they need to succeed,” he says.

Electronics aren’t the only item you can buy used. Pavini says parents can find secondhand sporting equipment at resale stores like Play It Again Sports to save on gear. Meanwhile, local consignment stores are a great place to scope out deals on gently used clothing and shoes to dress your growing child without busting your budget.

Help organize field trips. Orchestrating a school field trip means you can influence the experience and tame costs. “Take charge by finding out at the beginning of the school year which museums and science halls offer free days or student group discounts, and look to local attractions for trips so that the travel expense is minimal,” Pavini suggests.

Look for low-cost extra help. When a child struggles with a particular subject in school, parents may seek extra assistance for their child through a pricey private tutor or special program. However, parents may be eligible for free or less expensive options through their public school, Pavini explains. “Public schools offer many services to give your kids extra help,” Pavini says. “It may be a teacher’s aid, motor skills therapy, tutoring or any other area your child needs extra help with.”

Speak with your child’s teacher to request an evaluation to see if your child qualifies for an Individualized Education Program with services and tools tailored to meet a child’s specific needs, a benefit offered by public schools.

Separate needs versus wants. No matter how well you plan ahead, some school expenses may be out of reach or nonessential, such as brand-name clothing or the latest toy or gadget. Unfortunately, many parents feel pressured to keep up with what other families provide to their children, even if it means going into debt. When presented with a potential new cost, it’s important for parents to sit down with their kids to determine whether it’s necessary or not. For instance, while your child may actually need new sneakers for sports practice, a new dress or suit for prom isn’t a necessity. Learn how to separate must-haves from wants to figure out where you can cut back. Ultimately, families shouldn’t sacrifice long-term financial security for the short-term gratification in giving in to costly, nonessential purchases.

[See: Dear Younger Me: 12 Financial Truths We Wish We Knew Earlier.]

Teach a money lesson. Every year, there’s typically a trendy, must-have item that kids will pressure their parents to buy. While you may be tempted to give in to your child’s demands, instead consider their request as an opportunity to impart a valuable money lesson. Teaching kids about the importance of budgeting and spending wisely can be done throughout the school year, especially when it comes to unnecessary purchases.

If you give your child an allowance, suggest that they save up for this purchase. If it’s just not enough to cover the entire cost, offer to split it with him or her. That way, your child can learn about the importance of saving and receive a reward for his or her saving efforts.

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