7 steps to building a complete back-to-school budget

This article is sponsored by Pen Fed Credit Union

If you’re so good at sniffing out great deals on college rule paper and No. 10 pencils every August, how does the cost of launching the kids into another school year keep managing to drain your wallet dry? Word of advice: It’s not that packet of pencil-tip erasers that sends your budget over the top. Smart back-to-school budgeting means bracing yourself for an onslaught of school start-up expenses.

1. School clothes Here’s something your kids are most likely clamoring to get that’s often best postponed until a little later in the school year. If the kids have shot up like weeds during the summer, you might have to top off with a couple of new pairs of jeans and some shoes, but summer clothes and last year’s leftovers will likely do the job through the earliest weeks. Once the days turn crisper, the kids will need a whole different wardrobe anyway — and they may have decided they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing whatever they thought was cool way back in August. Brace for complaints, but you can safely push school clothes toward the end of the back-to-school list.

2. Backpack You can probably get away with buying a new backpack for younger children before the first day of school, but older kids are likely to come home wailing “Nobody uses those!” unless you see what’s in this year. A school full of backpack traditionalists is easy to pre-shop for, but don’t commit major money ahead of time if you’re unfamiliar with the school culture. You may find your child is the only kindergartner without a rolling backpack or the only middle school girl without a Vera Bradley tote.

3. Lunch box Like backpacks, some schools have their own cultural Rules of Cool regarding lunchboxes, and your child isn’t likely to eat that healthy lunch you packed if the container is embarrassing. On the practical side, be sure your child’s lunchbox works effectively for the things he or she likes to eat; if you’re raising a soupaholic, a tiny bag that can’t accommodate a Thermos won’t be of much use.

4. Lunch money Pre load lunch accounts or the piggy bank at home with enough lunch money to get your child well past the first chaotic week or two. Even if you plan for kids to bring packed lunches on a regular basis, letting them buy the first week or so gives them one less bulky item to cart around and keep up with while they’re getting adjusted.

5. Sports gear, uniforms and equipment Never underestimate the power of extracurricular activities to decimate your August and September budgets. If your child wants to be involved in the cheerleading squad, band or orchestra, a sports team or any activity that requires a significant initial financial outlay (a musical instrument, a uniform, a sports physical or special equipment), try to talk with the parent of a recent student to get a feel for how much you’ll be expected to pay and where you might be able to save.

6. School supplies You’ve probably already been strategizing on how to save money buying school supplies, and we have a whole host of strategies to help you save even more.

  • If your state has a tax holiday weekend, hit the stores then.
  • Shop your own household. Dig through last year’s school supplies for anything you can reuse, and pull classroom supplies like tissues and hand sanitizer from the family pantry.
  • Ask older students for opportunities to deviate from the official school supplies list. The list might clearly specify Crayola brand crayons, but families with children who’ve just finished your child’s grade may advise you that Mrs. So-and-So doesn’t really care, as long as you have your own box of crayons.
  • Back-to-school specials at local retailers are likely to beat even the best online deals. Most stores order huge shipments of economical notebooks, pencils and basics at prices nearly impossible to beat.
  • Check thrift stores for durable items such as school uniforms, sports equipment, shoes and backpacks.
  • Before you shop, check store websites for coupons.

7. Incidentals Set aside funds for incidental registration-time expenses like spirit wear, yearbook orders and club and group fees. You’ll draw from this fund irregularly all year long for teacher gifts, field trip fees, school dance tickets and more. Writing a personal check for these expenses helps you track them for better budgeting next year — and it’ll help you remember in December whether you already paid for the yearbook in August or still need to fork over the cash.

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