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back to school


Parents may want to sing for joy at the thought of kids heading back to school. However, the expenses associated with this time of year may also cause them to sing the blues.

According to the National Retail Federation, back-to-school shoppers will spend $76 billion this year, and families are spending 55% more than they did a decade ago. In addition, the Rubicon Project’s Back-To-School Consumer Pulse Survey found that 61% of parents plan to spend more than they did last year. The average: $917 per child, and for parents of college freshmen it’s more than $1,300.

Some strategies to attack back-to-school expenses:

Have the talk

Back-to-school season is one of those classic teachable moments for parents to improve their kids’ financial literacy. Seventy-five percent of parents already let their kids influence a good deal of their spending during this season, according to the National Retail Federation. So, given that kids want a say, why not give them some financial responsibility in the purchases as well?

“The back-to-school process may be a good place for kids to start to participate and understand, given the immediate impact on their own lives. Students can be part of the solution by allocating a portion of their income or allowance towards back-to-school expenses,” suggests Jessica Doll, wealth management adviser for TIAA (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America). “Work with them to develop a budget and list of priorities and assist them in making smart decisions.”

Here’s a bold approach. Estimate the total amount that you anticipate spending and give that amount to your student — in cash. It may sound like a radical idea, but it’s the perfect way to teach a great financial planning lesson, says Dean Listle, investment advisory representative at Secure Retirement Solutions. Using cash creates controlled spending.  Debit and credit cards have created a false sense of spending for all of us. “They are often seen as a never-ending pool of cash, as opposed to a debt obligation,” Listle says.

Don’t keep up with the Joneses

One back-to-school lesson for parents is to just say no to some purchases. It’s not uncommon to see flat-screen TVs making their way onto the elevator and into dorm rooms. How do parents teach kids not to chase after the latest and greatest tech item?

“It’s important that kids learn to accept what you have and accept where you are in life,” explains Al Hicks, certified financial planner at Summit Planning Group.  “When we were kids, our parents said, ‘We can’t afford it,’ and we didn’t argue.  The reality is that most parents can’t afford it today but don’t say it.”

Strategies for college

Back-to-college season presents its own spending challenges and opportunities, and many students are taking matters into their own hands.  Take textbooks, for example. According to the National Association of College Stores, the annual average of student spending on course materials has fallen 14% since 2007, from $701 to $602. They are wising up by buying used or electronic (e-books) textbooks and renting course materials.

Another way to save on the more expensive college items is to reach out to roommates before orientation to share the cost of items like microwaves, refrigerators and futons. Craigslist, yard sales and hand-me-downs from upperclassmen also come in handy.

When buying computers, be aware that many laptops sold at university bookstores have software bundles already loaded. Often this is included in the student fee, so make sure you are not paying twice by adding software after the purchase.

What’s the rush?

Seventy-four percent of back-to-school shopping is completed by the time the semester starts, according to a survey commissioned by Deloitte.  But smart shoppers get busy much earlier than that. In fact, 38% make back-to-school shopping a year-round event, replenishing supplies as needed. Think beyond the back-to-school season and buy school items on clearance as well as on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.  “There are typically many options ahead of time, and fewer, more expensive options when scrambling at the last minute,” adds Hicks.

And don’t feel like everything on your back-to-school list has to be brand new. Recycle last year’s backpack and leftover supplies if you can. Dig through drawers for partially used notebooks, crayons and colored pencils that just need a good sharpening.

The bottom line is that parents have always been the first teachers of financial behavior, and kids learn by example and stories.  “Talk with your student about what financial choices you made as a young person and especially what mistakes you made and how you learned from them,” Doll says.

Tips to save on college supplies
•Buy used or electronic textbooks
•Rent course materials
•Shop early
•Know the refund policy
•Avoid writing or unwrapping your materials or books until the semester starts and you’re sure you will use them
•Keep all receipts