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Back To School Shopping: Pre-Christmas Budget Bust

Calculators, books, and laptops, oh my.

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Forge Your Wealth is meant for education and entertainment and should not be used for financial advice.

It’s July. You know what that means. Back to school shopping! An errand that gets both students and adults excited. Trust me excited is an accurate term. I have seen parents make plans for back to school shopping that would rival Thanksgiving camping Black Friday shoppers. Unfortunately, that excitement leads to a lack of judgement which causes overspending.

According to the National Retail Federation the average cost to send a single American child from elementary school to high school is $687.72 in 2017. For a college student the average cost was $969.88. From pencils to computers almost $100 billion is spent on sending children back to school each year. While going back to school almost always requires new materials, it may be better to establish a budget and try to stick with it.

Even so, many people plan to get many new things that throw them off budget when it comes to back to school shopping. Not only is back to school shopping exciting, but it is stressful under many circumstances. In this post we will not only show you how to save money, but how to make sure your children have everything they need. Since I have previously posted about what to get for college I will focus on elementary school to high school.

Check The Syllabus And Make A Checklist Of Required Materials

I know many schools require certain materials and that you can feel like you can find ways around them. Unlike college, I highly recommend you purchase every material recommended and as to the letter as possible. For instance, in calculus, not only did I need a textbook, but a TI-89 calculator. This is an expensive calculator that can easily cost $100. I got one, but some of my fellow students did not. On the first day my teacher was trying to show us how to use them. For those without the TI-89, they found their different versions did not have the required features. My teacher told these students he could not even lend a TI-89 and said that the students need one before the first test. They wasted time and money buying the wrong calculator.

Instead of just going for cheaper options, you need to find better deals for these materials. I highly recommend (offset of eBay) and shopping online for these materials.

The required materials must be taken care of first. I have not seen many people excited to buy required materials, not even a calculator. If you try to shop for the non-required materials first, you may find you are over-budget already and try to find shortcuts in which may lead to disasters like the TI-89 story. In fact, do not shop for anything else until you at least purchased the required materials.

Make A Checklist Of Non-required Materials

This will almost certainly be your longest list. You will need pencils, pens, paper, highlighters, binders, hole punches, refills of lead, clothing, shoes, backpacks (heavy inhale), notebooks, pencil sharpeners, stapler, staples, tape, notecards. I could go on forever, and frankly some of the things mentioned may not even be required. For instance, what is the tape and stapler for? Does every child need their own? Is there a shortage of staples throughout the education system?

Sit down in honesty with your children. Ask what they need everything for. If you, nor they, cannot come up with a good reason, consider taking items that are not required off the list.

Go Through Home To Find Useful Supplies

How many of you have a basement, attic, closet, or at least a junk drawer? (Everyone raise their hands). How many of you know exactly what you can find in these? (Most of you will have to put down your hands). For all you know, most, if not even every single thing you need, can be found in at least one of these forgotten locations. You and your family should look through these areas to find old supplies that you can use.

However, it is hard to get children excited about older materials, much less work to find them. Make a game out of it. It’s a scavenger hunt already, you just need to include a reward. NEVER REWARD THEM WITH MONEY. They should be willing to scavenge old materials without the prospect of money as it is a skill they should use in the future to save them money. And more importantly, if you make it a habit of paying them they will try to hide some things to be paid more. Instead reward them with a trip to the movies or some event, take them to their favorite restaurant, something they would enjoy. If you do this right overtime, the scavenging will be instinctual.

Every time my family did this we almost always found basic school supplies and backpacks. However, you still need to have the children more excited to use this stuff.

How To Get Children Excited About Old Supplies

The attractive thing about back to school shopping is to have the shiny new things. Your children will say that they do not want to take a used hand me down because of some school hierarchy. School is brutal, that hierarchy does exist. But it is also not worth it, or at least not in my opinion. But you are their parents, you should determine how much that hierarchy should cost you.

It should not be very difficult to convince your children to reuse actual school supplies like hole punches and binders, but there are many items it may take convincing to reuse. These include backpacks, clothing, and shoes.


In recent years a single category increased in spending significantly: fashion. Children are now more conscious about fashion than ever and parents dress their children to be extensions of themselves. American parents spend on average $284 per child for clothing. I got a custom-tailored suit for just barely more than that for my wedding.

You should always buy clothing for your children, but you should try to lean more towards practicality than trends. Trends easily die, that is why fast fashion is a thing. It is ok and in some cases highly recommended to get your children some fashionable apparel, but you do not need to get them at designer stores. Instead I highly recommend off-price department retail like Burlington or Old Navy. You can find fashionable items at a lower cost in these stores.

Shoes are no different. I know there are many children who want the most fashionable shoes, and you can get them at clearance sales at many stores. This will keep your child happy and your wallet full. I never recommend going to discount stores for shoes. Every time I tried those types of shoes I could only try them for three months tops before they wore out.


You child does not need a new backpack every year, however, children and even parents feel like they do. I believe the main problem with children and backpacks is that they usually associate it purely with school. This may make them feel negatively towards the backpack. Instead try to create nostalgia. Have them utilize these backpacks for trips and vacations. This will create nostalgia that will make them feel attached.

Never get your child any merchandised backpacks. They do not seem to be well made. Even if they are as well made as other backpacks your child will quickly out grow them.

Computers And Phones

I know this sounds biased, but I do not support the idea of buying you child a computer, or at least not a new one. While I was in high school I got second hand computers from my father. My father did a good job fixing them so I never complained. This handiwork convinced me to buy refurbished computers.

As for phones, I only had a flip phone and later a sidekick in high school. Your children do not NEED a smart phone. I even recommend never getting them one until they are set for college. I know this makes me sound old, but it pains me when a six year old is buried in their smart phone. “Well what if they have an emergency?” That is what the flip phone is for, they send out messages as good as smartphones. I do not believe personal technology beyond personal calculators are required for school and they do not need to be on your list for back to school shopping. Maybe, just maybe, they could use a flip phone just so they do not need to borrow someone else’s phone, but nothing more.

Final Thoughts

Back to school shopping is very stressful for a multitude of reasons. In addition to the general concept of starting a new chapter in your children’s lives there are the general financial stresses. However, budgeting and working together will minimize the stress you will face. Talking to your children about what they need and what they think they need will clarify the direction you need to go. Try to formulate your plan for back to school shopping to better forge your wealth.

Author: Papa Foxtrot

Most of my life I was careful with money and learned where I should invest it. I was very lucky to have parents who taught me financial literacy when I was young. Unfortunately, I am very lucky because many people lack the financial literacy I know. The purpose of Forge Your Wealth is to teach people who are just starting out in life how to obtain their wealth or anyone who just realized they may need to learn more to handle their finances. I currently have a PhD in biochemistry, just started a job in industry (will not disclose where exactly for personal and professional reasons) and am currently married to the love of my life. I am one of the lucky few people in America who graduated with no student debts, my wife was not. Over the series of a little over 3 years we paid for our wedding with no debt and paid off her federal student loans.

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