Back-to-School Shopping Tabs Near $500, Even in a Recession

Filed under: Work Life, Day Care & Education, Shopping

Back to school shopping expensive

Sure, money is tight, but you still have to shop for back-to-school supplies. Credit: jupiterimages

Brother, can you spare $500? That could be what you end up spending on back-to-school shopping this year.

The economists may say the recession is over, but your pocketbook is still feeling the burn. And now it's time to buy notebooks and backpacks -- not to mention clothes, lunch boxes and other school supplies.

Most parents will spend around $500 shopping for back-to-school gear, mostly in July and August. And after two years of high unemployment and a weak economy, surveys show families are still tightening their belts.

But there's no avoiding buying all those new items for school. A survey from the Marketing to Moms Coalition, an advertiser group, finds moms of kids 7 to 12 years old will spend $440 this year, down from $487 in 2009, and moms with kids 13 to 17 will spend $479, down from $548 last year.

"Everybody is still very cost-conscious," says Laura Conrad, president of PriceGrabber, an online comparison-shopping site.

PriceGrabber's own survey also finds most households are holding down their back-to-school budgets; 86 percent will spend the same or less than they did last year. And more than half of the parents shopping for back-to-school supplies this year say they will spend less than $500 on their children in school and college, while 8 percent say they want to spend less than $100.

Parents are managing the expense by working it into the household budget and spreading it across the year, Conrad tells ParentDish. Some staples lend themselves to stockpiling through the year, but clothing -- especially with teenagers -- is best left until the last minute. Kids will change their minds about what's cool for school, Conrad, who has a 16-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son, says. She deals with the price tags by sharing the expense for fancier items with the kids, who have part-time jobs.

This year, most parents will buy school supplies (76 percent), clothing (70 percent) and books (45 percent), according to PriceGrabber's survey. But all sorts of things find their way onto back-to-school shopping lists: USB/Flash drives (27 percent), calculators (26 percent), laptops (24 percent) and even sporting goods (18 percent).

To help ease the financial burden, the popular back-to-school stores this year are also budget-friendly. Kids want to shop at Walmart, JCPenney, Claire's and Justice, says Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, a consulting service that tracks teen fashion trends.

"We're getting a lot of feedback about value," she says of talking to kids about shopping after two years of recession.

It helps that a lot of the hot back-to-school looks are also very budget friendly: Converse sneakers, $5 Silly Bandz and $28 Baggu backpacks are all trendy. And kids can rock the military trend of brass buttons and epaulets by shopping at their local Army-Navy store, or they can follow the '80s comeback fad with vintage clothes found at thrift stores.

You can also start by shopping at home, the experts say. You don't need to buy every last stitch of clothing and scrap of paper right away. Do an inventory of what's left over from the last school year and you'll be surprised how many items can be reused. Lunch boxes, pencil cases and backpacks can be cleaned and dressed up with stickers or patches for the coming school year.

Preplanning your shopping will help, as well: 30 percent of the parents on the PriceGrabber survey say they will save by sticking to a shopping list.

Online tools can help that planning, Conrad says. Comparison-shop online for the things on your list and sign up for alerts to be sent to your e-mail or mobile phone when the items you want go on sale. Thirty-three percent of the parents in the PriceGrabber survey say they go to store websites and print out coupons to save on their shopping.

"It saves time," Conrad says. "You can get an idea of what you want ahead of time, because your kids get into school and they get overwhelmed. You can go to the store armed with a little bit more knowledge."

If you do find a good sale, act quickly. The best deals are limited to a small quantity per store.

"Last year, my local Staples had scientific calculators at a ridiculously cheap price, but by the time I got to the store at 4 p.m. on Sunday they were sold out," says Rachael Bender, founder of, a website for working mothers.

You can save even more and avoid crowds by waiting for the clearances after school starts. You don't have to send your kids to their first day of school in head-to-toe new outfits -- it likely will be too warm for fall clothes, anyway. If the kids need some convincing, tell them they'll be the ones styling new clothes when everyone else is wearing old stuff.

"Time your shopping. It's really bad to buy in season," Constance White, style director of eBay, tells ParentDish. "Don't run out and feel that you have to do your back-to-school shopping before school starts. Wait a bit and you can pick up some bargains."

Related: Back to School Countdown Calendar


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