Save Money: Build a Budget for Back-to-School

Save Money: Build a Budget for Back-to-School

August 4, 2021
Budget for back-to-school

Getting ready for back-to-school with the Organized Home Back-to-School Countdown?  It's time to hang on to your wallet!  

No doubt about it, outfitting the family for a new school year can be a pricey enterprise.  Shoes, clothes and school supplies are only the beginning of the financial outlay.  

Today's parents must add fees imposed by cash-strapped school districts, shared hygiene supplies and deposits for band instruments.  Sports and extracurricular activities impose their own drain on family funds ... and behind it all, the children have a long list of must-have items for the first day of school.

How to hold the line on seasonal spending?  Build a back-to-school budget to stay on top of school expenses ... and save.

Better, setting a budget for school spending offers important lessons for the young learners in your life.  Here's how to create a back-to-school budget and use it to make good decisions as you prepare for the first day of school.

Calculate the bottom line

A budget is a mighty tool for redirecting spending, but it doesn't appear out of thin air!  To create a back-to-school budget, you'll want to total up every school-related expense you'll need to meet in the coming weeks.  Once you can see the bottom line, you'll have the information you need to set priorities and get creative about spending decisions.

Using pencil and paper (or the printable budget planner linked below), list every expense you can anticipate.

Allocate an amount for clothing and shoes.  Review supply lists and school communications, check in with sports teams, and look back a last year's spending.  List it all, every penny you think you need to spend for school.

Ready?  Time to face up to the bottom line.  Add all items on your list to get the family's grand total for back-to-school spending.  

Then take a deep breath, because now you're empowered to bring that number back down to earth!  

Shop at home, first

Now that you've got your budget roughed out, it's time to cut costs.  The first and easiest way to stretch your budget is to shop at home, first.

Armed with supply lists and your shopping list, scour your home for usable items.  Will last year's lunchbox make it through another year?  Have children try on coats, gym clothes and athletic shoes before you shop.  Check stocks of school supplies.

Shopping at home first gives the best of all price breaks:  it's free!  Remove any home-bought items from your lists, and reduce your budget accordingly.

Hold a family meeting

Now that you know the bottom line, and you've trimmed it by locating any usable items you already have, it's time to bring the family on-board.

Sharing the back-to-school budget with your children is a powerful method of bringing them back to shopping reality.  

First, the total number seems very, very large--and makes a big impression on young minds.  Write the total budget amount on a whiteboard or piece of paper, so that everyone is aware of it.  

Then, make it real.  For multi-child families, divide that number by the number of children.  Noting a per-child limit on spending helps focus budget discussions and gives children a buy-in to the process. 

Focus on elastic spending items

That per-child spending limit may loom large!  Once it's on the table, you need to cut it further, to reflect spending items that are "elastic":  where choices can be made.   

Non-elastic items, like instrument rentals or book deposits, must be paid in full.  Since there's no "wiggle room" with these items, they must come off the top, so the family can focus on those areas where good decisions can lower school spending.

For example, if each child participates in a sport that requires a $25 fee, deduct $25 from the per-child amount you share with the family.  

What's left is the sum available for elastic items:  clothing, shoes, lunch boxes.  These are the areas where the family can decide how much--or how little!--to spend, and where creative solutions can save real money.

Separate wants from needs

Looking at shopping lists with an eye to decision-making, it's important to separate wants from needs.  A clothes-horse daughter may want 14 new outfits for school, but her needs are much different!  Help children determine which items on their lists are truly needed, and which are only wanted.

One way to motivate children to be frugal and creative with back-to-school spending?  Help them satisfy the "needs" first, then allocate any remaining funds for "wants".  

For example, a teen son looking for "street cred" will carry last year's backpack without a peep, so long as he can stride onto the playground in name-brand athletic shoes.

Get creative

Finally, explore ways the family can save on back-to-school spending.  

Encourage children to check sale flyers and online sources to find the lowest prices on items they want--and shop multiple stores to take advantage of loss leaders and advertised specials.

Start an "equipment swap" with fellow parents to cut the costs of participating in sports.  

Check consignment stores for children's clothing in good condition ... for less.

Does your state offer sales tax holidays?  Check this link, then plan shopping trips to take advantage of them.

Stay on top of spending

Finally, your back-to-school budget will provide a reality check, should your spending exceed budgeted amounts.  

As you shop, keep a running total of the amount spent per category.  When that figure starts to approach budget limits, it's a signal to scale back spending and reevaluate decisions.

Accept the guidance your budget will provide.  It's better to be in-the-know as you go, than to find an unhappy surprise in September's credit card statement!

Back-to-School Printables


Back-to-School Checklist

Get organized for back-to-school with this ultimate back-to-school checklist.  Get organized, gear up and get ready for a new school year.


Back-to-School Budget

The start of a new school year can be hard on the pocketbook.  Try these ideas to set a budget and save money on back-to-school shopping.


Back-to-School Information

A one-page record for school contacts and information cuts school-day chaos. Send 'em back to school from an organized home.


School Lunch Planner

Lighten the lunch load--and ease hectic mornings--with this printable school lunch planner. 


Back-to-School Clothing Checklist

Use this printable back-to-school clothing checklist to plan school wardrobes and to note needed items. With space to create lists for two children, it's an easy way to organize school shopping trips.