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Don’t let the first day of school flunk your finances

Megan Wells

The final school bell marking summer break sounded just weeks ago for some schools, yet the pressures to start shopping for next year have already begun. It’s incredibly easy to overshoot your budget during back-to-school shopping. The to-buy list is long and varied, from new No. 2 pencils to the must-have sneaker of the year.

WisePiggy recently polled nearly 300 parents with children in kindergarten through 12th grade on their back-to-school shopping habits. Here’s what we found:

  • The majority of families plan to spend over $100 per child on back-to-school shopping, which, in the case of 57.09 percent of poll participants, is about the same as they spent last year.
  • More than half, 57.79 percent, expect to save up before the back-to-school shopping blitz begins, incurring no debt.
  • More than a quarter of respondents, 25.61 percent, expect to go into debt while prepping for the new year.
  • More than 42 percent plan to use credit cards for the majority of back-to-school purchases this year. That risks carrying a balance, which could in turn affect your credit. Keep in mind, the first day of school will be barely a memory before the holiday season come in full force with its own major financial demands.

So what is the smartest way to shop to the upcoming school year without putting a major dent in your finances – and without hurting your credit score? Here are some real-life, time-tested tips to help keep your finances on track:

1. Don’t get sucked down by supplies

Classroom supplies are the real budget killers. For most parents who have been through multiple back-to-school cycles, it’s never the clothes that get your budget out-of-whack, it’s the ever-increasing pleas for supplies. It’s not the teacher’s fault — budget cuts are real and kids blast through wipes and tissues. But don’t feel like the teacher’s list isn’t flexible. It’s perfectly OK to send in less than requested to get the year started and then send in more as the year goes on. Do not go over your monthly spending limit (or worse, go into debt) just so the classroom has a huge stash of Clorox wipes in September. Bonus: The teacher will love that you sent your kid in with replenishments in April.

2. Remember credit card rewards

Some of the best credit cards offer rebates for retail purchases, which can come in quite handy if it’s time for some new clothes, shoes and other supplies. If you have a rewards credit card that offers an appealing rebate for grocery store purchases, look for pencils, paper, and other school supplies that are often sold at supermarkets. It’s also a good time to stock up on non-perishable lunchbox snacks like granola bars and crackers.

3. Talk to your kids

No one wants to send their children back to school looking less than pulled together, but many times, last year’s backpack or lunchbox is still plenty functional. It’s a great teachable moment for kids: Do you really need this or do you just want it? If we can’t buy everything new, what would be your biggest priority and what isn’t such a big deal to reuse another year? By including your kids in the conversation, you might be surprised at the decisions they make.

4. Consult your PTA

Your parent-teacher association or organization is a tremendous resource – use them. Many PTA/PTOs have begun to implement bulk buying for back-to-school supplies. If your school offers this, jump on it. There is nothing simpler than writing a check and having everything your student needs ready for them on the first day of school. The best part is you get to skip chaotic trips to Target and Wal-Mart, and we all know that’s worth untold riches.

5. Intel on Internet shopping

Shopping online? Don’t buy unless you’re able to hit the minimum amount to qualify for free shipping and returns. While we’re on the subject of online shopping, some credit cards offer additional cash back or rewards if you shop through their online portals.  This can also come in handy once you’re ready to get serious about holiday shopping.


6. Start planning now for next summer

Some smart planning now can help make next year’s back-to-school shopping a breeze. Getting a jump start on your shopping will allow more time to watch for sales and hunt for deals. Waiting until the last minute may result in a bigger price tag. Consider a credit card with a zero-percent introductory purchase APR if you’re not sure you’ll be able to immediately pay off your balance. Just be sure to get that balance down to zero before the introductory offer ends to avoid paying interest.