Michele Borba: Back to School Shopping Tips to Help Kids Become Smart Spenders and Stick to a Budget

by | Jul 26, 2009 | Uncategorized

By Michele Borba

REALITY CHECK: The National Retail Federation predicts that 85 percent of shoppers will reduce spending–a decline of about 8 percent from last year.[i]

In just a few weeks those school doors will open which means it’s once again it’s time to shop for school supplies. Shopping will be especially tough this year because budgets are tight, but we still want to get our kids what they need and a few fun supplies they want. As an educator and a mom of three, I know that back to school shopping can be a great time to teach your child how to be a smart spender and learn life long spending habits. All it takes is a little organization and planning. Here are ten back to school shopping tips to get you started:  

Make a shopping list of needs. Involve your kids in developing their own shopping list. Start by reviewing the recommended list supplied by your child’s school. (If you haven’t received “the list,” check the school’s website). Also, take inventory of school supplies around your house that can be reused from last year. A younger child can cut a few needed items from those Penny Saver ads and glue them onto index cards.

Establish a budget. Next, set a budget that works for your family and share that with your child. Explain that you need to cut back from last year’s shopping list and that you must stick to that budget. Together, create a shopping list and establish wants versus needs and help you prioritize spending. Your child will take his list when you head to the store. Suggest that an older kid keep a running total of purchases (using a calculator, cell phone feature or good old pen and paper) to help ensure he sticks to that budget. It’s a great way to teach financial planning

Set a limit on stylish items. Style and fitting in matter, so have your kid “checks in” to “check out” his friend’s shopping list before heading to the store. If you’re new to an area ask the store manager what colors or style of certain items are “hot” sellers. Doing so will save time in not having to return items later (because the color or style are off). Then a clear limits (“You may choose one item within a certain price range”) as to the purchase of any “want-not need” type item. Anything beyond your set budget must be purchased out of pocked by the child.  

Do one store shopping. Select a store where things are affordable, offers good promotions, and has everything your child needs on the school list. A recent study found that this year many consumers plan to do more shopping for school supplies at drugstores and less at office-supply chains.[ii] Thrift stores or online purchases are other possibilities. One store shopping reduces gas price of driving around and reduces kid bickering. They can compare only items in that store so they can find the best deal.

Shop early. If possible plan to do your shopping earlier in the morning. You’ll be less likely to be stuck in those long lines and you’ll reduce the bickering with your kids. The less-rushed experience will also allow you to devote a bit more time help your child find the items on a list and do comparison shopping by pointing out how price items vary.

Check for bargains. Once you choose your “one store,” check out their penny saver deals and clip out those coupons. You’ll never get better bargains on school supplies than now. Use those advertisements to teach your kids how to save money on many of those required school supplies (glue for one cent; a ream of binder paper for fifteen cents; folders for five cents). Kids will have more money for items they may “want” but don’t necessarily “need.”

Make your child be responsible for his own list. Ideally, each child should take his own shopping basket and be responsible for marking items off the list brought from home. A younger child can carry a few index cards with the glued pictures from the Penny Saver ads so she can match the items on the shelves and put them in her own shopping cart.

Do comparison-shopping. Once in the store, start by choosing an item that may have price variations. For instance a backpack is usually on every kid’s list and can range in price from $5 to $75. Show your child a few similar products and the corresponding price tags so they compare price differences and how they can save. Line up a few calculators and check out their functions but also their price points, which can vary from $16 to $140. Your child must decide which is more important: the item’s price or style.

Stock up on bargains! The next few weeks you’ll find some of the best back to school supply offers so stock up now for the remainder of the year. The time to buy binder paper, folders, notebooks, pencils, glue sticks is now. Keep  “extra” purchased supplies in a basket or box ready for homework needs.

Make sure your child goes to the register. The shopping process isn’t complete until your child goes to the check out. This is when he learns to make those tough fiscal decisions. If your child is over his budget, make him decide what unnecessary items to eliminate. I watched a mom do this exact thing with her five year old just this week. Mom read off each item on her child’s school list, while he placed the item from the cart on the counter.  She also made sure her son saw how those items added up on the register, put back two items, and even check the receipt. Those moments confirmed it’s never too early to start teaching your kids to be smart shoppers.


[i] Andrea Chang, “No. 1 on Back-to-School Shopping Lists This Year: Bargains,” LA Times, July 15, 2009 [http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-back-to-school15-2009jul15,0,2866418.story]


[ii] Jaynie O’Donnell, “Bleak Back-to-School Shopping Season Looms,” USA Today, July 14, 2009 [http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/retail/2009-07-13-slow-back-to-school-shopping_N.htm]

For more Parenting Solutions follow Michele at twitter @micheleborba or on her daily blog, Dr. Michele Borba’s Reality Check micheleborba.com

This article is excerpted from Michele Borba’s book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (Jossey-Bass) available for order now: