Back to school time can be financially challenging, whether the students in your life go to elementary school, college, or somewhere in between. It’s critical to budget carefully to get through the early fall and give your students the best start on their academic year.

One thing that is important to note about budgeting is that it isn’t just about spending a minimal amount of money and depriving yourself. Budgeting is a way to strategize so you can afford the things you truly need and want. Education is one of the most important expense categories, so it’s critical to create a good budget so you can afford all of the supplies needed for the school year.

The start to any good budget is tracking. You may not have tracked your spending last year, but try to gather any information you can. Can you look up old bank and credit card statements from last year and figure out what back to school spending cost back then? It’s really important to have some idea what you would typically spend so you can create a plan for this year, and to figure out judicious ways to cut the budget without depriving your student of anything that is truly necessary.

If you have no idea where to start, consider national averages. The National Retail Federation tells us the average family spending for back-to-school expenses will be $696.70 this year. This is just the average, so we urge you to be in the part of the population that spends less than this. If you hit $700 on your back-to-school spending, you’ve spent too much!

To make your school season start off on the right foot, here are some ways to create and stick to your back to school budget:

  • Write your budget down in advance. Plan your spending ahead of time, and do it in writing. Learn to budget from our free online FIT Academy, and let back-to-school season be your first test. Make sure you stick to your budget; once you have it written down, don’t let yourself change it unless absolutely necessary. A written budget doesn’t help if you keep editing it while shopping. Yes, your budget needs to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances, but keep your overall goals and spending limits in mind as you follow your budget.
  • Plan what you will purchase. Don’t just budget for how much you can spend, but plan for the specific items you are going to buy. Do this in advance so you can inventory what you already have; too many of us get into the habit of just buying everything on a list instead of checking to see what is already on hand.
  • Comparison shop. This is a crucial time of year to shop around. Use web sites and newspaper ads to compare prices, and remember that a lot of stores will stock up on school supplies where they normally wouldn’t, so don’t just look at the obvious retailers. Office supply stores are a good inclusion on your list for school shopping. Also remember dollar stores and the discount aisle of your local big-box retailer. You can afford to buy cheap when it comes to things like pencils and paper, since your kids are going to use those items up throughout the school year. Save your extra dollars for items that need to last, like backpacks.

When comparison shopping, take advantage of price-matching wherever you can. Many stores will price match if they sell similar items to another retailer.

  • Look for discounts everywhere you can.
    • Use coupons. Coupon clipping is still a great strategy for stretching your dollar, and this time of year you’ll find lots of great deals. Get coupons online, or in your local paper.
    • Shop during sale events. Keep an eye out for sales—stores will want to clear out back-to-school inventory they’ve built up, so they will target specific weekends for big sales. Don’t miss an opportunity to save money by missing out on a special event.
    • Use your retailers’ apps. If your local retailers have smartphone apps, download them and sign up with an account. The app will help you become aware of good deals, and give you access to special coupons and offers.
    • Give your email. Some retailers ask for your email address, and it’s not for nefarious purposes. They want to send you special offers directly, rather than pay for ads in the Sunday paper. Create a second email address just for marketing purposes and sign up at any local store that asks. You’ll be flooded with more offers for discounts than you can use.
    • Follow retailers on social media. If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, follow the stores you plan to shop with, as they will announce sales and discounts to their followers.
    • Shop on tax free-weekends. Many local areas have tax holidays, where local sales taxes are waived for a specific period of time. These events are often centered around back-to-school weekends, so take advantage of the extra savings, especially if you need something expensive like a computer for college.
  • Plan for ongoing expenses. You won’t be done spending after the school bell rings. You’ll have ongoing expenses for school lunches, after-school sports, club dues, etc. Don’t spend every dime in your budget up front, keep some back for those expenses that will crop up as your student joins organizations and signs up for after-school activities.

Speaking of school lunches, plan to cook more. It’s not only healthier, it will save you money over the long run. Get into the habit of cooking and preparing more meals than you order out, and you’ll feel better and spend less.

  • Think about whether you want to shop alone. We typically want parents to bring their kids to the store and let shopping be a learning experience. You can teach them about budgeting and spending prudently, and even let them make some of their own spending decisions.

But that’s not necessarily going to be the right plan for everyone. If having the kids with you means you’ll inevitably spend more because you’re buying toys, treats, or being talked into buying name-brand items when generics will do, then leave the kids home and shop alone. Don’t sacrifice your budget if you’re not ready to firmly guide all of your family’s back to school spending choices.

  • Inventory your spending. You might be flying a bit blind this year if this is your first back to school budget. But it won’t have to be that way next year. Keep a record of every dollar you spend for school expenses, and you’ll be able to consult it next year and create a much more effective budget.

You can use the calendar or notes apps on your smart phone and keep track of what you spend, where you spend it, and when you spend it. Then set an alarm for next year, a month or two in advance, and you’ll get a warning when it’s time to start planning next year’s back to school budget. Every year you to this, the next year will be even easier to manage.

If you’ve missed your chance to budget this year, take heed of that last point; do a write-up of this year’s spending so you’ll be ready for the next time back to school shopping comes around.

And if you’ve already run up credit card debt getting all of your back to school spending accomplished, talk to a credit coach about creating a plan to get that debt paid off. Before you know it, holiday shopping time will be here, so take charge of your spending and pay off debt before things get out of your control.

Speak to our certified Debt Coaches to review all of your options and discuss best strategies for getting out of debt.Speak to our certified Debt Coaches to review all of your options and discuss best strategies for getting out of debt.