A Fresh Look at Back to School

It’s August and many parents have received the dreaded list of needed supplies from their child’s school. Even with today’s technology, students still need the back to school basics like pencils, notebooks, crayons, glue and construction paper. While the characters on the backpacks and notebooks may have progressed from Star Wars or The Muppets to Angry Birds and Hello Kitty, the aisles of retailers during the back to school season look eerily similar to the way they did 20 years ago.

However, the prices are not.

The Backpack Index

For the past eight years, Huntington Bank has issued its annual Backpack Index and it was not good news for those with already stressed budgets.  According to the report, parents will spend at least 5.3 percent more this year for elementary and middle school kids on school supplies and extracurricular activities, and 9.5 percent more for high school students than last year.

In the years since the bank introduced the Backpack Index in 2007, elementary school students have seen an increase of 22 percent in the cost for supplies and fees while high school students have seen prices jump 23 percent. The biggest increase came for middle school students, who are paying 43 percent more in 2013 than in 2007.

The Index is based on prices on backpacks from Big Lots and the costs of traditional school supplies. The Backpack Index also lists the price of renting a musical instrument and the costs of playing sports. According to a news release from the bank, the Index grew due to small price increases on all items.

As your children get older, the cost for school supplies and activities also gets more expensive, according to the Backpack Index. Parents of elementary school students can expect to pay $577 in 2013 while middle school parents can expect to pay $763. High school parents are looking at $1,223 a year for school supplies and activity fees.

Save on Back to School

So how can you save money on that list and not have to call the bank for a small loan? Should you spend hours in one of the big box retailers fighting other parents for the last hot pink notebook for your daughter? Andrea Deckard is a leading mommy blogger that features tips for parents on her blog, Savings Lifestyle. She says even with the price matching policy of some of the large retailers, it is good to shop around.

“Many big-box retailers will only price match to the same brand, which means the penny sales on the store brands are ineligible to be price matched,” Deckard said. “You can use coupons at any store so it really comes down to the best price, whether it’s a brand name that can be price matched or a store brand that cannot.”

Some stores offer in-store coupons in your inbox. One example is Staples. If you are on their email list, you receive several coupons. Many of them have savings up to 25 percent off of one item.

But big-box retailers and office supply stores are not the only places that offers great deals, Deckard said.

“Don’t discount the drugstores,” she advised. “We purchase supplies at CVS or Walgreens since they offer rewards or just great prices on items for our school lists.”

Those brand new pencils and crayons are not going to last all year. Deckard added that the back-to-school shopping season is a great time to stock up for the year.

“This helps you to get the best prices while they are in season and ensures you won’t be purchasing at a higher price in the middle of the school year as supplies need to be replenished,” Deckard said. “Purchasing during the back to school season is also simply a great time to buy in bulk to have extra office supplies around your home. We will also purchase extra for donation purposes like Operation Christmas Child.”

Elizabeth Turnbull, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Business agrees.

“If you foresee that you would use all of the supplies throughout the year, then I highly suggest buying in bulk as it saves in the long term,” said Turnbull. “Or you could even join with other families and buy in bulk.”

Turnbull does not recommend taking the kids along on the shopping trip.

“I would not choose to take small children with you to shop due to the fact that it can be hard to say no to their requests,” she said. ‘I would simply pick their items out so that it may be easier to stick to your budget.  Older children could be brought and then use it as an opportunity to teach budgeting.”

Huntington Bank also has tips for parents on saving money on back-to-school supplies:

  • Do an assessment of what you already have
  • Make a list of what you need to get
  • And compare prices online before heading to the store

Another thing to do before heading to the store is to check with the teacher. Some teachers say on their list they want a certain brand name item. Before you rush out to purchase it, ask the teacher if he or she will accept a cheaper alternative or a store brand.

Buying brand new clothes, shoes, and supplies isn’t always an option. Instead of biting the bullet and joining the herd, consider recycling and reusing what your kids have leftover from last year. And if you simply can’t afford to buy school supplies at all, you aren’t out of luck: many churches and nonprofit organizations have programs that provide some or all of the supplies for free.

Truly, back to school season can be as expensive, or cheap, as you want it to be.