NEW YORK (TheStreet) — With parents spending an average $659 per year on school-related costs, it’s no wonder many moms and dads are looking to cut costs wherever they can – including on back-to-school items. According to coupon site RetailMeNot, the costs are so prohibitive that 75% of parents have spent less on something for themselves specifically because of their child’s school expenses. Although you’ll still have to buy a few new clothing items and school supplies, you don’t have to spend a lot to get your child started back right.
Don’t buy too much clothing – just enough to get you through the end of September
Parents of kids between 12 and 18 know that fashion trends come and go so quickly that it’s almost impossible to plan.
“I don’t think that stocking up on an entire fall wardrobe is the most economical choice or wisest choice for parents of teens and tweens – the trends are going to come and go,” says RetailMeNot senior editor Trae Bodge. “Once they get to school, they’re going to spot other trends that weren’t even on their radar over the summer.”
With that said, it’s smart to take advantage of the deep discounting of summer apparel that’s going on now.
“Buy what’s on sale now to get through September, and that will give your child long enough to assess and decide what else they want,” she says.
By the time October rolls around, Bodge says there will be more discounting on fall clothing and parents can make additional purchases then.
“Follow the flow of those sales,” she says. “There’s just no need to buy everything at once.”
Parents of younger children who aren’t so fashion-conscious yet should still be careful buying too much, due of the danger of a growth spurt, says Jason Alderman, vice president of global financial education at Visa.
“Kids grow,” he says. “What may seem logical now may be too small come April. It’s much smarter to stagger your purchases. Not only does it have less economic impact upfront; it saves you from buying things that won’t fit by the time your child is ready for them.”
Buy supplies in bulk
Unlike clothing, items such as pens, pencils and notebooks are much cheaper when bought in bulk, Bodge says.
“I would recommend belonging to a price club like Costco or Sam’s and buying everything at once, especially if you have multiple children,” she says. “You know they’re going to go through them.”
For parents of only children, buying in bulk is still a great idea as long as you can share the bounty. Ask around your neighborhood and see if anyone is willing to go in with you on a large school supply lot.
“Picking up school supplies piecemeal is going to cost you much more in the long run,” she says.
Give your child control over their purchases and make them stick to a budget
When you let your child have a say in their purchases, they will feel invested in the process. This is a great opportunity to introduce them to the concept of budgeting if you haven’t already, Alderman says.
“I am a big believer in kids, even young elementary school kids, getting involved in the process and learning how to choose their purchases wisely within the framework of a budget,” Alderman says. “When they see the experience as a free gameshow-style shopping spree, those $150 shoes become mandatory, but when they see that those $150 shoes are half of their budget, they start to make better decisions.”
Parents shouldn’t be afraid to discuss the budgeting process with their children. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “We have $300. How do you want to stretch that out?” he says.
Decisions may also need to be made around extracurricular activities, and it’s usually best if your child chooses one or two things they want to try rather than spreading their time – and your money – too thin, Bodge says.
“They will feel empowered when they get to make a choice. This way you’re not discouraging them from doing something they want to do, you’re encouraging them to choose what’s most important to them. Have those conversations and let them know they’re deciding what their year is going to look like,” she says.
Technology is tricky – wait to see what the school requires or offers
Before you buy a tablet, laptop or even a calculator, check to see what your child’s school requires. Some schools provide laptops for free, while others have a “bring your own technology” policy. Some classes simply won’t require electronics.
“If you don’t have explicit instructions from the school, ask before you buy,” Bodge says. “Most schools are very clear on what’s needed, but if you’re unclear, email the teacher.”
A big decision on the purchase of a tablet or computer is not one you want to make on impulse at the mall, Alderman says.
“Your child may want the fanciest computer or tablet out there, but they probably don’t actually need that,” he says.
Once you find out what kind of technology is required, consider saving money by buying an older model and by price comparison shopping online, Bodge suggests.
Also, don’t be ashamed if you can’t afford a new laptop for every child in your family. Many schools have programs available that may allow your child to borrow a computer or tablet for the year.
“You could do that for the year, or at least until your child figures out what kind of computer they really need,” Bodge says.