$1K and Beyond: The Staggering Cost of Back-to-School Supplies

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Experts tell Yahoo Parenting how moms and dads can offset the surprisingly huge cost of kids’ back-to-school supplies: $1,402 for high school students, according to a new survey. (Photo: Stocksy)  

As kids head back to school, a new survey is schooling parents — about the startling cost of their children’s supplies for the year. The average elementary schooler’s must-haves this year total $649; for middle school students, it’s $941; and for high school kids, it’s $1,402, according to the ninth annual Backpack Index survey from Huntington Bank in Columbus, Ohio, released on July 29.

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The data — based on actual classroom-supply lists from schools in six states and the prices that parents would pay shopping for “moderately priced items at online retailers” — covers everything from pencils, crayons, and notebooks to musical instrument rentals, sports, and field trip fees — all of which have been increasing since the first Backpack Index was released in 2007. Compared to that first poll, the cost of supplies and activities has gone up 85 percent for elementary kids, 78 percent for middle schoolers, and 57 percent for high school students.

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Sound like a lot? For many families, it’s too much, in fact. “With the ongoing slow growth in wages, it is difficult for many families to meet the rising costs of sending children to school,” according to George Mokrzan, director of economics for Huntington Bank in a press release about the survey. “For a family of five living at the poverty level guideline of $28,410, the cost of sending three children to school would consume as much as 10 percent of their income.”

All of this school-prep spending is expected to ring up $68 billion for students and college kids this year, reports the National Retail Federation, which estimates that nationwide, families plan to spend an average of about $98 on school supplies such as notebooks, pencils, and backpacks.

Budgeting ahead of time is the best way to make sure that school supplies don’t break the bank, financial expert Rachel Cruze tells Yahoo Parenting. “I recommend that you do your monthly budget as a family,” she says. “By writing it out, you’ll often find that you have extra cash somewhere.” Or you can create the allotment you need by trimming something non-essential that month, such as dining out or buying new clothes, adds Cruze, co-author of Smart Money Smart Kids.

For the 30 percent of back-to-school shoppers who wait to one or two weeks before the first bell to begin, try to time your shopping with one of the tax-free sales holidays that typically take place in August. “At least 17 states have them,” AskTheMoneyCoach.com founder Lynnette Khalfani-Cox tells Yahoo Parenting. “You can shave between 6 and 7 percent off of your costs simply by buying then.”

And when you’re buying, don’t be a snob. “Go to dollar stores for basics,” advises Cruze. “A notebook is a notebook. It’s not worth going over budget for a brand-name version.”

Better yet, shop in your closet. “It always amazes me what’s stuffed in the back of my kids’ desk drawers, or I’ll find in the attic or bottom of the closet,” says Khalfani-Cox, who has three kids. “Frankly, it’s fine stuff in good condition that kids can absolutely use. There’s no reason to go out and buy that perfectly good backpack again. So always be sure to take an inventory of what you have so that you don’t duplicate purchases and waste money.”

Swapping with other parents is still another way to get the items your child will need without spending a cent. Khalfani-Cox suggests reaching out online to a parent club or community group and propose a barter. “Most of us know that we and our kids have way too much stuff,” she says. “Maybe somebody in your mom’s circle has a kid who just went off to college and isn’t using that $100 scientific calculator anymore, and she’d be willing to trade it.”

Finally, check with your school to find out whether they offer bulk purchases through the district. “You buy in advance and instead of going out and spending gas, time and money; they sell the exact same items at a discount,” says Khalfani-Cox. “Oftentimes, the full box of supplies is 25 percent off, more of a discount than what you’d pay individually on your own, even in stores.”

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