This is a re-post from a previous year.
According to the National Retail Federation, the average American family with school-age children will spend about $600 this year on back-to-school clothes, shoes, supplies, and electronics. They didn’t bother defining the “average” family, but I highly doubt my family qualified (and I can guarantee that couponers are anything but average).
Growing up, I was one of five kids. Five kids that needed new pencils and notebooks and shoes every September. Our family’s already tight budget was stretched to its limit every fall.
When I hit the ripe old age of nine, my mom came up with a brilliant plan. She scraped together the extra money in August’s budget, split it five ways, and handed each of us an envelope with our name on it: our own personal back-to-school funds for that year. One year it was $25. Another it was $50. Don’t feel sorry for me. At least I didn’t have to walk uphill both ways in the snow to school like some people. Oh, and one year… it was $100. $100! I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. I laid awake that night, mentally planning and spending every last penny.
Looking back now, I realize that some of the most powerful lessons I learned about money happened during those back-to-school shopping trips of my childhood. I learned how to budget and plan and spend wisely. I learned to see small budgets as a challenge instead of an embarrassment. I learned that this year’s must-have items are next year’s old news. I learned that my parents worked incredibly hard to provide for our needs, and that money doesn’t grow on trees.
Here are a handful of the other benefits:
It eliminated arguments over back-to-school wants vs. needs. School supply shopping is all fun and games. Until it isn’t. Then it often involves some combination of frustrated parents, multiple supply lists, and… children helpfully tossing random things into the cart.
My mom remembers wanting to give us new clothes and supplies every year, even though that wasn’t financially possible. I remember begging for things I didn’t really need, simply because it was on the shopping list. Instead of whining about what we wanted our mom to buy us, buying our own back-to-school supplies became a cool challenge.
It relieved my parents of the pressure to provide beyond their means. The five of us knew the rules of the game, and my parents enjoyed watching us play it. My mom claims we were better at it than she was. I just think that funding a personal challenge can be a very powerful motivator for a kid.
It helped us prioritize. We knew that covering the items on our school supply list was the first priority, then we could spend the extra money on clothes and shoes. We were free to supplement with our own money. By spending wisely in one department, we had more freedom in another. Why buy another locker organizer when that money could go toward a brand-new pair of stirrup pants? No brainer.
How could we buy what we needed for as little as possible? The shopping skills I learned all those years ago still apply today.
It made us more interested in reusing supplies. Who doesn’t love those shiny new back-to-school supplies? It makes last year’s model incredibly unappealing. However, when the money technically belonged to us, suddenly last year’s cat-themed Trapper Keeper would work just fine and the ruler we couldn’t find magically appeared and the gym shoes we thought were too scuffed up weren’t so bad after all.
I heard of a great idea to make this step like a scavenger hunt. Hand your kids their school supply list and see what they find in your own home.
So, if you have some basically responsible kids, and you are looking for ways to train them in personal money management, consider giving them a little more freedom in the school supply department this year. Set some ground rules, give them a budget, and watch them step up to the challenge.
After all, many of life’s most powerful lessons don’t happen in the classroom!
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