Back-to-school a hard lesson in money managing

August 18, 1999|By James A. Fussell | James A. Fussell,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

For kids, back-to-school means the end of staying up late and sleeping till noon. But for countless parents, back-to-school means something even more disturbing: open wallet and dump out contents.

Back-to-school budgets include way more than just paper and pencils. There are haircuts, athletic fees, band fees and prepaid lunch cards. It's pants and shirts, belts and backpacks, hair ribbons and how much?

Worse yet, the costs seem to sneak up on you. Even the most careful planner could miss this annual budget buster.

Last year, the average family spent an average of $408 per child, according to the American Express Retail Index on back-to-school shopping. Got three kids? Get ready to fork over more than $1,200.

This year, the index predicts, costs are projected to increase by 12 percent, to $455 per child. That's the highest figure since the survey was introduced five years ago.

"I don't have that much money," lamented Julie Kramer, a Kansas mother of three who says she might have to borrow money from her sister to foot the bill. "It's one of those things you forget about every year. Then it's there again, and you just run out of money."

"I have three boys," said Laura White, a single mother from Kansas City, Mo. "A 16-year-old high school athlete who runs track and cross country and 11-year-old twins, and it gets pretty bad. Society today says they have to wear the Nike tennis shoes and name-brand clothes. They don't have to have that, but you don't want to send your kids to school in just anything."

But White is realistic. As much as she wants to give her kids all the expensive things they want, she simply can't.

"It's a juggle," she said. "You know, would they rather have new tennis shoes, or would they rather eat? Do you want three new pairs of Nikes or would you rather I pay the light bill?"

To help, she watches for sales and cuts her kids' hair herself. And she familiarizes herself with social service agencies that give out supplies -- just in case her best efforts fall short.

"I've struggled not to have to use those, because I always thought there was someone out there who probably needs it more than I do," she said.

Vernalisa Glasco, a single mother in Kansas City, Mo., typically starts saving for back-to-school a month-and-a-half early.

"I put their clothes in layaway and start watching for sales," she said. "My daughter is going to start in a private school. So I've been saving for tuition fees, book fees, activity fees, bus fees and lunch fees."

But there are ways to control back-to-school costs. Jeff Sheets, director of community development Consumer Credit Counseling, Mid-America, said every year parents forget to plan. They wait too long, then try to jam all the purchases into a week. That leads to rushed, unwise buying decisions, where shoppers don't have the time to find sales or compare prices.

Another problem is an inability to say no. Just because your child wants a $120 pair of basketball shoes doesn't mean you can afford it.

Still, too many people simply add it to their already bloated credit balances.

Here are some suggestions to avoid that trap.

Include your children in the budgeting process. Tell them how much you have to spend. Encourage them to discuss priorities or use some of their own money for more expensive clothes, shoes or other fun "extras."

Hit sales over the summer, and put the clothes away until the school bell rings.

When shopping, especially for younger kids, don't overlook thrift stores, garage sales or bargain outlets.

If you can't use cash, consider a layaway plan. If you must use credit, use the lowest interest-rate card, and spend only what you can pay off in three months. Remember, Christmas is right around the corner.

Back-to-school budgeting tips

* Start early. Buy in bulk at good sales.

* Make frequent use of garage sales (cheap source for good clothing for younger children).

* Decide on amount to be spent per child (don't exceed it).

* Together with your child, set priorities. Allow them to purchase "extras" with money earned over the summer.

* Repair clothing by sewing buttons and making alterations.

* Review stored hand-me-down clothing to see what is now the right size for other children.

* Check for supplies and clothes in catalogs and on the Internet. Try www.SecondTime.com or www.EduMart.com

Sources: Consumer Credit Counseling Service and Women's Day -- The Kansas City Star

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