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Back to school: 3 forgotten items

Allen Wastler

Posted on August 01, 2023

Allen Wastler is a former financial journalist with over 30-years of experience, including time at CNBC, CNN, and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
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List the financial wellness basics that underpin back-to-school spending plans.

Note that protection for your life and income are important for keeping your family’s plans on course should misfortune happen.

Point out that keeping your retirement on track ultimately helps your children.

Back-to-school season comes with a long to-do list. Amid the flurry of activity is an area just as critical to your children’s preparation, yet often overlooked: your financial wellness.

Sure, getting supplies and setting class and extracurricular activity schedules are high on the priority list. And typically shopping for new clothes, shoes, sports equipment, computers, and other incidentals needs immediate attention. The average household spent $864.35 on such items in 2022, according to the National Retail Federation.

And, if you're in the college prep zone, add to the list the need for campus tours, application fees, and possibly extra tutoring. Already in college? The back-to-school bill climbs higher, with an additional $1,199.43 on average.

It’s a hectic, expensive, and yet exciting time. But what happens to all that planning and the investment that goes into it if something unexpected and unfortunate happens to you?

That’s why a financial wellness check should be part of your back-to-school routine — to make sure that you have the savings and protection in place to help ensure those plans and programs can continue with or without you.

“My clients with school-age children approach the back-to-school season as a time to consider what worked well last year, and what changes they can make for the school year ahead,” said Jon Preston, CFP ®, a financial professional with Commonwealth Financial Group in Needham, Massachusetts. “Yes, there are supplies to be bought. But there are usually changes to routines, as well. This can be a great time to look at more than school and activity schedules. It’s a great time to review financial routines and preparedness, too. How are you doing with your budget? Are your retirement plans on track? Do you have the proper protection strategies in place, like disability income insurance or life insurance. My mid-summer meetings are some of my favorites, because my clients are usually a little less stressed and can dedicate time to make healthy changes.”

Back to school financial basics

Obviously, that assessment should start with the basics.

  • Does your budget account for the back-to-school spending and ongoing school activities throughout the year?
  • Is your emergency fund ready? The rule of thumb is that most households need a minimum of three to six months’ worth of living expenses on hand in a money market account or certificate of deposit. But recent financial turmoil — think housing busts, recessions, pandemics — have some thinking a year or more is a better target.
  • Is your health insurance coverage up to date? Along with the vaccinations and certifications necessary for school enrollment and registration for extracurricular activities, you should double-check who is covered by your plan and for what.

But beyond these basic financial pillars are three areas that — perhaps because they are longer term in nature — often get put off or overlooked. Nevertheless, they are critical to financial wellness.

Life insurance

The loss of a parent can have profound consequences for a household emotionally. And financially, if that parent was a breadwinner, the loss of income obviously can have an effect on the standard of living for a family. And, even if not, there are still costs. According to, the value of a mother’s work by tracking real-time market prices of all the jobs they perform is roughly $178,000 per year. (Related: Why stay-at-home parent insurance is vital)

So, when reviewing your back-to-school plans, it’s a good time to ask: Beyond basic living expenses, if you or your partner were no longer here, could your family afford all these added school-year costs and programs?

For younger parents, this can be a chance to establish protection while costs are likely to be at their most affordable, since life insurance is typically less expensive when you are younger.

“The best time to consider any type of coverage that requires medical underwriting is when you are young and healthy,” said Jason Applebaum, a financial professional with Coastal Wealth in West Palm Beach, Florida.

For older parents, it’s a chance to revisit what protection they have and evaluate whether any changes are needed. For example, if you were relying on work-provided group life insurance coverage or term life insurance coverage, do those policies still meet your needs? (Related: 6 signs you may be underinsured)

“There is no wrong time to protect yourself and your loved ones,” said Applebaum.

Using this Life Insurance Calculator is a good starting point. But it’s not the ending point. There are other important considerations that may factor into your choice of a life insurance policy and the size of the death benefit. (Related: How much life insurance do I need?)

Indeed, when it comes to children, the costs can be a wild card, depending on academics and other factors. In 2022, the Brookings Institution estimated that the cost of raising a child born in 2015 to age 17 was $310,605 for a middle-class family with two children.

College plans? Average published annual tuition, fees, and room and board for full-time, in-state students at public four-year colleges and universities stood at $23,250 for 2022–23, while a private four-year college charged an average of $53,430, according to the College Board. (Related: A primer on college costs and aid)

“It's important to periodically review your protection plan to ensure that it is sufficient for future planning needs, especially when plans change on big-ticket items like college,” said Chad Tourin, president of Coastal Wealth’s Private Client Group in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. “If your insurance planning was done under the pretense of your kid attending an in-state public university and they ultimately end up going to an out-of-state, private university, it is very likely that your level of protection is insufficient.”

Once you’ve got an idea of your needs, you can look at the types of life insurance available and what kind of premium plans might fit your budget.

Many families, especially those making schooling and college plans for children, opt to discuss options with a financial professional. Indeed, MassMutual financial professionals can produce illustrations to help project and compare the effects of various insurance plans. (Need a financial professional? Let us know or find one here.)

Disability income insurance

What happens to school-year plans and activities if you become injured or too sick to work? Beyond pragmatic logistical or caretaking challenges — who drives them to games or watches them at the playground — an interruption to your income can have broad consequences.

It’s more of a risk than you might think. One in four 20-year-olds will become disabled, at least temporarily, before they reach retirement age, according to the Social Security Administration.

Many people rely on employer-provided disability income insurance. Yet that kind of protection typically only covers about 60 percent of your income, not including any bonuses or commissions you may normally receive.

And while the government’s Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program provides benefits to eligible workers with a disability, there are time restrictions and qualification hurdles. Among them, you must be unable to work due to a medical condition that has lasted one year or is expected to last at least one year, or that will result in death. (Related: A resource guide for adults with a sudden disability)

Your income — just like your home or car — is vital to your family’s day-to-day wellbeing as well as its long-range plans, like school. That’s where disability income insurance may help. It helps cover a portion of the policyowner’s income should they become too sick or injured to work. (Calculator: How much disability income insurance do I need?)

Retirement saving

Yes, you want your kids to have what they need and a bright future. The back-to-school exercise is, at its heart, an example of that. But it will not benefit them if you spend all your resources helping them through school or other programs only for them to have to support you through retirement.

There are programs to help finance education and related programs, but there are no loans to cover the cost of retirement. So, foregoing or tapping retirement savings to pay for private school tuition, sports or extracurriculars, or college doesn’t make much sense. (Related: Ways to pay for private school tuition)

While setting class schedules and shopping lists, it may be worthwhile to check where you stand retirement-wise. You can start with this retirement calculator.

The results might prompt some considerations for you, including the following:

  • Are you taking full advantage of your employer’s retirement plans, typically a 401(k), and any matching contributions it offers?
  • Or have you hit 50, the age when you can take advantage of catch-up options in retirement savings?
  • Or perhaps you are approaching the time when Social Security planning is in order?

Additionally, you can use this time to check your investment portfolio to see if it is in tune with your risk profile and any new goals that might have arisen from your back-to-school planning. Again, many people opt to talk with a financial professional. (Related: 7 things financial planning does for you)


Back-to-school season obviously forces you to think about the year ahead. And, while contemplating those plans, you’ll likely think about the course your children are on and what kind of financial underpinning it will need.

Critical to that is your financial wellness. So beyond immediate budgets and spending plans, take the time to review your protection (life insurance and disability income insurance) and retirement outlook. Because that’s important for your children’s plans too.

“Back-to-school season is a great time to make healthy changes,” added Preston. “While your kids plan for an exciting new school year, you can plan for your financial future. Is your income protected? Is your life insurance adequate for your goals? How are you tracking toward retirement? Take advantage of the summer vibes to thoughtfully consider your future. A financial professional can help you feel more confident that you and your family are well-prepared for what lies ahead.”

Discover more from MassMutual …

7 back-to-school shopping tips that can teach your kids to save

Combating high school stress

Helping your teenager establish good credit


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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.