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

Shelly Gigante

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Aug 22, 2019

With back-to-school season upon us, parents across the country are stocking up on backpacks, notebooks, and scissors to equip their kids for another year of academic success.

The National Retail Federation projects 2019 spending on school-related supplies to reach $26.2 billion among families with children in grades K-12, with the average family expected to pay a record $697 per child.

In addition, many households this fall will dig deep to pay for brand-name sneakers, private tutors, and even youth sports, which alone can cost thousands of dollars a year for athletes who participate in elite travel teams.

While some expenditure is inevitable at the start of each school year, financial advisors say families who look for opportunities to save not only do their wallet a favor, but also teach their kids a valuable lesson in money management.

Before you buy, consider these seven money-saving tips:

1. Reuse, renew

Those scissors and crayons from last year, including hand-me-downs from an older sibling, may still be fair game.

“One thing I do with my kids is to have them look at what they have left over from last year,” said Bryan Bibbo, a financial advisor with JL Smith Group in Avon, Ohio. “Do an inventory of what you already have, to ward off purchasing anything extra because you’re at the store and you don’t know whether you need it.”

2. Shop smart

You can potentially save big bucks on school supplies by taking advantage of sales tax holidays (if available in your state), using online coupons, and keeping an eye out for retail discounts. Where bigger ticket items are concerned, such as coats and shoes, show your child how to comparison shop online, read reviews, and use promotional codes for free shipping. If there’s no immediate need for a specific item, such as a $100 scientific calculator, consider waiting until late September, when many retailers slash prices to reduce inventory. And don’t forget to snap up all those summer clothes on clearance right now for use next year. (Buy them in the next size up if your child is still growing.)

I’m here to tell you that these skills translate to other areas of their life, from financial aid to apartments to airplane tickets,” said Marguerita Cheng, a financial advisor with Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and a mother of three.

3. Buy quality

It may not pay to purchase brand-name clothes that your little one will outgrow in a matter of months, but there is some wisdom to spending a bit more for quality.

“A good backpack might cost more upfront, but if it’s one they can use for three or four years you come out way ahead,” said Bibbo. Break out the calculator and show your child how you’ll save $25 by buying a $50 backpack that lasts three years, versus buying a poorly made backpack for $25 that needs to be replaced annually.

4. Put your kids to work:

Older kids who want overpriced gear can help contribute to the cost by babysitting, washing cars, or getting a part-time job. They’ll learn the value of money along the way and hopefully develop a habit of saving. Younger kids who beg for shoes that blink can also kick in by agreeing to forgo their allowance for a few months, using birthday money, or doing extra chores around the house.

“I’m a little old school, and I make my kids work for things to teach them that money does not grow on trees,” said Bibbo.

5. Invest your savings

After you’ve purchased all the school supplies your family needs, take a moment to tally up your savings. Show your kids how to invest that savings in their college account, such as a  529 savings plan . Younger kids can be shown how saving even small amounts can add up over time, while older kids can be taught about compounded growth and the time value of money.

6. Tutoring alternatives

Many families who wish to help their kids conquer (or excel at) certain subjects pay for tutoring classes or private tutors, which can cost up to $85 per hour—or more, depending on location and level of expertise.1

That adds up fast. Depending on their child’s needs, parents might instead consider using high school students who tutor and charge only $20 to $40 per hour. There are also free, online instructional sites, such as the noprofit Khan Academy, which offers video instruction in everything from math and science to art history in more than 36 languages.

7. Sports sense

For some families, the biggest school-year expense has nothing to do with academics. The typical household with a child who participates in an elite youth sport spends from $100 and $500 per month—but $1,000 per month is not unheard of, according to a 2016 survey by TD Ameritrade.2

That does not include the cost of private training clinics or summer sports camps, which can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars more per year. While participation in team sports no doubt supports physical fitness and can help build character, youth sports experts say parents should consider their motivation for paying top dollar for travel teams. And they should never spend more than they can comfortably afford.

Less than 3 percent of undergraduate students in bachelor’s degree programs receive sports scholarships, according to data provided to MassMutual by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Savingforcollege.com, and “full rides” are rare. Most families would be better served by opting instead for a recreational level team that focuses on fun and costs just a few hundred dollars, and investing the savings in a tax-favored college savings account, such as a 529 plan. (Learn more: Cost of youth sports: Dollars and sense )

Parents spend big bucks to give their kids every advantage in school. As they hit the stores, enlist tutors, and register their child for youth sports this year, however, they have an opportunity to teach their kids a lesson in financial discipline that will stick with them for life.

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Care.com, “How much does a tutor cost?” April 4 2018.

TD Ameritrade Investor Survey, “Parent perspectives on the cost of competitive youth sports,” July 2016.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, 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 MassMutual.