Get your kids involved in deciding what they really need to buy for back to school.

By Real Simple
Updated August 14, 2012
Desk supplies in jam jars
Credit: Antonis Achilleos

A version of this article originally appeared on

It feels like just yesterday we were talking about budgeting for summer camp and the must-have summer toys. My, how time flies.

While there’s no need to pack up the barbecue and pull out the winter clothes just yet, there is one fall activity that should be making its way to the front of your mind: back-to-school shopping.

In fact, The National Retail Federation estimates the average family will spend more than $688 on back-to-school gear for the 2012-2013 academic year.

Fear not. Here is your ultimate back-to-school budgeting guide. We’ll explain what chunk of your budget you should use for school supplies, how to get your whole family involved, and ways to save.

OK, class: Let’s get started …

How to Work Back-to-School Into Your Budget

Try this little mantra called the 50/20/30 Rule. What that means is:

  • 50% of your monthly income should go toward your essential expenses like housing, utilities and groceries.
  • 20% should go toward your financial priorities like debt payments, retirement accounts, college savings and emergency fund.
  • The last 30% can be spent on your “choices,” or areas of your budget with wiggle room, like going out to eat, funding your hobbies, and (drum roll, please) back-to-school shopping!

“Summer tends to be a more laid-back time of year, so some families may have built up a little cushion over the past few months that they can now use to pay for back-to-school stuff,” says LearnVest Financial Planner Sophia Bera, CFP®. “If you’re feeling strapped, you may need to look into which areas of your ‘choice’ expenses you can cut back on, like eating out or going to the movies, to make up for it.”

If you’re finding yourself caught off-guard this year by school expenses, start planning for next year so that doesn’t happen again. “Set up a specific savings account for a back-to-school savings goal that you feel comfortable with, and you can contribute to it each month throughout the year so it’s not an all-at-once expense,” suggests Bera.

Getting the Family Involved

“This is a great time to communicate with kids about the costs associated with their needs for back-to-school,” says Bera. “It shouldn’t be a secret.”

For an easy, fun way to have the budgeting discussion with kids, Bera suggests using a white board to keep track of everything visually. “Using a white board makes it easier because you can add and remove things as you need, and it’s also a more appealing way to involve kids.” Here’s your potential game plan:

  • Call a family meeting to discuss everything the kids think they will need for the new school year. Parse the items into two lists on the white board–needs versus wants.
  • Write your back-to-school budget amount on top of the white board, and divide it evenly between your kids.
  • You and the kids can research together online to determine how much the items they need or want would cost. From there, your kids can help you stick within your given budget by deciding which items they truly need and which they can do without. “If your kid decides she’d rather spend $7 on the fancy Hello Kitty pencil case and do without a new backpack this year, that’s okay,” says Bera. “Assuming, of course, the old one isn’t completely falling apart.”

Tackling back-to-school shopping this way not only helps kids understand how much time and effort you put into shopping for them, but it sets them up with good budgeting habits for the future.

More Ways to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Wait a couple months to shop. Shop normal back-to-school sales for items you really need, but if you can stand to wait a few extra weeks until an item has been in stores for a month or more, you’ll see even lower prices as retailers try to get those items out the door. The items you find at these post-season sales can be hit-or-miss, but this is a great time to pick up any non-essentials, like an extra pair of pants.

Take inventory. Even if you’re asking your kids to help you figure out what supplies and clothes they’ll need, make sure you take stock of what’s already around. There’s no need to buy two new sweaters when your daughter already has three barely-worn ones hanging in her closet.

Shop big box. Do some research online to find out what deals places like Office Depot and OfficeMax are offering—big box stores like these often have extra deep discounts.

Save your bills. In the past, we’ve suggested creating a “$5 Jar,” into which you plunk fivers anytime you happen to come upon one. Set a specific goal for the $5 Jar, like back-to-school shopping, and watch how much you can muster up in just a few months!