7 Ways To Get Your Kids Involved In Back To School Shopping

Sadly, the end of August means that summer days are dwindling.  For families it also means that, if the kids aren’t already back to school, they soon will be.

That means shelling out lots of dollars on everything from new sneaks to binders to backpacks.

According to the National Retail Federation, the average U.S. family will spend $634.78 per child on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics.

I’m not sure how accurately this reflects what Canadian families spend, but I’m positive I doled out at least that on my kids – over 25 years ago!

Back to school shopping was a very stressful time.  I had a limited budget, and my sons insisted they had to have brand name clothing and the most expensive supplies.  Often we came home with all of us in tears.

To avoid these stresses, here are some tips to involve your kids in the planning and purchases.  Let your younger kids and teens figure out exactly what school really costs.  It’s a fabulous learning opportunity for even the youngest ones.

Back To School Shopping

1.  Set a budget:  Unless you’ve been setting money aside all year, you’ll need to determine what you can comfortably spend without blowing your overall budget.  Scoring bargains doesn’t help your bottom line if you’re paying hefty interest charges on your credit cards.

Related: The Best Balance Transfer Credit Cards

Make a back-to-school list for each child and set an amount.  Eliminate guesswork by getting a list of supplies from your child’s teacher ahead of time.

2.  Give kids a say:  Involve your kids in the budgeting process.  Get them to prioritize expenses between “must-haves” and “nice to haves.”  As an incentive offer to split the savings with them if shopping comes under budget.

3.  Take inventory:  Not everything has to be brand new.  Go through closets, drawers and desks.  If the jeans still fit and last year’s felt tip pens still write you only need to stock up on what else they really need.

4.  Hit the stores:  Retailers have been offering back to school merchandise since July, but now the rush is on.  Kids have big “gimme” eyes when they see all that stuff on display.  They want it all!  

Don’t waste your money on those huge binders with cunning little pockets and zippered pouches that are often too big to fit in a backpack.  Likewise be wary of the flashy stuff like feathered pens and day-glo markers.  Keep it simple.

5.  Be label wary:  Teens especially can be label-conscious, wanting just the right brand name on their jacket or shoes, but even your youngest can be attracted to pricey licensed-character items.

Related: How Many Clothes Do You Need, Anyway?

Buying the latest “gotta-have-its” is risky.  Favourite TV shows and movies change, and may be uncool next month.  Your child will then refuse to wear the logo t-shirt, no matter how much you paid.

Do a bit of horse-trading.  “The budget will let you buy the backpack only if we choose less expensive binders.”

Give teens choices, but make the limits clear.  If it’s beyond your budget, let them figure out how to buy the item cheaper (wait for a sale, check consignment stores).  Or they can pay a portion themselves.  If teens use their own money it may make them think harder about their choices.

6.  Shop the end-of-season sales:  Even if stores are showing cool fall and winter wear, stock up now on end-of-season sales for shorts, tops and other appropriate summery clothes that can be worn in September.  By October all the cold weather wear will be headed for the sale racks.

Spread out school clothes shopping over the next 9 months so your kids don’t grow out of everything all at once.  Replace as needed.

Related: What Kind Of Buyer Are You?

Budget some cash for season-end discount buys.  Stock up on basics that will be needed all year – loose-leaf paper, spiral notebooks, pens and pencils, erasers, markers and crayons.  This is also the time to buy the glittery pens and light-up pencil sharpeners at a discount. They make great Christmas stocking stuffers.

7.  Give your children the cash to make their own purchases:  To train kids to be financially confident they need to be given the ability to make their own financial decisions – then be required to live with the consequences, good or bad.

A woman I’ll call Marj had a constant battle with her 14-year-old daughter when she wanted brand name clothing – whatever she thought the “cool” kids had.  She wouldn’t set foot in a thrift or discount store.

Marj gave her daughter a set amount of money for a clothing and necessities allowance each month.  She learned to figure out what she needed and then budget for it.  She learned to make long-term plans.   She still dressed fashionably, but did it by stretching her money and comparison-shopping.

It can be hard on parents because we so want to bail them out, but accepting the consequences of their decisions is the best way to make sure our kids don’t repeat their mistakes while they are still in the safety net of home.

Final thought

Wal-Mart has a couple of cute back to school commercials featuring the “overly-enthusiastic” mom and the “emotional” mom.  I can relate to both.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Sandi on August 25, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    I’ll echo one of your points, Marie (see what I did there? Queen of Comedy, that’s me.)

    Now, admittedly, I’m only entering my second year of back-to-school shopping, but waiting until after my daughter is in school to buy what she actually needs (instead of what I think she needs) is the best way I know to avoid the urge to BUY ALL THE THINGS!

    I’ve been out of school for a long time, but that September back-to-school feeling still excites me. Waiting to shop means it doesn’t bankrupt me at the same time.

    • Boomer on September 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm

      @Sandi: Ha! Ha! quite the punster, Sandi.

      It sometimes makes sense with younger children to shop without them and they get just as excited with the loot, “Look what I bought you today!”

      But, even little ones can learn to make choices, “We have $5, so you can buy this one (really desirable) thing, or you can get both this AND that. What would you rather have?”

      I always thought of September as the time for new beginnings – new activities to schedule, new clothes and supplies – more so than New Years Day – and no hangover!

  2. Bet Crooks on August 26, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Another trick: many stores like Staples have deep discounts on items to get you in the door. We’ve bought incredibly low-priced cute calculators, magnetic staplers, pencil cases, fancy paperclips, change purses etc to use for birthday party loot bags later in the year. Often the items are 5-50 cents each rather than the $1 or so they normally retail for at the dollar store, and the $2-3 they go for at the big stores later in the year. Keep your eyes open and listen to what is exciting the kids!

    • Boomer on September 1, 2013 at 4:02 pm

      @Bet Crooks: Good idea Bet. Taking advantage of these “loss leaders” can help you stock up, as you suggest.

  3. FinancialPlanningGuy on August 27, 2013 at 10:59 am

    This year our school sent home online ordering instructions though a website called School Start http://www.schoolstart.ca/ We went online where we had to register and if your school is a part of the program (a lot are) their supply list is on the website. We compared prices to what we usually spend and for very similar cost to the store, we were able to order exactly what we needed and it will be sitting on our kids desks on the first day of school. No impulse buys. We were able to sit at home and take inventory of what supplies we actually needed and what we didn’t need to stock up on. You have no idea how much time, energy and in turn money this saved us. It didn’t solve the clothing issue, but was a huge weight lifted off our shoulders.

    • Boomer on September 1, 2013 at 4:07 pm

      @FinancialPlanningGuy: I’ve never understood why more schools don’t get on board with this idea. As a group they can have incredible purchasing power to keep prices low, even if they take a bit of a profit for themselves – and it keeps all the supplies consistent.

      I’m probably in the minority, but I wore a school uniform, and I think this can solve a lot of clothing issues as well.

  4. Bryan Jaskolka on August 28, 2013 at 8:34 am

    I love that many schools are now starting to hand out “recommended” lists for school supplies rather than what each child must bring. It puts less pressure on the parents, and elementary school kids really don’t need all that stuff anyway. Also don’t forget about knowing where to shop. Small stores such as Almost Perfect or Red Apple will yield you much better bargains than even WalMart.

    • Boomer on September 1, 2013 at 4:09 pm

      @Bryan Jaskolka: Yes, it pays to shop around and keep your eyes open, but I really like the plan that was commented on by FinancialPlanningGuy.

  5. Echo on August 28, 2013 at 9:46 am

    A reader sent me a link to this cool site, where you just type in the name of your school and get the list of school supplies required for each class – http://www.schoolstart.ca/

Leave a Comment

Join More Than 10,000 Subscribers!

Sign up now and get our free e-Book- Financial Management by the Decade - plus new financial tips and money stories delivered to your inbox every week.