By: Jolene Roehlkepartain

Which items are on your back-to-school shopping list? Ask your child what she thinks is on the list, and you may discover that your lists are quite different. According to Capital One’s annual back-to-school shopping survey, most parents want to shop for traditional school supplies and clothes. Teenagers, on the other hand, think the back-to-school list should include a computer, a smart phone, and an e-reader. How do you bridge the divide without creating a war with your child?

Create a Back-to-School Budget

Only 24 percent of parents create a back-to-school budget. Too many parents wander into stores with their kids and see what catches their eye (and their choices hit them hard in the pocketbook).

If you’ve never created a back-to-school budget, start by bringing paper and pen with you to the store. As you place items into the cart, write the cost of each item. If your child is old enough to add or work a calculator, have your child keep track of how much the total is before you get to the register. Keeping track as you shop can give you clues about when you’re getting uncomfortable with the total.

If you have created budgets before, design a back-to-school budget. Decide what this budget will include. In our family, we have six different budgets that pertain to back-to-school items. We have a school-supply budget, a back-to-school clothing budget, a school fees budget, a school lunch budget, a school picture budget, and a school extracurricular activity budget.

Make a Shopping List Before You Shop

Only 31 percent of parents have created a back-to-school shopping list with their child. Financial experts say that when you create a list, you’re less likely to buy other items. When you don’t create a list, anything can end up in the cart.

Get a list of required school supplies from your school. Many schools post them on their web sites or mail them out.

Get more helpful back to school planning hints >

Expect Budgets to Go Up as Kids Get Older

Parents are often shocked when their kids first go to middle school or to high school. They suddenly discover a lot of school fees they never expected. For example, a lot of schools now charge parents school fees to deal with budget shortfalls.

With middle school, we suddenly found ourselves needing to pay for a physical education uniform, a yearbook, more expensive school lunches, an extracurricular activity fee (whereas grade school activities were often free), an extracurricular bus fee (kids who participated in after-school activities were required to pay a bus fee to get home), and my child really wanted a school sweatshirt to show his school spirit.

For high school, science classes charged an annual lab fee. Some teachers required students to buy textbooks. Our biggest shock was needing to buy a graphing calculator that cost more than $100. Fortunately, another parent encouraged me to talk to the head of the math department and ask which graphing calculator to buy if I was going to buy only one for the high school and college years. That was a smart tip. I ended up paying $10 more for a more advanced graphing calculator that my teenager used for many years (including college). Many of his peers ended up buying two or three graphing calculators over the course of their high-school career.

Got a student in high school? Get college preparation tips >

We also discovered that as kids excel in a sport, music, art, or other club, the fees also go up. One parent told me how proud he was that his kids were swimming at the state competition level—until he discovered that he needed to pay $1,000 annually for the training they needed to continue competing at that level. Parents with kids who play musical instruments often get surprised at the high cost of buying an instrument, participating in a select music group, or paying for private lessons. Parents of kids who excel in foreign languages often find themselves trying to fund a trip abroad to give their kids the experience of using the language first hand.

Keep Learning and Teaching as You Go

Half of all teenagers say they want to learn more about how to manage their money. Back-to-school shopping is a great way to teach them about managing money well. Consider having your child chip in for some of the cost. While 52 percent of teenagers say they would pay for some of their back-to-school supplies, only 19 percent of parents actually have them help out financially. Kids don’t need to spend a lot, but giving them the opportunity to spend something teaches them a lot.

In our family, my kids learned quite a bit about the five back-to-school budgets. When my kids pressured me to buy more than the budget, they often reminded me that there were other school budgets that could offset the balance. One year my teenager convinced me to buy him drum brushes (which cost more than drumsticks) and eliminate the budget for his back-to-school clothes. Budgets are great guides, but they also need to be flexible to fit your needs and goals.

The back-to-school budgets we created became even more helpful when our first child went to college. Creating a budget for setting up a dorm room out of state is very different than buying back-to-school supplies for an elementary-age student. Yet, we were able to do so by discovering recommended dorm lists from other parents of college-age students on the web. Our son used some of his high school graduation financial gifts to buy things that weren’t in our budget, and since then, he’s been discovering the power of budgeting and the power of shopping well with a budget.

Isn’t that what we want to teach all of our kids?


Capital One, “Capital One’s Annual Back-to-School Shopping Survey Reveals Gap in Budgeting Priorities and Communication Between Teens, Parents,” news release, August 5, 2010.

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