How to Create a Budget for Back-to-School
How to Create a Budget for Back-to-School

How to Create a Budget for Back-to-School

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Save more, spend smarter, and make your money go further

When I was growing up, back-to-school shopping equated to a few pairs of clothes, a handful of college-ruled notebooks, and a new backpack. (Note: These was during the age of dial-up internet and when kids had to call landlines to chat with their friends.)

These days, school essentials might also mean pricey electronic essentials such as a new laptop, tablet, or smartphone. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), in 2018 parents of kids in grades K-12 spent an average of $685 per child, and $942 for collegiates on back-to-school shopping.

Instead of being blindsided by back-to-school spending, why not get a jump on creating a back-to-school spending plan now? Here’s how to go about it:

Why You Should Create a Back-to-School Budget

I like to think of budgets as little ecosystems, or separate patches of green in your money garden, so to speak. It’s a lot easier to manage a smaller budget for a set of specific expenses. Plus, these expenses won’t affect your monthly budget. The goal is to have enough cash flow so your budget for your living expenses will continue undisturbed.

Itemize Back-to-School Needs

I know, itemizing can be a bit on the mundane and tedious side. But if you don’t jot down every single thing and how much it roughly costs, you might find yourself spending more than you can afford. Things to include in your budget: apparel, a backpack, laptop, phone, lunchbox, and pens, pencils, and notebooks. If your kid is in college, you’ll want to toss in furnishings for their dorm or apartment and personal hygiene products.

It’s helpful to itemize for two reasons: The first is that if you can see how much you’ll need to save. And once you figure out how much you can reasonably afford to spend for back-to-school expenses, you can start to make trade-offs, or look for deals.

What’s also nice about itemizing is that you can do a grand tally at the bottom, and view it like you’re reviewing your cart while online shopping. What items does your child really need, and what can they do without?

Plan Around Sales

Major sale events such as Labor Day sales and online deals during the summer are opportune times to snag a deal on electronics, clothes, and dorm bedding and furnishings. To cut back on how much you’ll be doling out for your kid’s back-to-school needs, plan your shopping around these mega summer sales.

Note: You don’t always have to wait for blowout sales to save a few bucks. Some sites offer Deals of the Day, promo codes and coupons abound, and there are a handful of browser extensions that scour promo codes for you and automatically apply the discounts when you check out. And if you have allegiance to a particular department store or online retailer, there might be an app or mailing list where you can get deal alerts.

Another way to make back-to-school spending manageable is by breaking up how much you plan to spend based on sales. For instance, if you estimate needing $700 to cover your child’s back to school needs, you might want to buy electronics and supplies online now, and clothes during Labor Day. By staggering your spending, you’ll have more time to plan and save for such purchases.

Made Trade-Offs

Speaking of trade offs, what are some ways you can free up cash so you have more for your back-to-school budget. For instance, are there less-expensive ways to have summer fun? If you’re going on a trip, drum up ways you can save on food, or do it on a smaller budget.

Or you might hold until a less-spendy time of year (think: potentially during the winter or spring) to plan a longer vacation with the family. That summertime savings could be used toward back-to-school purchases.

Make the Most of Gift Cards

I like to think of gift cards as financial pick-me-ups. They come in handy when you’re having a lean month. I personally like using gift cards when I’m trying to save up for something else, or to lower my holiday expenses.

If you have a lot of reward points racked up on a card, consider cashing them out for a department store home to purchase back-to-school supplies. You might want to do this only if you’re coming up short on your budget. For younger kids, consider handing a gift card to them to spend on supplies or clothes. It could teach your kids money lessons on how to stick to a budget.

Stock Up

If you can swing it, consider stocking up on sundry items you know your kid will need throughout the school year. Think of the little things that could add up over time. This could be anything from batteries, pencils, notebooks.

If your child is in college, you might want to stock up on personal items such as shampoo and toilet paper. Shopping at a discount retailer or during a sale could be cheaper than buying something at, say, a drug store chain or campus bookstore because you’re in a pinch.

Hold on Non-Essential Items

If you anticipate falling short of your savings goal for your back-to-school budget, consider holding on making some purchases. Can your child wait until the holidays for a new smartphone or tablet? Perhaps they can add it to their gift wish list. And for supplies that aren’t on sale, you might want to wait until the off-season to stock up. That will help spread out such expenses.

There you have it: How to go about creating a spending plan for back-to-school budgets, and also a few tactics you can employ to cut back on such expenses. Even if you don’t have a lot of time to save, buy cleverly coming up with trade-offs and staggering your spending, you might not feel as stretched financially.

Save more, spend smarter, and make your money go further

Jackie Lam
Jackie Lam

Written by Jackie Lam

Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer. Her work has appeared in Investopedia, Magnify Money and The Bold Italic, and she’s been featured in Money, Kiplinger, Forbes and Woman’s Day. She runs, a blog to help freelancers and artists with their money, and to balance their passion projects and careers. More from Jackie Lam