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Organizing back to school finances

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Question: I have three children and I dread back-to-school shopping. I want them to have the nice, new things that all of the other children have but that’s really tough with my budget. How can I make my children happy while not breaking the bank?

Answer: Summer break is winding down and families are gearing up for the chaos that is associated with back to school. According to the National Retail Federation, last year consumers spent an average of $688.62 on back to school expenses for their children. That did not include other expenses that pop up throughout the year. With many families struggling, having to shell out that amount of money could put a strain on their finances that might be difficult to overcome. So why not start off this school year with a plan? Sit down with your kids and map out a strategy that will satisfy their needs and help you organize your financial obligations for the year.

Advertisements. Businesses are eager to get their marketing message out to take a cut in the over $84 billion in sales that back to school shopping accounts for in the retail world. They have bombarded us with commercials, Internet ads, in store displays, and anyplace else they can find an audience to pitch their product. Their primary target audience? Your child! How many times do parents hear “I have to have that!!” or “Everybody else has one?” It is important that we talk to our children about how advertisers try to influence our decisions on what to buy. Point out “tricks of the trade.” For example, using characters to gain attention or offering something free if you “buy now.” By starting this discussion at an early age, eventually children learn to pick up the cues.

Create a Budget. When you are creating a back to school budget, consider all the expenses you might incur for the whole year - extra-curricular activities, pictures, special events, fieldtrips, fundraisers, etc. Set up a set aside account where you can add money each paycheck so you will have it when that expense comes up. If you find that your budget doesn’t allow for some of these costs, you might have to cut back. For example, you can limit the number of extra-curricular activities your child participates in or purchase equipment at garage sales or second hand stores. In the case of special events, like dances, have a set amount you are willing to pay and then let your child decide how to spend it. This is something that every adult has to deal with and by teaching your children this lesson at a young age; you are better preparing them for the real world. They will learn how to prioritize what is important to them.

If necessary, have them chip in some of their money to cover the “extras” they may want.

Don’t feel guilty if you cannot afford to allow them to do everything they want. The lesson you are teaching them about living within your means is far more valuable than a $250 prom dress they won’t remember.

Back to School Shopping. Go through the list of the items that your child “must have” that you were sent from the school. Are there items on the list that you have left over from last year and that you can still use? Do you really need all of the items listed in the quantities that are suggested? Prioritize the list by the supplies you must buy now and things that possibly could wait until later. Often times, there are items on the list that the teacher wants for the use of the whole classroom, like Kleenex or baby wipes. If money is tight, you might speak with them and offer to send your contribution at a later date.

Before walking out the door, have a plan on where you are going to go and how much you are going to spend. Just like you handle the money making decisions for special events, let your child decide how to divide up the budgeted amount. Maybe they would be happy with using the same backpack from last year because they really want the more expensive notebook. Or, maybe they’ll decide to reuse much of what they had from last year and put that money in savings. That’s okay too. The more control they have over these decisions, the better prepared they will be for adulthood.

Allowances. There is a lot of debate concerning whether to give an allowance or not; should it be tied to chores, and how much should it be. The only way a child is going to learn how to manage money is to be able to have some control over how they spend it. The best lesson a parent can teach their child is the lesson of money management and giving an allowance lets them practice those skills and allows them to make mistakes when the costs are minimal. It also gives them a chance to evaluate their wants and needs and gives them an idea of how much things cost. When they have that appreciation, it makes their purchases so much more meaningful.

Many people believe that an allowance should be tied to chores. But what happens if the child doesn’t need the money and, in turn, doesn’t do their chores? What are the consequences then? Chores should be done because they are a member of the family and not tied to the allowance. If acceptable, extra money could be earned for doing extra projects around the house. To learn money management, the child must have money to manage.

Finally, how much should the allowance be? One school of thought is a dollar for each year of age. Another would suggest matching how much their friends get. A better approach would be to determine how much you are spending on them now, what you expect them to pay for, and then come up with an amount from that from that figure. Allowance should be paid on a weekly basis and as a child gets older, bi-weekly. The hard lesson here for parents is not to bail out their child when they don’t have enough money for what they want or they “forgot” their wallet. Give them the satisfaction of making that purchase on their own and providing a valuable life lesson.

Leanna Milby is a financial services specialist with Apprisen.