Simplify shopping and save money

September 05, 2003|by LYNN F. LITTLE

The beginning of school can be an exciting time, but back-to-school costs can stress parents.

Piled on the bills already accrued for new shoes and clothing, come incidental costs, such as a class field trip, admission to sporting events or a school play.

Thinking like a businessperson can, however, help parents reduce the stress of shopping. Following good business practices also may help stretch funds.

First, make a list of fixed expenses, including enrollment costs, lunch fees and supplies.

Then try these businesslike shopping tips:

  • Inventory what you have. The inventory process, which usually involves sorting, can help parents and children identify what still is usable. Outgrown clothing can be set aside for others in the family, a local thrift shop or clothing exchange.

    Teaching children to consider the needs of others is a lesson that can come from the inventory process. It also reminds children of what they have and may help them differentiate between needs and wants. Assess the difference between usable and acceptable.


Usable items may not always be acceptable - some worn clothing items may be best reserved for after-school play. If resources permit, plan to supplement hand-me-downs with some new purchases.

  • Prioritize expenses. Cover immediate - and essential - needs like school lunch fees first. A child's age, interest and current growth rate influence expenditures, but parents sometimes say they prefer to postpone purchases until after school starts so that children can see what others are wearing.

    One good strategy might be to keep some money available for later purchases. Postponing the purchase of a new winter coat until cool weather is imminent is advisable, particularly for a child who is growing rapidly. Time available at home also is a factor. For example, if a child is growing rapidly, parents may want to purchase fewer clothing items and plan to do laundry more frequently.

  • Consider a compromise. The choice of basic clothing or spending more for designer clothing or the latest character lunchbox can challenge parents.

    Children can feel intense pressure to fit in and may want one or more items that other children have. Trying to accommodate them occasionally - or compromising on a specific item - can help make a child feel more accepted. It is important to try to strive for balance.

    If a child routinely wants more than their parents can afford - or think they should spend - it may be time to consider an allowance that covers such expenses. Shifting the decision power usually ends arguments. Allowing an older child to spend "their own money" often results in more careful decisions.

  • Weigh quality vs. price. Spending a little more on a winter jacket that can be worn more than one season usually offers more for the money than a garment like a trendy shirt that may only be worn for a short time.

    Consider the length of time items like a backpack or calculator will be needed and used.

  • Use credit with caution. If paying with a credit card rather than cash, check or a debit card, assess what you can reasonably pay when the bill arrives. Charging more than you can comfortably afford to pay may reduce the ability to accommodate other upcoming expenses. Paying interest on extended payments also adds to purchase price.

    Shopping trips can be good one-on-one experiences for parents and children, particularly when children have been involved in the inventory process prior to the trip.

    Shopping when stores are least likely to be crowded and at a time when both parent and child are rested is recommended.

    Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator at Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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