Back-to-school crunch

Parents try to determine what children really need for the year

Parents try to determine what children really need for the year

August 04, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

Nobody told Carol Burger's 11-year-old daughter that she needed a designer textbook cover for seventh grade.

It wasn't listed as a requirement at Springfield Middle School, the school she'll attend this fall. There was no mention of it on the recommended supply list the big-box shopping center posted near the back-to-school aisles, where Burger stood with her arms folded.

But it still made Burger's list of things needed to fulfill her daughter Sara Burger's back-to-school needs.

"My daughter has to have the fancy stuff," Burger said. "I'm easy. I just let her get what she wants."

Still, if back-to-school shopping were as easy as minding what's on the school-issued supply list, then it probably wouldn't be on Burger's list of least favorite times of the year.

"Ugh, I don't like it," Burger said, of back-to-school shopping.

It seems obvious: If you want to save money, buy only what you need. "But that's a tough call," said Lesa Feuillet, financial planner for Walnut Street Securities in Hagerstown. "Everyone wants the snazziest sneakers and the name-brand jeans. You have to set up your budget and stick with it."


Most parents expect to spend as much as $250 per child on school supplies this year, according to a consumer survey released by the market research firm NPD Group. The report, released last month, queried about 41,170 shoppers between June 8 and July 5.

While the amount people plan to spend hasn't changed much from last year, the survey found that consumers planned to spend notably more this year on clothing, footwear and electronics - things that aren't necessarily on the school-issued supply list.

About that list...

Carol Mowen, spokeswoman for Washington County Public Schools, said school supply lists are independently distributed by the schools without much School Board oversight. When it comes to choosing supplies, Mowen, a former educator, said teachers have good reason to be picky.

"When I was a middle-school teacher, we would not allow students to use mechanical pencils," Mowen said. "Students used mechanical pencils for a lot of things other than writing."

Other items on the school-issued supply list can be reused. "My kids have never known the difference," said Beth Powers, a proponent for reusing old binders and notebooks.

If she must buy new, she buys the cheapest option.

"Let's see, you have one notebook for 10 cents and another one with SpongeBob on it for $2.35, and they both have the same paper," Powers said. "We're going with the 10-cent notebook."

She and her husband, Ron Powers, said they devised an easy method for avoiding unnecessary buys during back-to-school shopping time. "We don't bring the kids with us," Beth Powers said. The Greencastle, Pa., couple has four children.

It also helps that both of them are educators. Beth Powers teaches at E. Russell Hicks Middle School in Hagers-town. Ron Powers is a dean at Greencastle High School.

"They can't get much past us," Ron Powers said.

What you won't find on the list

Even still, some off-list items are unavoidable, educators and financial experts said.

"Clothes are usually part of it," Feuillet said. "It's kind of like getting your snow tires just before the winter."

Clothes are generally folded into the school-supply shopping season, as children outgrow their duds from year to year. Determining whether to clothe your child's growing body in designer or off-brand goods is another matter. The best tip here, Feuillet said, is to examine the store's return policy.

Sears, for example, has a policy for those enrolled in their free KidVantage program that reimburses parents for clothes, said Sears spokeswoman Kim Freely.

"Basically, as a member of the KidVantage program, if your kids' shoes or pants wear out before they outgrow them, Sears will replace them for free," Freely said.

The verdict on electronics

Electronic devices such as MP3 players aren't listed on any school-issued supply list for Washington County Public Schools, but spokeswoman Mowen stopped short of saying they weren't a necessity.

MP3 players can handle more multimedia files than memory sticks - a plus when considering growing use of technology in the schools, Mowen said.

The board's technology department is considering a request from Emma K. Doub Elementary School in Hagerstown to purchase a classroom set of MP3 players for students to use on advanced projects.

Some students already have access to Palm Pilots in the classroom, Mowen said.

Even still, Mowen said, the school system attempts to provide such electronic items for children's use at school. Educators Beth and Ron Powers said they've found having a computer in the home was sufficient.

"You don't need that other stuff," Beth Powers said.

A laptop computer wasn't mentioned as a necessity for students entering Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., this fall. But North Hagerstown High School graduate Brittany Needy said she's investing in one anyway. Needy will be a biology/premedicine major at the school this fall.

"I am getting a laptop," said Needy, 19, of Hagerstown. "Oh, it's not going to be anything special. When you're spending your own money, you're a lot more picky."

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