How to Manage the High Cost of Back-to-School Expenses

Do you remember the back-to-school excitement?  Your parents likely took you out shopping for new clothes and new folders, pens, pencils and other supplies.  While you couldn’t wait to get out of school in June, you were equally excited (at least temporarily) to go back in August or September.

Yet, now, many parents may dread the back-to-school season because of the financial burden.  Yahoo! recently reported that the average back-to-school price tag for a high school student is $1,402!  That includes the cost of back-to-school supplies, musical instrument rentals, sports and field trips.

If the high cost is concerning you, especially if you have more than one school-aged child, there are plenty of ways to save.

Back to School Supplies

manage back to school expensesWhen it comes to back-to-school supplies, there are several cost-cutting measures you can take.

Shop the sales.  Target, Walmart, Office Depot, they all offer back-to-school supply sales.  Cherry pick the best deals, and you won’t have to pay much for school supplies, especially when you can get notebooks for .05 a piece!

Check out the dollar store.  Your local dollar store will have school supplies at a fraction of the cost of retail.  This is a great one-stop shopping place to go if you don’t have the time to cherry pick sales.


Buying your kids new clothes for school can really eat into your budget.  Try these strategies:

Take inventory first.  Before you buy any clothes, take inventory.  You and your child can look through her closet and see what clothes are still in good condition.  You  may find you have very little to buy.

Stagger your purchases.  There’s no rule that says you have to buy all your child’s back-to-school clothes the week before school.  Buy some jeans and long sleeve shirts before school.  Then, in October or November when the weather cools, buy some sweaters.  Stagger your purchases based on need and sales.

Buy second hand.  Another option is to buy second hand, either through a consignment store or a place like Goodwill.  You can also try joining and buying from Facebook groups selling the brands of clothes you like.  You’ll save a bundle!

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are important for your children’s development, and in the high school years, participation also helps to round out their college application.  Yet, extracurriculars can be expensive!  The key is to find ones that your child enjoys and that you can afford.

Look for free extracurriculars.  Especially when children are younger, look for things that they can do for free.  When my son was young, choir was free, but after school gym cost money every month.  He joined choir, and then later he also joined Art Club, in part because it was free.

Choose one extracurricular.  As your kids older, choose one extracurricular activity that they excel at.  Have your child focus on that one.  Then, you only have one expense to pay versus three if he was on a sports team every season.

Have your child become a teacher.  Has your child been taking piano since she was five years old?  If she now has 10 years’ experience, she could start offering lessons to younger students to help pay for her own lessons.  There’s nothing wrong with a high school student helping to pay for her activities and interests.

Combine these strategies, and you’ll find your back-to-school expenses are much more affordable.

What are your favorite strategies for saving on back-to-school items?

Frugal Multi-Cultural 4th of July Party Suggestions

The 4th of July is just around the corner, and with it, the official launch of summer.  A favorite American pastime, a barbeque 4th of July party offers you the chance to enjoy the weather and the company of friends while enjoying tasty foods.  If you don’t have much money to devote to entertaining, consider moving beyond the traditional favorites of hamburgers and hot dogs and trying some of these unique, cultural party food ideas.

Main Meals

Frugal 4th of JulyFajitas on the grill.  Buy some lower cost steak, chicken breasts and shrimp.  Season them, grill them, and then mix them together so each fajita contains a mix of the three meats.  Grill some onions and peppers on the grill, slice them, and make a fajita bar complete with tortillas, shredded lettuce, guacamole, onions, peppers and meats.  Of course, you can choose to use only one or two meats depending on what is on sale at the grocery store the week of your party.

Taco bar.  Prepare a few different taco fillings with homemade seasoning including ground beef, chicken, and a vegetarian option such as black beans.  If you have a bit more money to spend, buy some lower cost steak and also offer steak tacos.  For variety, offer flour and corn tortillas.  Then let your guests choose their main fillings, type of tortilla and their toppings.  (Perhaps choose from shredded lettuce, cheese, refried beans, tomatoes, onions, guacamole, etc.)  If you want to be even more creative, consider making your own pico de gallo.

Pulled pork.  Be your own pit master and search the web for the myriad of homemade bbq sauce recipes.  Create your own bbq sauce and delight your guests with delicious, homemade pulled pork.

Side Dishes

Having spent the majority of your money on the main meal, consider these low cost side dishes.  Choose the ones that best match what you are serving as the main meal.

Deviled eggs.  Even in today’s economy, eggs average 10 to 15 cents a piece, making for a very low cost side dish.

Japanese potato salad.  Potatoes can also be very cheap.  If you want a new, creamy twist on potato salad, consider making Japanese potato salad.  Your guests will most likely enjoy this newer version of an old classic.

Corn on the cob.  At some road side stands and farmers’ markets, you can find corn on the cob for 10 to 15 cents an ear.  Consider going beyond the traditional and instead making some Mexican corn on the cob popular at food stands.  Either add olive oil and red pepper, or add a blend of butter, mayonnaise and cheese.  Again, search a site like to find a variety of recipes.

If you have a small entertainment budget, consider some of these meal ideas.  Most of them will require less meat per person than the traditional hamburger, and your guests will love the variety.

photo credit: Signe Karin

Is Not Keeping Up with the Joneses Boring?

We’ve been on a journey to pay off our debt for 3.5 years now.  At first, we were gazelle intense, but then I burned out from working too hard, so we slowed down on the debt repayment.

Last year, we moved to Arizona from Illinois, so our money became much tighter as we faced unexpected moving expenses.  (Aren’t there always unexpected expenses when making such a long move?)

To make matters worse, in the first 3.5 months of 2015, we’ve faced $5,000 in unexpected car repairs and dental bills.

The good news is that even though we haven’t made significant debt repayment progress over the last year, we’ve been able to pay for all of these most recent expenses in cash, without going further into debt.

Boring JonesesBasically, each year for the last 3.5 years, our budget has become tighter and tighter.  We’ve definitely NOT kept up with the Joneses.

Yet, we’ve not found this type of life boring.

We Appreciate Splurges More

If anything, living this way makes us appreciate a “treat” that we used to take for granted.  For instance, I homeschool my kids, and my daughters recently completed preschool and kindergarten.  They were both very excited about moving on to kindergarten and first grade, respectively, so my husband and I decided to take the family out for a treat.

We went to our favorite restaurant.  We went for breakfast, so the bill would be cheaper, and we used a $25 gift card that we had gotten at Christmas and saved.  Because we had not gone out to eat in about five months, the kids were beyond thrilled.  All of us enjoyed the meal greatly.

Because we haven’t gone out to eat in so long, doing so was a special treat.

Before we got on a budget and started paying down debt, we often went out to eat three or four times a week.  Honestly, because we did it so often, going out to eat had become boring.  Now, because we don’t do it very often, we appreciate the meal when we do go out.

Because we have simplified our lives, we are able to enjoy special occasions much more.

We Have Plenty of Fun—For Free

Just because we aren’t keeping up with the Jones and are on a budget doesn’t mean we aren’t having fun.  Just this week, my mom was in town for a visit.  We took her to a national park, which had free admission that day.  We watched artisans make homemade tortillas and weave baskets.  We listened to a local band, and we got an excellent tour of the site.  Before heading home, we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the grounds.

Last month we went to the Tucson Festival of Books.  There was so much to do (for free!) that we stayed over five hours.  We could have stayed even longer.

Going on a tight budget and deciding NOT to keep up with the Jones can be difficult at first.  Now, however, we’ve done it for so many years that we find living this way actually improves our quality of life.