Helping Kids Keep to a Back-to-School Budget


Holy shopping spree, Batman!

Young children--ages 4 through 12--will control $15.4 billion in back-to-school spending this month, as parents scramble to get the kids dressed and geared for class, says James McNeal, a Texas A&M; University professor who has studied children’s spending patterns for more than 30 years.

The 1995 marketing mania is likely to center on brand names and licensed characters, including the ever-popular Batman and Disney’s version of Pocahontas. Designer labels and familiar characters on conspicuous merchandise--backpacks, T-shirts, book covers, lunch boxes, jeans and shoes--are considered pivotal to kids because they help telegraph the child’s self-image to their peers, McNeal says.

And, this year, more than ever before, kids are in control.

“What really struck us on this year’s survey is that the child truly seems to be in charge now,” says McNeal. “Whether they pay for it or Mom does, they want to make the choices.”


Still, that doesn’t mean you must allow the kids to run your budget ragged when doing back-to-school shopping, says Myrna Copley, vice president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service in San Diego. There can--and should be--limits on children’s spending, she says.

“It’s important for kids to understand the family’s budget,” Copley says. “Parents have to be firm and tell their kids, this is how much money there is and that’s it. Let [older] kids know that they are responsible for sticking with the budget.”

Some tips to help parents keep reign on the shopping spree:

* Take inventory. Before you hit the malls and get caught up in a lot of impulse shopping, shuffle through the kids’ closets to see what they’ve got that’s suitable for school and what condition it’s in. If you have returning students, also check for left-over and never-used notebooks, pens and art supplies.

* Make a list. While you are doing the inventory--or immediately after--write down a list of items that the kids need immediately--or within the first three months of school. Suppress the urge to do a year’s worth of shopping in one fell swoop. Children--particularly small children--can go through growth spurts and grow out of clothes long before they get any wear, Copley notes. Besides, you’re going to hit the mall three months from now for holiday shopping, notes Janet Bodnar, author of “Money-Smart Kids.” If your children want something that doesn’t fit into the back-to-school budget, make a mental note and consider picking it up when shopping for the holidays, she says.

* Set a budget. Now do a little price checking for the items on your list to compile a budget that’s based both on the kid’s needs and what you can afford. If your budget can’t accommodate everything you need, consider haunting garage sales and quality second-hand stores, suggests Copley.

* Delegate responsibility. If you have preteens and teen-agers, get them involved in the shopping process once you’ve established the budget and the list of requirements. Discuss what you need, ask the kids what they want and whether they have any suggestions of how to get the shopping done with the amount of money you’ve allotted.


* Pick your battles. If the kids want the Pocahontas lunch box that’s $1.50 more than the plain-wrap box, buy it, Bodnar says. “It’s a cheap thrill,” she says. The same holds true for notebooks, pencils and other inexpensive items. If it’s not a budget-buster, let the child decide. But, hold the line when it comes to the big ticket items.

* Shift expenses. If your teen-agers and preteens are determined to buy designer items at double the price, let them spend their own money, Bodnar suggests. Most have income from allowances, part-time work or baby-sitting. The test of a product’s importance is whether it’s still a “must-have” when the money is coming out of their pocketbook rather than yours.

“When a kid is on their own dime, they’re going to be a lot more discriminating,” she says.

* Be firm. Kids learn quickly if you don’t have the fortitude to stick with a decision. If you tell them they can’t spend more than a set amount, but they take your credit card to the limit, you’ve got to make them return the merchandise. If you don’t, realize that they’re not only busting your budget, you’re teaching them that it’s OK to be irresponsible with money.

* Return. Too late, you think? You already let yourself go nuts in the mall and now are looking at a pile of T-shirts and jeans that could make a vendor’s eyes water with gratitude? Take them back immediately, while you still have the receipts, the tags and original packaging. The longer something is in your house, the less likely you are to return it.