Back-to-School Spending Strains Family Budgets

More Schools Requiring Uniforms, Spending on Electronics Soars

To most kids, summer is just getting started but, sadly, the days are dwindling down to a precious few and parents are already on the back-to-school trajectory. Though they may hate to hear it, the fact is that about 55 million students will be heading back-to-school in a few weeks.

What most of them perceive as a personal tragedy of the highest order also amounts to a tidal wave of spending, which many parents can ill afford this year.

A recent study by Money Management International (MMI) found that nearly half of surveyed parents plan to spend more than $200 per child on back-to-school shopping; 9 percent plan to spend more than $400 per child. More of them will be buying uniforms, as the number of schools requiring uniforms rises.

The National Retail Federation is hoping parents will spend even more. It quotes a study predicting the average family will spend $527 this year, up from $443 last year.

For larger families, or those without a savings cushion, those expenses can put a big dent in the budget and woefully inflate credit card balances.

To make matters worse, this expensive annual tradition has not adapted to a time when there are more single parents and, in general, less money in the average family budget, thanks to rising energy prices, usurious interest rates and stagnant wages for many workers.

Here are some tips from the professional money managers:

Create a budget. Start by taking a thorough inventory of what you already have and then develop a budget for what you still need. Then, list each item in priority, from most important to least important. A prioritized shopping list can be easily trimmed by cutting from the bottom. Be sure to factor in often-overlooked expenses such as extra-curricular activity uniforms, field trips, and immunizations. Also, be sure to check your child's school dress code policies before purchasing any clothing.

Save on school supplies. Shopping the "back-to-school" section at an expensive retailer may be convenient but comparing prices with lower priced outlets and office supply stores could save you money. Each teacher will have his or her own requirements, so have your supply list in hand prior to making any purchases to eliminate non-essential expenses.

Involve your children. While back-to-school shopping can be painful financially, it offers the opportunity for parents to teach their kids a valuable lesson about budgeting, credit, and wants and needs. A 2006 MMI poll revealed that a majority (57 percent) of parents say their children share the responsibility for selecting back-to-school supplies and clothing. To make the most of the experience, sit down with your children and decide on a budget. Teach them to comparison-shop and point out that if they get the expensive jeans, they will have to cut back in other areas.

Pay cash. "Finally, avoid putting back-to-school purchases on a credit card -- the price is just too high," said Cate Williams, vice president of financial literacy for Money Management International. "For example, if you spend $400 on an 18 percent interest rate credit card during your child's first year of high school and make only the minimum monthly payments (4 percent of the balance), he may get his high school degree before you finally pay off the balance."

Retailers Smell Money

To retailers, the back-to-school season is right up there with Christmas and Halloween. Indeed, the combined $54.2 billion spent this year for back-to-school and back-to-college will rank second only to holiday spending.

The National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2006 Back-to-School Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch, families with school-aged children will be spending more on back-to-school shopping this year than last, with the average family spending $527.08, up from $443.77 in 2005.

Total spending is estimated to reach $17.6 billion, up from $13.4 billion last year, accoridng to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2006 Back-to-School Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch.

While spending will jump in all categories, electronic and apparel purchases will fuel this year's back-to-school growth. Total spending on electronics or computer-related equipment, such as home computers, laptops, PDAs, or calculators, is estimated to increase by more than $1.5 billion this year ($3.82 billion vs. $2.06 billion), rebounding after a sharp decline in 2005.

Apparel is also expected to be a big performer, with the average consumer expected to spend $228.14 (up from $205.31 in 2005). Other popular items on consumers' back-to-school lists include shoes ($98.34) and school supplies, such as notebooks, folders, pencils, backpacks, and lunchboxes ($86.22).

One in five (15.9%) parents with school-aged children have kids that are required to wear a uniform. According to the survey, those parents will spend more on apparel and accessories ($233.73 vs. $228.14) and shoes ($119.91 vs. $98.34) than parents who do not have to buy uniforms.

In addition, more consumers with children who are required to wear uniforms will shop at department stores (56.8% vs. 53.3%), specialty shops (36.2% vs. 30.9%), and through catalogs (7.1% vs. 5.0%) than those with children that do not wear uniforms.

Once again this year, the survey found shifts in spending by region. Consumers in the West are beefing up their back-to-school budgets ($409.19 last year vs. $479.45 this year), while spending in the South is expected to rise as well ($434.09 in 2005 vs. $544.54 this year). While consumers in the Midwest cut back in 2005 ($404.68), they are expected to bump up spending ($521.10) this year.

The only area where consumers are pulling back is in the Northeast, where they will be spending an estimated $456.38, down from $513.07 in 2005.

According to the survey, discount stores will remain popular back-to-school shopping destinations, with nearly three-quarters (72.2%) of shoppers heading to discounters to purchase items on their lists. Department stores and specialty stores will be seeing increased traffic this year.

Children will once again be investing more of their own money in back-to-school items. Parents said that their teenagers will be spending an average of $28.99 of their money, up from $20.47 in 2005, though still down from $38.51 in 2004. Pre-teens will be spending more as well, with the average pre-teen spending $12.72, up from $8.12 last year.

Uniform Attitudes Far From Uniform

They may be more expensive but uniforms are becoming increasingly popular at schools across the country.

In fact, the rate of mandated school uniform policies has risen three percentage points since 2000, according to The NPD Group, a provider of consumer and retail information.

Since the majority of schools do not include the cost of school uniforms in tuition and fees, many parents are forced to pay for the child's uniforms independently. NPD found moms and dads spend an average of $162 on school uniforms per year, per child.

Eighty-six percent of mothers of children who wear school uniforms are in favor of the practice, while just 14 percent were against it. Half (51%) say their kids are indifferent about school uniforms, similar to the levels seen in 2000.

The number of moms reporting their kids like wearing uniforms has decreased six percentage points versus 2000 (25% in 2005 vs. 31% in 2000).

As children enter an age of heightened brand awareness and develop a keener fashion sense, they become disenchanted about wearing school uniforms. More than one-third of children age 12-14 dislike wearing school uniforms versus only 14 percent of children age 5-8 years.

"Many children may not like wearing school uniforms, but mothers and a select few kids can find piece of mind knowing that it takes ease off peer pressure and competition of buying and wearing brand name designer clothes," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst, The NPD Group.

Back to College

Even bigger spenders than their little brothers and sisters are the college-bound. They're not only buying clothes and school supplies but also furnishing dorm rooms with an expanding array of electronics.

The fourth annual NRF 2006 Back-to-College Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch, found that college students and their parents will spend $36.6 billion returning to campus this year, up 6.3 percent and more than double what parents of K-12 students will spend on back-to-school.

The biggest driver in college spending this year will be in electronics. College students are expected to spend 27.5 percent more on electronics purchases ($10.46 billion) as the category expands to include flat screen TVs, XBoxes, iPods, and notebook computers.

Spending on dorm furnishings, which has been a large driver of college spending, is expected to be moderate this year with the category growing 5.4 percent to $3.82 billion.

Clothing and accessories sales, at $5.78 billion, are expected to be flat, though shoe sales will see an impressive 13.0 percent increase to $2.26 billion. Two categories, school supplies (down 14% to $2.55 billion) and textbooks (down 1.8% to $11.69 billion) will see decreases in spending.

"Today's college students were using computers before they could write, which explains their gravitation toward electronics," said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin.

While spending remains hefty, the number of stores parents visit is expected to decline from previous years.

"As consumers remain concerned about gas prices, they are more inclined to scale back on the number of stores they visit," said Phil Rist, Vice President of Strategy for BIGresearch. "College students, who are some of the most technologically-savvy shoppers, will likely use the Internet to look for prices and research merchandise before setting foot in a store."

As in previous years, freshmen will spend the most this year with the average first-year college student spending $1112.62, largely on electronics and dorm furnishings. Seniors, at $558.25 on average, will spend the least.

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