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Teachable moments: Back-to-school shopping

Many dread it. Some love it. Wallets cringe. Yep, it’s back-to-school shopping! Every year as summer winds down, shelves are being stocked with school supplies galore. Parents are checking off lists posted by teachers as they walk down shopping aisles - kids in tow. Even retailers who don’t have a back-to-school tie will offer discounts and advertise their products accordingly because this has become one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year. 16 states currently offer sales tax holidays during this time and many take advantage of it as they purchase school supplies, clothing, computers, and more.

(If you’re shopping in TN:

I love the idea of using everyday moments to teach children and teens about managing money properly. So, how about using back-to-school shopping to teach our students about budgeting, trade-offs, needs vs. wants, and comparison shopping? Of course all shopping ventures offer a good chance to teach money lessons, but school shopping offers an excellent opportunity because most students care about it and have a vested interest in what backpack to choose or what their favorite pens and pencils are. And clothing - can’t forget the ever important back-to-school outfits.

From the child going into pre-k to the high school senior, all students can bump up their financial literacy with a little guidance from parents and guardians in this teachable moment. So, here are a few suggestions:

  • Budgeting - sit down with your child (regardless of age) and compile a list of all of the supplies he/she needs for the upcoming year. Then determine an amount that can be spent in total on supplies and an amount that can be spent on clothing. When shopping day rolls around, teach your child to keep that amount in mind. Take CASH and when the cash is gone, that’s the end of the shopping excursion. Within this process, they will learn that choices have to be made (trade-offs). He can purchase either the $100 tennis shoes or a $50 pair of shoes plus two shirts. Decisions, decisions - the classic ‘money doesn't grow on trees’... cue Mick Jagger singing “You can’t always get what you want”.

If your child comes in under budget at the end of the day (due to good decision making), possibly use the extra money for a small treat or to purchase something to contribute to the teacher’s classroom that you know will be put to good use.

  • Buy in - if at all possible, have your child contribute some of the money. Whether it’s $5 of $85, if he/she has some “skin in the game” purchasing decisions are more real to them. Also, if your child wants an upgrade or a high end pair of jeans - you can pay a certain amount (have a predetermined amount you’ve discussed) and the child pays the rest.

  • Needs vs. Wants - It is important that this is addressed - whether it’s a brand new concept to your 6 year old or a refresher for older students. Your 12 year old needs new shoes because her old ones don’t fit anymore or are too worn. Your 12 year old doesn’t NEED five different pairs of Converse Chuck Taylors - a different color for everyday of the week. Your 8 year old needs a backpack to carry his stuff in. What is pictured on that backpack or the brand of the backpack may jumpstart a good convo about needs vs. wants and functionality vs. fashion/trends.

  • Comparison shopping - which pair of scissors seems to be better made? Does Wal-Mart or Target have a better price for the Ticonderoga pencils? (and yes, Ticonderoga is king in terms of quality) Is the cheapest thing always the best to buy? (No.) And, just because it is expensive doesn’t always mean it is of the highest quality. Examine the backpack - does it seem sturdy enough to carry all of those books and binders? Is it big enough? Can the same backpack be found online for cheaper?

  • Hand your child a calculator or he can use the calculator on your phone to add up the total as he shops to make sure he is coming in under budget. The calculator can be used to teach him how to do the math for discounts - 40% off of a pair of jeans that’s on sale. It can also be used for determining tax amounts before you get to the checkout line (if you don’t get the sales tax holiday or go at a different time). Your phone can also be used for reading reviews online and comparison shopping!

I don’t have children yet, but I am a teacher so my back-to-school shopping has happened for the last 27 years without fail. I plan to keep this teachable moment in mind when I do have children though. And, naturally the info on budgeting, needs vs. wants, and comparison shopping is on my mind when I do my own school shopping!

Feel free to comment or ask a question below! Enjoy back-to-school shopping with your children and help them learn in the process!

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