Back to school is an exciting time for some children and a stressful time for others. Some children have anxiety with change, and a new school year brings lots of changes. Other children just get so overly enthusiastic that it boils over into anticipatory craziness for parents, which can cause stress in marriage.
The summer sunshine and fresh air seems to make children grow several inches—at least it did mine. By the end of summer, it always seemed nothing in their closet fit. Back to school also can mean a strain on the budget. In addition to clothing, there are backpacks, lunch boxes, and endless school supplies to purchase. Believe it or not, this does not have to crunch your budget.
First, it is important that these expenses are placed in your budget well in advance of the beginning of school—plan for it as a recurring annual expense. Second, be realistic about what actually needs to be purchased. It might be helpful to read an article I wrote a while back, “Don’t Let Finances Defeat Your Marriage.”
Let’s talk about what is really important to your children when it comes to back to school issues. First, children need to know that you love them. That should go without saying. Second, they need a good education. Everything else is just not relevant. They don’t need all new clothes. They don’t need a brand new backpack every year. They don’t need a new lunch box every year. They don’t need to look like fashion models on magazine covers.
I kept a large box on the top shelf of my children’s closet containing hand-me-down clothing from relatives and friends. Every August (and any other time my children needed clothes or shoes) I took the box down and we went “shopping.” If what they needed could not be found in the box, then I made a list of what the kids needed. Second-hand thrift stores were next on my list. I tried to give each child one special outfit to start school on the first day—which is not to say that it was purchased new. Whether it was from “the box”, from a thrift store, or purchased brand new, it was something that the child felt special wearing for the first day of school.
When I was a kid, backpacks had not yet been invented. We wrapped waxed paper from the inside of bread bags around our books to keep them dry from the elements. (Yes, I know, I’m old, and most readers won’t even know that bread bags used to contain wax paper.) Then we put an extra wide rubber band over the stack of books, tied a piece of clothesline rope to the rubber band, and threw them over our shoulder. I’m not suggesting that we go back to that system. I just bring it up here to make the point that a brand new $40-$80 backpack each year is simply not necessary. Look around your home and see what might be used in place of a backpack. My kids used canvas shopping bags much of their time in elementary school. Backpacks may be more of a help as they get older and have more books to carry.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with sending a child to school with a paper bag lunch. As a matter of fact, a bag lunch will fit better into that canvas bag (or backpack). If a lunch box is purchased, make sure to purchase one that will last more than one year. When a lunch box is lost on the playground, the answer is, “Oh well, I guess you need to learn to be responsible.”
In cold climates, coats are necessary; but brand new coats are not. Coats often can be purchased from thrift stores, and then passed around the family for years. We don’t live in snow country, so most of the time my kids preferred to wear sweatshirts or sweaters anyway.
School supplies are important. Your children need the basics for the first week, and the teachers will send home a laundry list the first day of things to purchase later. It is often wise not to purchase too much before you get the teacher’s list. You do want to pick up things on sale prior to the start of school that you know for sure they will need. There are times, however, when you come in contact with a teacher who is completely out of line in the types of supplies they want you to purchase. I remember a particular teacher who wanted us to purchase a $17 art kit from the local art supply store when a box of crayons and maybe a few cheap markers would have done the trick. I simply went to the teacher and told her that I didn’t have $17 to throw at an art kit, and I was willing to bet that there were other families that didn’t either. It turned out that the teacher had never even considered the economic struggles of some of the families until I brought up the matter.
Here’s the nuts and bolts of this thing. If you don’t need the stress in your marriage from the financial woes of the back to school sting, don’t get stung. Use your imagination and work the problem. Your children will survive (and actually benefit from) not keeping up with the Joneses. If you give your children everything they want, they will never understand the meaning of the word no, and they will never understand how to work for what they need.