New school year is more than search for best bargains

lpemberton@theolympian.comAugust 5, 2012 

I can’t believe it’s already time for back-to-school shopping. It feels like we just attended our youngest son’s preschool graduation and our daughter’s fifth-grade promotion ceremonies.

Oh sure, a lot of people have already begun their back-to-school shopping. Some folks are probably close to being finished. I’m a bit of a last-minute type of person, and, yes, I’ve done marathon back-to-school shopping on Labor Day weekend. Don’t judge; I do some of my best work on deadline.

One of my friends bought nearly all of her kids’ supplies from last year’s clearance racks. I think that’s a great idea, but if I tried it, I’m sure we’d incorporate all of those supplies into our everyday life, learn that all of those glue sticks and markers dried out, or lose the whole shebang in the vortex known as our garage.

According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, the average family with children in grades K-12 will shell out $688.62 for back-to-school items. That includes $95.44 on school supplies such as notebooks and pencils, $129.20 on shoes, $246.10 on clothing, and a whopping $217.88 on high-tech items.

Families in the survey predicted they’ll spend 14 percent more this year than in 2011, and back-to-school shopping is the second biggest cash maker for retailers, second only to Christmas.

No wonder I’m feeling so overwhelmed.

This is the first year I’m buying supplies for all three of our kiddos. I won’t lie: I’m feeling pretty emotional about sending my baby to kindergarten. I’m about to cry just thinking about what a major milestone it will be in his life, and how it’s a sign that he’s really growing up. But I’m also feeling quite a bit of sticker shock.

Gone are the days I could buy the little guy a box of crayons and some new shoes, just so he didn’t feel like he was missing out on the back-to-school season.

His classroom supply list is longer than our daughter’s sixth-grade list; fortunately he doesn’t care about designer jeans like she does.

For me, the best part of back-to-school is right now, when we’re trying to figure out what we have, what we can re-use, and what we’ll buy at a thrift store versus the department store.

It’s kind of like how planning a holiday meal can be so much more fun than shopping, cleaning, cooking and hosting it.

We like to look through newspaper ads to get ideas, and comparison shop, but to be honest, a lot of that usually goes out the window when we head out to the stores.

For example, last year, my daughter tried on PE shoes at about four different places before she finally found a pair that fit right, wouldn’t mark the floor, and fit in our budget. And then the store that had the best price on notebook paper ran out of wide-ruled, which is what we needed.

I think back-to-school shopping is a good way to teach kids how to save money, and that it’s OK to modify plans if you need to.

Once we’re shopping, I like watching them try to express their personalities through their choices of T-shirts, erasers, spiral notebooks and other gear. A new school year gives them a chance to practically redefine themselves, if they want to.

Last year, my son surprised me by passing on the folder with a skull and skateboards, and opting for one that was about planets and space.

Our daughter shook her head at a shirt with a rose on it (apparently that was so fourth grade) and picked out one with the words “I tried to be normal once but I didn’t like it.” In fact, she wore it on the first day of school.

I can’t wait to see what kind of clothes our youngest son picks out for kindergarten.

Lisa Pemberton is one busy mama, raising three children while working as a reporter at The Olympian. Reach her at

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