Smiling boy holding new laptop
Posted by: Howard Dvorkin, CPA
Date of post: August 20, 2018

You can't save what you spend.

Want to save money on back-to-school shopping? Don’t look for deals. Look for cuts.

What I mean is: Don’t just shop for bargains. Decide what you don’t really need this year, then don’t buy it.

That sounds simple, right? It’s the advice every coupon shopper knows. A dollar off a product you don’t normally buy isn’t a dollar saved — it can be $5 more wasted.

Yet when it comes to back-to-school shopping, we deceive ourselves into overspending because, “It’s to help my children get ahead in their education.”

That likely explains why “back-to-school spending is up nearly 18 percent from 2016 in total family spending,” according to new research from To put that in dollar terms, this year’s family spending will top $428. Last year’s was right around $359.

That’s unnecessary.

How can I say that? When you drill down into the numbers, “the most popular back-to-school items are school supplies like pencils or notebooks,” says. Understandably, 78 percent of parents are buying those.

However, 75 percent of parents are buying clothes. As a parent myself, I understand that children’s clothing is a constant expense, and if you can score deals around back-to-school shopping season, it doesn’t matter if the clothes are actually for school. A deal is a deal.

Yet as I wrote last month, most parents hate back-to-school shopping because their children “want the name brand when they can only afford the budget item.”

That’s why my favorite article on Back to School 2018 is from PC magazine. It’s aimed at college students, but it possesses the ethic I like: Spend wisely.

The headline makes my heart flutter: Tech You Don’t Need for Back to School. The article says, “it’s still easy to buy too many gadgets,” which is refreshing to hear in this era of everything-tech-is-a-basic-necessity-of-life.

Instead, PC Mag lists 10 tech products that will replace bigger and more expensive ones — including an alarm app for your phone instead of buying a fancy Bluetooth clock radio for $50. Yes, these are a thing.

(Speaking of college, I also recommend 9 ways to save money while you’re a broke college student.)

As back-to-school shopping season becomes as pervasive and ponderous as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, I wish I had the money and political clout to buy every student the item that would serve them best throughout their entire educational lives: A course in financial literacy.

The problem with back-to-school shopping is that the customers aren’t often the users of the products. When parents buy for their children, those children have no sense of the value of money.

I’ve recommended before that parents give their children a budget to operate in, and a list of products that must be purchased. If they can find cheaper notebooks, then they can buy more expensive shoes.

Yet it never ceases to amaze me that we spend all this money before school starts, yet we never teach students about money in class. I’ve reported before that less than 17 percent of students “are required to take a personal finance course to graduate from high school.” That’s sad.

We send our children back to school with classroom supplies and high-tech devices, but we don’t outfit them with the most important item: Money smarts. I can’t wait until that changes.