Thursday, August 23, 2012

Back-to-school "needs"

It's been many years now since I had any reason to do any back-to-school shopping (although, as I mentioned back on the old blog, it took me over a decade to shake the impulse). So I was completely taken aback to read in the electronic pages of my Tip Hero newsletter the claim that the average family with kids in school will spend about $688 on school shopping this year. That's the amount per family, not per child, but the average American family with kids under 18 only has 1.86 of them, so that's still nearly $370 per kid. My mind boggling, I tried to cast my memory back to my own school days. What kind of supplies did I buy at the start of a new school year? I remember the teachers sending us lists of things we'd need—a notebook for each class, some pencils and highlighters, maybe a calculator or a compass for math class. I might have had a new backpack or lunch box if the old one was worn out, but I didn't automatically get a new one every year. How could that kind of stuff possibly add up to $370?

I consulted the National Retail Foundation, the source of the statistic, and found that the items I'm thinking of—"school supplies such as notebooks, pencils and backpacks"—add up to only a fraction of the total. Parents expect to spend about $95 on these items (which still seems like a lot), but a far bigger share is going toward "clothing, accessories and electronics." The average family with kids in school expects to spend $246.10 on clothes, $217.88 on electronics and $129.20 on shoes. Nearly 60 percent of these families, according to the site, will be buying "some sort of electronic device" for their kids.

I suppose it's possible that my parents used to spend the equivalent of $375 a year (adjusted for inflation) on clothes and shoes for me and my sister, but I don't recall that being a back-to-school expense specifically. We got new clothes and shoes (or, as often as not in my sister's case, hand-me-downs) when we no longer fit into our old ones, not when it was time to start a new school year. In fact, I personally don't see the point of going out and getting your kid's entire wardrobe for the upcoming school year in August. If the kid isn't growing very fast, then last year's clothes may still fit, and if he is, then the clothes you buy now might not fit by the time it gets cold enough to wear them. Yet somehow, sometime between the time I reached my full height and today, a new school wardrobe every fall became the paradigm.

As for the electronic devices, it's true that these are something I didn't need back when I was in school because at the time, most of them weren't around. I did get my first computer in junior high—a gift from my grandfather—and I did use it increasingly throughout high school, but I also had to share it with my sister. Maybe nowadays parents assume each kid needs his own computer, but surely they don't have to be replaced every year, do they? I can see how the cost of a couple of computers, averaged over their useful lifetime, might work out to $218 per year—but that doesn't explain why six out of ten parents expect to spend some money on electronics in any given year. Clearly there are some other kind of gadgets involved, but what? Cell phones? MP3 players? How do these qualify as back-to-school items?

I can't help thinking that there must be some sort of inflation here of the list of items being defined as back-to-school "needs." On a recent trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond, I picked up a copy of the store's "College Checklist"—an illustrated booklet of a dozen pages—and found what struck me as a ridiculous number of items to be checked off before your kid can be deemed ready to start college life. In addition to your basic sheets, blanket and pillow, the "sleep checklist" includes a mattress topper, duvet cover, bedside table (for apartment dwellers) and a mattress protector to keep out bedbugs. And that's just one of the six checklists in the book; there are separate ones for organization (of the closet and dorm room—the study space gets its own list), cleaning (including an iron and ironing board, which is wishful thinking on the parents' part if I ever heard it), eating (which apparently they figure students won't be doing primarily at the dining hall), and relaxation (my favorite, including such items as iPod speakers, iPod accessories, and "room fragrance." I think this is a modern term for what used to be called "air freshener," possibly changed to reflect the fact that it doesn't.)

I'm not trying to suggest that the tips Tip Hero had to offer on ways to save on all these back-to-school purchases aren't useful. I'm sure they are, but I think perhaps parents could save an even bigger chunk of change by taking a good hard look at their back-to-school shopping lists and then taking a hatchet to them. The Center for a New American Dream apparently agrees with me, as their latest blog entry suggests cutting back on back-to-school spending (and the aggravation that goes with it) by keeping it simple. They point out that multiple copies of the same item (such as pens) will just get lost, while a smaller number will be easier to keep track of, and that basic versions of most supplies will work just as well as pricier ones. And they offer the modest proposal that, you know, if your stuff from last year is still good, you can actually keep using it.
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