Susan Tompor: Resist urge to splurge on glitz with school supplies

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

August 22, 2016

The back-to-school notebooks, folders, pens, pencils, binders and a scientific calculator added up to $100 for sixth-grader Kaylee Betts.

The school uniforms for the 11-year-old girl ended up costing another $350.

"I just get whatever is on the school list," said Darlene Betts, 48, of Warren, Mich.

The only real extra: A $14.99 little disco ball light for Kayleeís locker.

The back-to-school list is never-ending. Stuffing small backpacks with crayons and safety scissors soon turns to a time for decorating middle school lockers. And then itís on to the days of dishing out big bucks for outfitting a dorm room, when some parents find themselves pricing mini-fridges and carpeting.

All along the way, the back-to-school displays are stocked with supplies and splurges.

Fortunately for wallets, consumers arenít at the point yet where theyíre spending as much during back-to-school shopping sprees as they do for the holidays.

The National Retail Federation estimates that total back-to-school spending will hit $78.5 billion this year. Shoppers are expected to spend on average $674, up from $630 last year.

By contrast, holiday sales hit $626.1 billion last year, according to the retail trade group.

The average amount parents are expected to spend on school supplies this year is about $108. But clothing and shoes could add up to an average $363. About $204 is estimated to be spent on back-to-school electronics.

Betts said she saved big money by avoiding all the other trinkets that are sold to decorate lockers ó the magnetic frames, the mesh locker shelves, the mirrors, the beaded curtains for lockers.

Early back-to-school sales allowed Betts to take advantage of 20 percent-off sales and other deals. Her shopping was done by early August in plenty of time for Kayleeís first day back to school on Aug. 22.

"I kind of enjoy it. I remember when I was going back to school," said Darlene Betts.

Nearly half of parents, though, say the No. 1 thing they dread about the back-to-school shopping season is not being able to afford everything, according to an online survey conducted on behalf of Ebates.

No doubt, itís not shocking that a site that promotes cash-back coupons would discover that people are worried about having enough money.

Yet, if youíre a parent and this isnít your first rodeo, you know that the to-buy lists for school can be outrageously long and at some point along the way, you could very well be ready to say enough is enough.

Potential drama lurks in every aisle: Gym clothes and sneakers, affordable cellphone plans, eyeglasses and rolling backpacks.

Sometimes, the sales help is no help.

This summer, my 18-year-old son was trying on eyeglass frames and asked to see thin metal frames. The woman gave him a thick, black plastic frame that, well, I immediately said made him look like a dork.

The young woman then asked who she should be trying to please, the person wearing the glasses or me? Since I would be the one who would have to dish out the $500 or more for those glasses, I responded that Iíd say my opinion counts.

Back-to-school stress? You betcha.

Later I thought, maybe I should have been a little kinder, a little less blunt by saying something like "OK. But why donít you try on these, honey?"

But honestly, then my son might wonder who was impersonating his mother. Itís just not how we roll. If itís ugly, weíre not spending two more minutes looking at it.

Sometimes, itís the little purchases that send you over. Maybe you just canít see why a teen going off to college needs upscale velvet hangers for $20 or $30 instead of functional plastic ones for $2 or $3.

When it comes to sending a student off to college, it gets to the point where you feel you have to throw the equivalent of a bridal shower to outfit their dorm rooms.

One friend said she draws the line at spending hundreds of dollars on a small refrigerator, microwave and TV, given that all those needs are covered by a meal plan or common areas on the campus or dorm.

Worse yet: Some of this stuff is just tossed when students move out of the dorm.

The temptation to overpack for college is clear. Loyola University Chicago even suggests on its website that "everything you need should fit into two moving carts" and then lists the size of the carts.

Terrence Daryl Shulman, the author of "Bought Out and $pent!" and a counselor compulsive shoppers, said sometimes parents are so busy, they may think that it is less time-consuming to just binge up front and get the students what they want.

"Kids feel like they need to keep up with their peers more than ever," Shulman said.

And parents want their kids to fit in ó or at least look forward to going to school.

Some parents even worry that their kids will be teased if they have a prepaid plan for a basic cellphone ó not the iPhone 6s or soon the iPhone 7.

But given the other financial demands that families face ó such as worrying about college tuition ó it makes sense to have honest conversations about whether a big-ticket item ó or a disco ball ó is in the budget this back-to-school season. A little glitz could be fine with the glue sticks ó especially if youíd like to party like itís 1979.