How To

Back-to-School Budgeting Lessons

photo: Bloomington Salvation Army

Once high schoolers go to college, they’ll manage their own money. And without the help of their relatives, what are the chances they will be prepared to do so?

Less than half of all US states have personal finance education requirements in high school, according to this Jump$tart map of State Financial Literacy Requirements. Only four states require a full semester.

If your child or other family members are entering their senior year of high school and you worry about how they’ll manage their money when they head to college, use back-to-school shopping as a trial run for college budgeting. If you’re not the teen’s parent, you may ask the student’s parents to get involved and offer to help administer the exercise.

Lesson 1: Setting a Budget

Start by sitting down with your teen and setting an overall budget for back-to-school expenses. That should included school supplies, clothing, books and initial costs of extracurricular activities. An incentive you can use for budgeting for supplies offering to apply  unspent cash towards fun activities or clothing.

Lesson 2: Comparison Shopping

* Books

While it’s unlikely teens will buy textbooks, it is very likely that they will need to buy books for various classes. Before purchasing a book, ask them to provide you or the supervising parent with five comparison prices from online and offline outlets.

* Supplies

Students should sort through online and offline sales flyers for the best deals on pens, pencils, notebooks, etc. In order to budget accurately, contact the school for a recommended supply list first.

* Clothing

For most teenagers, this is the fun part. Turning it into an educational activity may down the mood a little, but over the long term, it will pay off. (This also might be a good time to throw in the “One day you’ll thank me” bit.

With your student, put together a list of what they need (new jeans? how many new shirts and tops?) and the amount of money you can spend. Don’t let them add allowance money to make up the difference for extra or more expensive items.  Asking your teen to provide receipts for transactions eliminates this temptation.

* Extracurricular activities

Whether your teens plan on participating in drama, debate, football, or cheerleading, contact the coach or teacher first to find out how much money you will need to set aside for this budget category.

Let’s say your teen plays basketball and is on the debate team. One basketball uniform costs $249 (the estimate is based on numbers from the National Federation of State High School Associations’ publication High School Today). That includes $89 for a custom jersey, $74 for custom shorts , $6 for socks and $80 for shoes. According the NFHS Assistant Director John Gillis, you will have to buy one uniform for home games and one for away games. So your total for two uniforms and one pair of shoes is $418. Not exactly chump change.

For debate, we’ll use an example of a student who lives in one of the US States where computers are allowed at tournaments. According to NFHS Fine Arts Director Kent Summers, one quarter to one third of all states allow computers. So if the student buys a business suit for $100, a laptop for $400, a spare laptop battery for $50, a USB key for $10, and a backup file system and office supplies in case of computer failure for $100. The total cost is $660. That could easily double or triple if you allowed your child to splurge on a more expensive computer.

Lesson 3: Debriefing

At the end of this exercise, your teens may have money left over to spend on additional activities. Or they may have had a difficult time buying everything needed. Go over what happened in each spending category in detail.

It’s best that high schoolers learn the basics of budgeting now, with the understanding that once they’re off to college they’ll need to work with numbers on a much larger scale. Back to school shopping may involve hundreds of dollars, but managing college expenses will require budgeting with thousands of dollars each semester.

Reyna Gobel is a freelance journalist who specializes in financial fitness. She is also the author of Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life.