By Claire Wood
As military families are often aware, managing family finances can be like walking a tightrope. We balance, we take many small, slow steps to reach our destination, and we understand that small tweaks in our posture and position can make all the difference.
Many families rely heavily on a single income due to the professional challenges some spouses face keeping consistent employment between frequent moves. One of the best ways to successfully walk the tightrope of managing and maintaining financial health is through budgeting.
While the word “budget,” might have negative connotations or feel like a huge restriction, it’s actually quite the opposite. Budgeting is simply making a plan for your money and saving, spending, and investing it according to that plan. It’s important to know how you are allocating your income, but it is equally important to understand the why behind it. In its purest form, budgeting aligns your actions with your values.
While big events like Christmas, birthdays, travel, or a PCS are often included in your budget, one area that can be overlooked is spending for the back-to-school season. The months of August and September can be expensive for families who have school-age children.
Below are 4 tips for getting everyone back to school without breaking the bank.
1. Do Your Research
During the summer months, spend some time gathering pertinent information about all of the projected expenses for heading back to school. Will your children need a certain uniform or have clothing costs associated with the school’s dress code? Are special lunch or backpack items required? Will your child take or buy his/her lunch? What supplies and/or supply fees is the school requiring?
Will there be extra costs for school registration, class fees, or technology costs? Will your children require before- or after-school daycare if both parents are working outside the home? In answering these questions, do your best to make a note of what the costs will be for each expense. Estimate if you have to. Having a general idea of the obvious and hidden costs of returning to school will give you a great starting point in determining what your out of pocket costs will need to cover.
2. Make a Master List and Think Outside the Box
Now that you know where you’ll need to spend your dollars, make a master list of each cost and put them into a chronological order, or by order of importance and priority. While a pen and paper works just fine, making a spreadsheet or using a note app in your phone can help you to organize this information electronically. In doing this, you will not only have a good grasp of when these expenses are coming, but also you can begin to see what, if any, expenses can be totally eliminated or if there’s a possible less expensive alternative.
For instance, perhaps you notice that while they aren’t the shiniest, your child’s tennis shoes still fit and you can hold off purchasing new shoes until the fall. Or you think your high-schooler may need a new laptop, but through further inquiry, you learn that the school will be assigning these for student use. Instead of spending your funds on before-school childcare, do you have a neighbor you can trade out with or carpool? If your school requires a certain collared shirt for dress code, can you find these at a local thrift store or get hand-me-downs from someone whose child has outgrown theirs?
3. Figure Out Your Magic Number and Rework Your Budget
Once you have a clear idea of what your total expenses are and you have gotten creative on ways to reduce some of those expenses, you are ready to further crunch the numbers and make adjustments. Your magic number is your total amount of funds needed to execute going back to school might be. Now it’s time to figure out where that money will come from. For most of us, we have a finite, fixed amount of monthly income. Just because school is starting back, it doesn’t mean our bank accounts will be instantly infused with a back-to-school bonus.
Therefore, that amount needed will have to come from other parts of your monthly allocated expenses. Get creative playing around with other budgeting categories and create a separate line item for back to school. You will need to be mindful to observe that financial boundary you have set for yourself. This exercise might reveal that instead of being caught off guard by this expensive season — thus leaving a very short amount of time to cover the costs —– going forward, you might want to set aside a little amount each month throughout the year in order to better prepare for next year’s back-to-school season.
4. Be Realistic, Relax, and Revel in the Joy of the Season
As parents we can get hyper-focused on preparing our children to go back to school, a worthy goal indeed. Let us not forget that aside from their formal school education, they are learning by watching our example. In our preparations both practical and financial, our kids observe how we deal with stressful situations, learn responsibility through budgeting and financial management, and glean how to work toward solutions when life situations come up. Covering the costs of returning to school shouldn’t be a time of stress or worry. Do your best to be realistic about what exactly your kids need to successfully start back to school. Set aside what money you can to meet those most basic needs and if you have extra left for more extras, go for it. And if not, all will be well.
Likely, your kids need a lot less in terms of fancy supplies and an entirely new wardrobe and instead, need things that come with no price tag at all: a loving family who exudes an attitude of support and creates an environment of success and confidence you set at home.
Claire Wood is a military spouse who calls home anywhere the Army sends her. She loves reading, hosting friends, and keeping houseplants alive. She shares on Instagram @home_sweet_military_home and her 2015 book, Mission Ready Marriage is available on Amazon.
More Back-to-School Tips for Military Kids:
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