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How to Build Your Back-to-School Budget

Back to SchoolEven though the beach is still calling, it’s almost time for students to think about the days when they’ll be loading up their backpacks, charging those computers and setting alarms for earlier than 10 a.m. – because the new school year will be here before you can say ‘fall semester.’

If that sound stressful to you, you’re not alone. On top of all the stresses associated with learning new material, meeting new people and challenging yourself intellectually, there is also a significant financial cost associated with the start of a new academic year. Regardless of whether you’re a parent thinking about your children’s back-to-school budget, a college student living away from home, or a full-time worker attending night school, the challenges are similar.

School requires many different items to be successful – all of which can add up in a hurry if you’re not careful. Here are some widely applicable tips for managing back-to-school costs:  

  1. Save for textbooks and materials: Textbooks and materials for higher education classes can rapidly add up to hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for just a semester. Starting a savings plan for these items ahead of time can help reduce unpleasant surprises down the road. Make sure to confirm with professors if you can buy used editions, or purchase them from discount textbook sites – you’d be surprised how much you can save. Bonus tip: unless there’s reading you need to do ahead of your first day, it can pay off to wait until then to buy your books, as instructors sometimes make last minute changes, or provide online access to or print outs of all the materials you’ll need.
  2. Don’t forget incidental costs: There are always unexpected costs when it comes to education. Some of these costs are obvious, but there are other costs you might not think of right away. Calculators, different types of database access, or even buying large amounts of paper and ink can cost a pretty penny. Don’t let these slip your mind!
  3. Double-check your aid: With the number of charter and other non-public options for elementary and high school education, the concept of financial aid is not something limited to college students anymore. Right now, before the school year starts, find out what you qualify for and what you are actually receiving.
  4. Make a budget: This might not be a groundbreaking idea, but you’d be surprised by how many people fail to put together a budget for back-to-school shopping. Like anything else, not putting together a plan or budget before you start spending money will almost always result in you spending more than you should. Make a plan, stick to it, and your wallet will thank you down the road.
  5. Research helpful tools: One tool the AICPA recently rolled out is a new interactive digital game, Yesterdays’ Tomorrow. The game allows players to see the outcomes of financial decisions made during different stages of their lives. With college and higher education representing a significant financial investment, this game can help bring to light important aspects of planning for college and more.

Additionally, the AICPA has a wealth of information, available free of charge, to help you get a better handle on your personal finances and budgets. Check out 360finlit.org and feedthepig.org for tools and advice to help you build a successful financial future.

While back-to-school may be a hectic time of year, it doesn’t have to blow a hole in your budget. If you put together a plan for your spending, you can reduce your stress levels. So, get those pencils sharpened and USB drives out, the new school year is almost here!

Sean Stein Smith, CPA, CGMA – Member of the AICPA’s National CPA Financial Literacy Commission and Assistant Professor at Lehman College, City University of New York.

Back to school courtesy of Shutterstock.


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