Budget,  Encouragement,  Parenting & Family

School Supplies: Mommy Guilt vs Gazelle Intensity

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It’s Back-to-School Time Again

Yep, already.  I will have kids in three different school situations, with atleast four different schedules.  Some of them have already started, some start next week.  Store shelves have been full of shiny colorful new Back to School things for weeks.

I want to buy them All. The. Things. but we’re on a very tight budget.  So here’s how we’re handling it.

My kids will be taking resharpened pencils with good-enough erasers, last year’s pens with plenty of ink, and colored pencils we collected from around the house (they number in the millions).  In their brand new backpacks.

They’ll be carrying zippy new lunchboxes that contain sandwiches made with free bread, a baggie of the cheapest fruit in this week’s ad, and snacks bought for pennies with my coupons.

They’ll be wearing shoes that might or might not be brand new.  Clothing that’s either a $1 clearance deal at the end of last season, new gifts from grandparents, or carefully chosen seconds at our favorite thrift store.  Maybe even a homemade skirt to go with last year’s leggings, if we find the time.

Mommy Guilt vs Gazelle Intensity

Two years ago, Hubby and I really buckled down and paid off over a quarter of a million dollars of debt (which included the sale of a house).  We were following Dave Ramsey’s plan for getting out of debt, and we were Gazelle Intense, y’all.  (blog post coming soon!)

The next year we apparently lost our minds, and ended up adding significant debt to our load, defeating both our hard work and our motivation.  But now we’re back in the saddle.  We’re motivated and we’re working hard to finish it off.

What does this have to do with buying a few pencils and notebooks in July?  Everything.  It has everything to do with how we value our resources.  How we make decisions.  How we keep ourselves accountable and committed to important things, or how we don’t.  How we teach our children to handle their own finances.

That said, I will not deny that I had a mini-meltdown a couple weeks ago about not being able to send my kids to school with all the shiny new school supplies they were squealing over at the store.  Mommy guilt is strong, and can be hard to fight against.  My kids have always lived on a budget.  They get it.  And for the most part they’re pretty content.  But I still argue with myself about wanting to buy them all the pretties.

Pre-Shopping Inventory & Game Planning

I had told the kids that this year there was ZERO dollars allocated in the budget this year for school clothes or supplies.  Partly because it was true, and partly because I knew the Begging was coming, and I wanted to head it off at the pass.  I did eventually decide to take some money out of this month’s debt snowball for new backpacks and lunchboxes (last year’s were shredded by the end of May), but only just enough.

The Pre-Shopping Inventory:

  • Went through every single pen, pencil, marker, highlighter, colored pencil, etc.  Kept the good and tossed the bad.  We have more than enough of just about everything.
  • Collected all notebooks, lined paper, folders, etc.  Plenty.
  • Made a very short list of things we didn’t have enough of, and shopped only the best loss-leaders at several stores.  Coupons made some things free or nearly-free.

The Game Plan:

Before we went shopping, I had the kids look at the ads, and we’d been talking about Wants vs Needs.  We left the house with these Strategy Points:

  • Mom will supply all BASIC NEEDS.  A regular pencil fulfills a basic need.  A sparkly mechanical pencil with extra erasers is a want.
  • You (child) will pay for any wants that are above & beyond basic needs, using your own (already earned) money.
  • There are no paying chores available right now to earn money for wants.
  • Your backpack/lunchbox budget is firm and not negotiable.

Shopping: Giving the Kids a Budget

As I said, my kids are used to working on a budget.  Some of them are getting pretty good at it.  That doesn’t mean they don’t beg or whine or want more.  Or spend MY money like water, while keeping a death grip on their own funds.  But they know how it works, and are learning how to work it.

We spent the better part of three days going back and forth to several stores, looking at backpacks and lunchboxes.  We analyzed the fabric, we tested the zippers, we adjusted the straps.  We compared prices, took pictures, and calculated percents off. We agonized over totals that were bigger than mom’s budget.

Ultimately, everyone found a backpack and a lunchbox they are happy with.  And everyone chose to pay a little bit extra of their own funds to get the one they wanted.  (Mom will have to budget a little more next year – if not for happening on some good sales, $20 would NOT buy a backpack that’ll last more than a month.)

Six Lessons Learned

Want vs Need

We had a lot of opportunity to talk about Want vs Need.  We needed backpacks that would last.  But we didn’t need top of the line with so many pockets and zippers that it weighed more than the kid.  We needed reasonable lunchboxes, but we didn’t need the super duper fancy one that has a 17-piece set of containers inside.  Nobody needs to wash that many lunch containers (plus lids!), especially when your mean ol’ parents make you wash your own dishes every time you use them (!)

I had to hide a smile when I heard the kids saying, “I want this, but I don’t NEEEEEEED it”  Makes me think it might’ve sunk in, all those times I said it exactly like that, knees buckling, arms sagging, head rolling back, eyes drooping.  (We try to hit on all learning styles here; visually memorable and/or publicly embarrassing usually does the trick 😉 )

Price comparing & Returns

The youngest agonized over atleast 32 different amazing and fantastical lunchboxes she wanted (she’s 9).  Eventually she squealed the loudest for a box with Emoji faces all over it.  Super cool.  It was two dollars more than her Mom Lunchbox Budget.  She said she’d kick in the two bucks; after all, she’s rich with birthday money right now.  We bought it and moved on.

A few stores later, she says “Hey mom, here’s my same lunchbox! And it’s less!”  So we had a little teaching moment about not leaving money on the table.  We bought the cheaper one, and returned the more expensive one.  Now Girly can save her two dollars.  She’ll probably use it to buy something else covered with Emojis, but that’s her prerogative 🙂

Don’t Give Up. The best one might be at the very next store.

Like me, some of my kids enjoy the hunt.  Others can’t stand shopping, and collapse with despair in the aisles, at the idea of NOT having found it yet, and of going to yet another store.  I won’t tell which group is the boys, and which is the girls 😉  But we were having a moment of despair at one point.  The budget was a tight one, and one child was not finding what he wanted at a reasonable price.

He had earlier mentioned a store I hadn’t even considered.  But it was nearby, so on a wing and a prayer, I said Let’s try it.  About the third backpack in, there it was.  The Red Rider BB Gun of backpacks.  The Holy Grail.  Everything he’d ever wanted in a backpack.  But it had no sale tag like the others, and this store was expensive.

Ask. It might be on sale.

So I told him he had to muster up all his Brave, and go ask the sales person to see if maybe, just maybe, it was on sale.  He went.  I held my breath, sure we’d be rolling on the floor in despair in about 4 seconds.

But he came back all smiles.  The backpack was on sale.  Only five bucks over the budget.  He could swing that.  Whew!

(But now he was REALLY done with shopping.  The only thing worse than going to 47 stores to find your own backpack, is going to 47 stores after you’ve found it – so you can wait around while your sisters look at everything!)


Shiny new things are so….shiny.  And new.  And lovely.  But you know what?  After about Day 2, they’re just furniture.  One notebook is as useful as another.  A pen is a pen.  Cute erasers get just as smudgy as plain ones.  (Sacrilege to those of us who adore office supplies, I know.  But we’re talking about pre/teen tasmanian devils here.)

So we’ll use this moment, if need be, to practice being content with what we have.  It’ll do.


When you only have a few dollars in your account, you learn to make decisions.  You learn to prioritize and really take a hard look at what is worth spending your money on, and what’s not.  Maybe you put the item back on the shelf, maybe you decide to go for it.

Needs instead of wants.  Useful instead of decorative.  Plain instead of fancy.  Kind of a bummer, but it won’t be forever.

And if it is?  They will have learned some valuable skills for managing their own grown-up lives.  And our debt snowball is a little bigger than it might’ve been this month 🙂  That’s good for everybody, whether they know it or not.

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