When I was growing up, back-to-school shopping was pretty simple – my mother took us to the nearest Woolworths and we bought a few notebooks, pens, pencils and a binder and voilà, school supplies, check! If we needed anything extra, or a little outside the norm, the teacher would tell us on the first day of school, my mother would go out and buy it and that was it. It was a pretty straightforward process.  

Not so today.

A modern-day school supply list can rival an advanced biology project in complexity and include products that didn’t even exist when I was a kid – like hand sanitizer and glue sticks. Finding the right products in the right sizes can get so complicated that sites like TeachersList.com - whose sole mission is to “Make Back-To-School Shopping as Easy as A.B.C.” - have popped up to help streamline the process.   

And then, depending on the age of the child, high tech issues such as the absolute NEED for a cell phone factors in. This need seems to be getting younger and younger. And with some of my friend’s children, the need gets decisively more urgent if one of their friends has just gotten one. My daughter Lulu isn’t quite there yet but I’m bracing myself for the day we have the, “Mom I need a cell phone!” conversation. Pray for me.

Back-to-school shopping is big business, too. According to a survey by the National Retail Federation combined K-12 and college back-to-school spending reached approximately $22.8 billion last year. By their estimate, the average family spent $603.63 dollars on apparel, school supplies and electronics. It is the second-biggest shopping spree of the year! Who knew?  All I know is that I do what I can to save as much money as I can on supplies, make sure that my daughter is prepared, safe and motivated to do as well as she possibly can.  

As a lifestyle expert I’m always on the lookout for useful information that makes my life and that of my clients and readers a bit easier. Budgeting and safety are a main focus. So I would like to offer the following tips which I find insightful:

Back-to-School Budget

I turned to The California Society of CPAs for some cost saving tips to help you spend less than the $603.63 the average family spends.

Step 1

Take an Inventory: See what supplies such as - pens, pencils, notebooks - you may already have so you don't need to buy them again.

Step 2:

Needs vs. Wants: Before you even think of heading over to the mall, help your child clean out his or her closet and purge items they don’t use anymore or have outgrown. Then make a list based on Needs vs. Wants. Get your child to clarify what their absolute needs are based on your budget.  

It’s not easy for many parents to say "we can't afford this". So focus on the positive instead of the negative. Focus on your budget and tell your kids that if they come in under the budget limit, they can have the extra money to spend on some of their "want-but-don't-need" back-to-school items.

Tip: Stay strong and avoid leakage; you drip out $20 here and $20 there. Budgeting is an important lesson that can have heavy repercussions if not learned early.

Step 3

Plan Ahead: Think off Back-To-School Shopping As A Year-Long Project.  

Instead of buying an entire years worth of clothing and supplies at once, spread purchases out over the entire year. Although fall clothing and supplies are full price now, sales will begin in a couple of months. Start buying sale items this year that you will be able to utilize next year.

Tip: If you charge school supplies make sure you will be able to pay off your entire credit card bill when it comes in. If not, the finance charges will likely wipe out any savings.

Step 4

Communicate Issues: Families With Financial Issues Should Contact the School. These are tough times and there are many families who are dealing with difficult financial issues. If you find yourself in this position or know of a family who might need a hand, research local programs in which businesses or other organizations donate school supplies.

Cell Phone Safety

While I’m not there yet, I know many parents are grappling with cell phone safety issues. So I turned to my friends at Safetyweb.com for tips to help navigate this brave new world and to help you create a cell phone safety plan for your family.

1. Check your school for their cell phone policy and make sure your children are aware of it.  Some schools do not allow cell phones on the premises and will confiscate it.

2. Children under 10 probably don’t need a phone with unlimited email or social networking capabilities, nor built in features like video messaging or a web browser. A basic cell phone is age appropriate. And make sure to review all pre-programmed apps and capabilities if you do decide to go with a more advanced model.  

3. Wait before answering. Tell your child never to answer a call or text message from a phone number they don’t recognize. Explain that they can check the message and then decide whether to respond or not.  Also show them how to block calls from unwanted numbers.

4. Limit Use. Have designated times for talking with friends after homework and/or chores are completed.  Make sure your teen’s phone is off and stays off after bedtime AND check periodically to make sure.

While I may look nostalgically back on the simplicity of my youth, I do recognize the opportunities that modern living and technology affords. And I embrace them for my children. But I always do it with an eye toward safety and moderation.  

Happy back-to-school, all!

Marlene Pratt is the co-founder of Casa Latina, an interior designer and on-air television host on both English and Spanish-language television. Follow Marlene on Twitter at @CasaLatinaToday and Like her FB page

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Nora Diaz Bretherton is co-founder of Casa Latina and a television industry professional. Follow Nora on Twitter at @NoraCasaLatina and Like her FB page.