Going to school: How families are coping despite the cost



Back-to-school boxes in Jonelle Wood’s attic have been full since late June, with paper, pencils and clothes to last her three school-age children until next fall. Total $245.

It takes a certain amount of money from each paycheck for sales at Walmart and Target, and coupons and cash back rewards at CVS and Walgreens throughout the year. “If I didn’t do it this way, I wouldn’t be able to afford it [it] When it’s time for school,” he said.


Research by Deloitte and JLL shows that many Americans feel the same way when dealing with preschool lists in this age of inflation. They monitor sales, flock to discount stores, and work extra shifts. The National Retail Federation estimates that the average U.S. household is $864, with many starting to shop months earlier than usual to get ahead of the season.

They also focus on the industry, said Chip West, a retail and consumer behavior expert at marketing solutions company Vericast. The supply chain bottlenecks that once plagued retailers have allowed inventory to pile up for many big-box stores, forcing them to cut prices to eliminate excess cash.

“They know there are a lot of deals out there,” West said. “They’re looking more and more for these promotions, sales and coupons to help them save money.”

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The stakes are high for retailers: Americans will spend a record $37 billion in 2021, according to the National Retail Federation, which expects comparable numbers this year.

While government data showed consumer spending rose 1.1 percent in June, a University of Michigan estimate of consumer sentiment hit a record 50 percent for the month. With consumer spending accounting for more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy, economists and policymakers will be watching closely for any signs of contraction and a possible recession.

The season is also a barometer of the important holiday shopping season, West said. If families can afford the costs of the new school year, they will spend more during the holidays, especially if they shop early and spread the costs over several months.

“With inflationary pressures high, the consumer behavior and sentiment we’re witnessing for back-to-school shopping could easily carry over into the holiday shopping season,” he said.

But Steven Rogers, managing director of Deloitte’s Consumer Industry Center, said consumers are spending despite high prices – inflation rose 9.1 percent in June – as they see back-to-school spending as a necessity.

“Parents always do it for their kids,” he said.

Michelle Kane, mother of 9- and 6-year-old twins from the Chicago suburbs, is diligent about finding deals. She keeps a spreadsheet of things her kids need and uses research techniques usually reserved for big-ticket purchases like a car or appliance. Cain compares prices at Walmart, Target, Amazon, and any other big sale store and adds them to the cart before deciding whether to buy them all in one place or multiple stores.

Cain, 40, regularly shares her findings in Facebook groups — alerting her parents when backpacks are half-empty or when markers drop by a few dollars — and stretches purchases between pay cycles. Excluding clothing, Cain says she spent about $100 per child this year.

A JLL survey found that nearly 60 percent of shoppers plan to look for sales and coupons this year, while 50 percent will focus on the essentials and buy less. Discount retailers attract new customers, including those who have never shopped at a dollar store before, West said. In May, both Dollar General and Dollar Tree raised their sales forecasts for 2022, adjusting for inflation-adjusted shopping habits.

Amanda Frey, 39, said she cut back on unnecessary spending while shopping for her 8- and 16-year-old daughter this summer. Unlike other years, when children get new shoes and shiny folders with patterns and characters, this year they have to wear their own clothes and use simple notebooks. He also sifted through their closets to make a list of the things they really needed. Still, he chose the most economical purchase option.

“Instead of buying new things, my daughter shopped at consignment stores where I got a loan to trade in her old clothes,” said Frey, who lives in St. Marys, a town of about 18,000 in southeast Georgia.

Wood, 36, of Oklahoma, is taking full advantage of the big discounts. She said she found her 16-year-old son’s favorite pair of pants at Walmart for $1 a piece.

“He has 15 pairs,” Wood said. “One that’s bigger, and then the ones that match it now.”

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Supply chain disruptions that left school supplies empty in 2021 and led to back orders for computers and tablets shouldn’t be an issue this year, said Darcy McClaren, head of digital supply chain at SAP North America, as manufacturers and stores prepare more.

“Technology [and] Your basic school supplies are very stable,” she said, and should be readily available. But the discounts may disappear as summer winds down and stores stop stocking seasonal aisles.

Cain, who lives in the Chicago suburbs, said she hasn’t always been on target with trade deals in years past — she works part-time as an office administrator and her husband has a well-paying job in marketing. But rising prices of petrol and food have taken a toll on his family.

“If it’s a problem for us, I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who don’t have the financial means and don’t have access to the stores that we do,” he said.