Wants vs. Needs: How the Economy Has Changed Back-To-School Shopping

Districts, classroom teachers, and families have been forced to cut back on spending year round. What does that look like during the “Back-To-School” shopping season?

For districts, the next school year actually begins before school lets out for the summer. Budgets must be determined and supplies must be ordered.  For many schools, it is a hard lesson in “Wants vs. Needs.” In our district, an activity called “Build the Budget” helps determine where district money will be spent.  Staff members from all departments – administrators, teachers, cooks, secretaries, aides, custodians, and bus drivers – are asked to help make decisions that will impact the district’s ability to maintain, improve, or change education.  The group gathers together to assess the needs of the district (i.e. staffing, curriculum, tech, supplies, roofs, buses, etc). When we return to the classroom this fall, we will see which of our wishes have been granted.  Will we have new computers, SmartBoards in every classroom, updated textbooks, new carpet, clocks that work, or smaller class sizes?

For classroom teachers, the excitement of back-to-school shopping is still there, but the focus has changed. When I began teaching fifteen years ago, I remember my principal showing me a closet full of supplies that I could help myself to at anytime.  To a young teacher with a limited budget, it was exciting to have an endless supply of markers, pencils, glue sticks, highlighters, sentence strips, and chart paper.  All of these wonderful supplies were available to me for free, which left my personal budget wide-open for the fun stuff! I then hit Holcomb’s for decorations to make my classroom a colorful and brilliant place for learning. Now I must reuse the same decorations and make many of my own on the computer or with scrap booking supplies.

This year I will likely find all of my “free” supplies in my mailbox…a few pens, a highlighter, a pack of Post-it® notes, and a box of paperclips.  My personal back-to-school shopping spree will be strategically planned around the “Back-to-School” sales that begin in August.  I will scour the Sunday ads so I can purchase items on sale for a penny or a dollar. I will stock-up on pencils, erasers, glue sticks, folders, notebooks, and index cards. These are the items that students will need on a daily basis and usually run out of early in the year. These items may not be as fun to buy and don’t add color and excitement to my room, but they are necessary for day-to-day operations. I will hit some stores every single day for the length of the sale. I might even have my children or friends stand in line to pay for some of these amazing deals.

For many families, Back-to-School season is one of the most financially stressful times of the year.  While my own children are only in elementary school, I find I spend a little more every year. New clothes, shoes, haircuts, lunch bags, backpacks, and all the individual supplies, as well as a contribution to the classroom supply of tissues, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and Ziploc® baggies certainly adds up.  As a teacher who knows the frustration of dwindling supplies and the line “I don’t have a pencil,” I often find myself dipping into my own stockpile as my children’s teachers request donations throughout the year. While I do not usually spend money on Scholastic book orders and other fundraisers, I am always willing to send in donations that will help keep their classrooms running.

As a parent and a teacher, it is a challenge to get through August and the pressures and temptations of Back-to-School shopping. A combination of financial responsibility, common sense, and some creative shopping will help me keep the reality of my “wants” and “needs” in check.  Just like our district, I must build a budget that ensures my children, my students, and I will have what we really need for a successful school year.

by Melanie Krause, Dover Education Association

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