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Tips for Taming Educational Expenses

Frugal Parenting (featured column)
by Rachel Keller

For many years, I’ve been involved in the educational setting. I spent nearly twenty years as a student, two years teaching full-time in a private Christian school, a couple years in various positions in the public school setting, and eight years homeschooling my three oldest children. As a result, I’ve observed first-hand the advantages and disadvantages to each educational setting. None of them–including "free" public education–is free.

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According to the National Retail Federation’s 2006 Back-to-School Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, parents of school-age children can expect to spend an average of $527.08 on back-to-school items. The NRF estimates back-to-school spending to reach $17.6 billion. Now, that’s a lot of change in someone’s pocket!

The above figures estimate back-to-school spending only, not any extra expenses throughout the year. So what can you expect to spend your hard-earned money on this school year?


Don’t you wish clothing grew with your children, that they never wore out, and that fashions stayed the same? Unfortunately, clothes wear out and fashions change more quickly than your children do.

Set reasonable limits for clothing and stick to it. Purchasing the latest fashions for your children will increase your clothing budget. Consider having your children spend some of their own money on clothes (especially if they insist on wearing the latest style). Thrift stores and yard sales can yield great finds for budgets.

Most homeschoolers don’t need a special wardrobe for school. (They don’t have anyone to impress during the school day.) Some homeschooling moms make their children wear "uniforms" or dress in school attire to maintain a classroom atmosphere, while others let their children wear play clothes or hand-me-downs rather than investing in new school attire.

Supplies (paper, pencils & other materials)

Every child, no matter how he’s educated, needs certain supplies for the school year. The smart shopper plans early and looks for bargains. Usually, later in the summer (and sometimes after the school year begins) stores advertise great buys on back-to-school items.

Classroom teachers require their students to have a minimum of supplies to be ready for the school year. Often the lists presented are guidelines. If money is tight, begin with the bare essentials and add items as necessary. Check through supplies at home. Last year’s scissors, unused paper, notebooks, and writing utensils make a great start for this year’s supplies.

Homeschools vary as much as the regular school setting. Our homeschool uses much less paper than regular classrooms by completing many assignments on scrap paper, dry erase board, the computer, and even orally. What paper we do use and don’t save, we recycle.


Most public and private schools provide their students with curriculum. Homeschoolers have the added expense of purchasing curriculum–both student’s and teacher’s editions. Many homeschoolers have learned how to save money and some even boast of educating their children free or nearly free. A frugal homeschooling parent can take advantage of many educational resources to save money. (I hope to write more about frugal homeschooling in a future article.)


Lunches cost money whether you buy or pack them. Frugal parents compare the cost of cafeteria lunches with sack lunches. By shopping wisely, you can pack healthy lunches and save money. Prepackaged individual servings are convenient and easy, but costly and often not the best nutritional choice. Plan ahead by having healthy choices available, and you can save much money over the school year.

Homeschoolers have a definite advantage since they don’t need to pack lunches except for special outings and field trips. Eating at home is simpler and offers a greater and healthier variety of menu choices. Homeschoolers do not need to purchase special lunch boxes or sacks either.

Extracurricular activities

Extracurricular activities involve fees. Traveling, lodging and other expenses can really add up and take a toll in a parents’ budgets. Homeschoolers often participate in sports, music, drama, and other camps or activities. These, too, may incur extra expense. You don’t have to participate in every special program or event. Limit and choose carefully what extracurricular activities your family will participate in. This is especially helpful if you have a large family.

Health costs

Children who are in a classroom daily come in contact with various sicknesses, flues, colds, etc. Often, these illnesses result in trips to the doctor’s office and/or antibiotics. Parents may have to make a special trip to the school to pick up a child and miss days of work. Avoid illnesses by teaching children the importance of washing hands often, and keep your children home if they have a fever or contagious illness. (See Children's Health and Safety: Inexpensive Homemade Remedies for some cost effective treatments.)

Children who are homeschooled are not exposed to as many sicknesses. When they are sick, they may not have to miss a day of schooling. I have five children and have been a mother for nearly 13 years, but in all that time, we’ve been to the doctor for sick visits about five times. (Our last sick doctor visit was almost two years ago.)

Parties and gifts

Most classrooms have parties. These can include harvest or fall parties, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and year-end parties. As a teacher, I made or purchased inexpensive Christmas gifts for my students. Many (but not all) brought Christmas gifts for me as well as to exchange with each other. At the end of the school year, my students surprised me with a birthday party and a gift. Valentine’s day meant exchanging cards and/or candy. Be aware of these extra little expenses and realize that not all meaningful gifts need to be expensive.

Homeschoolers may get together for parties and park days, but usually the expense of gifts and parties is less than that of a student in the classroom setting.

Which is best for you?

All education involves time, money, and resources, and each educational setting has its advantages and disadvantages. Carefully consider what is best for your family and each of your children, and make financially wise decisions in your children’s educational endeavors.

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Copyright © 2006 by Rachel Keller. All rights reserved.

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