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Out with clothes, in with tech: How to rethink your back-to-school budget as coronavirus alters fall plans

CasarsaGuru | E+ | Getty Images

This fall's back-to-school shopping list certainly isn't looking like those of years past.

With many schools across the country going virtual, or offering part-time distant learning, parents are rethinking what their kids will need as the school year gets underway.

"We're being forced to really look at how we utilize our back-to-school budget," said Kumiko Love, an accredited financial counselor who writes The Budget Mom blog.

Instead of a closet full of new school clothes, parents may be looking at laptops, desks or classroom decor to create a learning space in their home.

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That may mean digging deeper into your wallet, or getting creative with your supplies or your budget. In fact, the pivot to remote learning is causing 61% of families with school-aged children to reevaluate their finances and careers, a recent survey from Bankrate found.

"A lot of these are things that maybe you didn't have to buy in years past or not have to buy as many of them," said Ted Rossman, an analyst at and

Back-to-school spending is expected to reach a record high this year, according to the National Retail Federation. Parents with children in elementary school through high school expect to spend an average of $789.49 per family, up from $696.70 last year, the NRF found.

Technology is very high on many people's list, with 63% of K-12 families expecting to buy computers or other electronics this year, up from 54% last year. They plan to spend an average of $274.44.

What elementary schools will look like in the fall
What schools will look like in the fall

The trend can also be seen in earnings reports like those of retail giant Target, which saw profits jump 80%. Its strongest sales were electronics, up more than 70% over a year earlier.

Then, there are costs for child care if both parents are working and the children are home. About 42% of parents thought that if their child-care options were limited, they would have to cut back on work hours or have to stop working entirely to take care of their kids, the Bankrate survey found.

For those who decide to homeschool, there are also curriculum costs, which can run as little as $50 to $100 per student  for borrowed books and curriculum or up to $300 to $500 per student, which comes with extras like music and art, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association.

Michele Kurzek, a 42-year-old mother of an 11-year-old and 9-year-old, has opted to try to match her children's private-school education with a homeschooling curriculum that runs $1,000 per child.

Michele Kruzek has set up a classroom in her Pennsylvania home to homeschool her children.
Michele Kruzek

She spent about $400 on furniture to create a classroom and bought chrome books for about $140 each, as well as headphones, pens and organizers.

"It's still cheaper than keeping them home and paying private school tuition for their cyber schooling." said Kurzek, who used to teach at her children's school in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

However, you don't have to spend that much money outfitting your child's at-home classroom.

Check with the school

Before you buy any technology, check with the school first to see if it will be provided to the students.

"You would be amazed at different programs that schools are running, from free lunches to free laptops that the students can use," Love said.

Borrow or buy second-hand

Borrowing or buying something second-hand can certainly save you money.

Jennifer Mullowney, who lives in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, with her 8 year-old son and 5-year old daughter, is lucky that her district is providing iPads for the students. Both will be attending school remotely full-time.

Shane and Maeve Mullowney will be learning remotely this year. Their mom, Jennifer, is keeping their back-to-school shopping budget low.
Source: Jennifer Mullowney

She found a used school desk for her daughter, who is entering kindergarten, for $20. Her third-grade son already had a desk that she found for $5 at Goodwill. Mullowney, 46, has been dipping into unused school supplies from last year, but bought some whiteboards, new books and a pencil sharpener.

"I've probably spent just under $200," she said. "This doesn't include last year's leftovers, when I spent probably $80."

Use free resources

Repurpose a table for a desk and, like Mullowney, check to see if there are any school supplies available from last year, Love said.

You can also tap into free online resources to supplement your school's curriculum. For instance, children can stream stories for free through audible on Amazon or they can take free courses on the nonprofit Khan Academy's website.

Comparison shop

Love likes to put together a comparison-shopping list before she makes a purchase.

Choose your two or three top stores for back-to-school shopping and then compare pricing on the items you want to buy.

Buy the bare minimum

Just because your back-to-school shopping list may have five notebooks, a big pack of pencils, a lunchbox and a backpack doesn't mean you have to buy them all right now.

"Instead of back-to-school shopping for the entire school year like we mostly do, I would shop sparingly for what your kids need to get started," Love advised.

As the school year progresses, then you can supplement those supplies.

If you are learning virtually, you can also have a little fun.

Melissa Lukach is using a table for a desk and bought posters for her kids' learning space.
Melissa Lukach

Melissa Lukach's 8- and 6-year old daughters will be learning remotely this year.

She set up a table in the dining room of her family's Sewell, New Jersey, home to serve as the girls' desk and put some posters up on the wall. She also bought all the supplies on the teachers' lists, but took some liberties.

"Remote learning means I could get the glitter pencils instead of the plain yellow," said Lukach, 39. "And a purple notebook instead of a black-and-white marble composition book," she said.

"Pink erasers? Nah. Giant rainbow erasers. Gotta have some fun, right?"

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