General Shopping Tips | Cell Phones | School Supplies | Clothing | Backpacks | Computers | USB Flash Drives

General Shopping Tips

“Is there anything we can do to make back-to-school shopping run more smoothly?”

“First, information is critical, so be in the in the know before you go,” suggests Cynthia Townley Ewer, founder and editor of Make a thorough inventory so you know exactly what you have and what you need before hitting the stores. Then get yourself clear on needs vs. wants before discussing back-to-school shopping with your children.

For example, if last year’s purchases and hand-me-downs have a child’s clothing needs covered, you can limit new purchases to a single “first day” outfit. The same holds for other supplies, such as lunch boxes, backpacks, and additional gear. Stick to your list to stay on budget and keep the quantity of “stuff” more manageable.

Good timing can also make a difference. Get organized early so you can shop the preseason enticement sales—and consider buying smaller quantities than necessary so you can finish stocking up a few weeks later, when many of these items will be offered at clearance prices.

Cell Phones

“My 12-year-old has been lobbying for a cell phone. Are there any guidelines to keep it from turning into a toy, a distraction, and a drain on the budget?”

“From talking to the neighborhood kids in middle school, most kids they know have cell phones by 6th grade,” says Beth Blecherman, a cofounder of the Silicon Valley Moms Blog who writes about parenting and family technology on her personal blog, Techmamas.

Several parents have told Blecherman that they gave their children cell phones to aid in scheduling pickups and drop-offs. It’s convenient, but it has some downsides, too; one parent had to make a “no cell phones during carpool” rule after the kids talked nonstop on the devices.

To keep a child’s cell phone use under control, Blecherman suggests following these steps, gathered from conversations with other moms and dads:

  1. Research your options. Websites like CNET and MSNBC often have articles and reviews of phones and calling plans.
  2. Talk with your child about how the cell phone should be used before buying one.
  3. Many kids use text messaging extensively; find out whether your child is interested in this or other services and choose a plan together.
  4. When signing up for a plan, decline games and extras such as daily jokes; the extra charges add up quickly.
  5. Monitor the plan monthly to be certain it’s a good fit. Make it clear to your child that you’ll be reviewing the bill each month and that any abuses will result in loss of privileges.

School Supplies

“School supplies seem to end up scattered around the house. How can I figure out what we truly need and be able find it all later?”

Before even thinking about buying more supplies, says Ewer of, you have to figure out two things: what you need, and what you have. Tackle what you need first; office supply stores and school or district websites often list suggested or required student materials. Then, with lists in hand, scour the house to figure out which supplies you already own.

Once you’ve determined what to purchase, establish a budget and enforce it with your kids, Ewer says. When your child beseeches you to buy the backpack, lunchbox, and binder, all with matching licensed cartoon character (and hefty price), turn it into a learning experience. “A bit of horse-trading along the lines of ‘Well, the budget will let you buy the backpack only if we choose less expensive binders’ can make the limits clear and teach financial skills at the same time,” Ewer explains—plus it’s a good method for limiting unnecessary impulse purchases in general.

Other tips to ease the pain of buying school supplies:

Shop early. Back-to-school loss leaders—products offered below cost to entice shoppers into stores—show up beginning in early July. Pick up those items you know you’ll need (lined notebook paper, pencils, crayons, folders, etc.), and the money you save can go toward bigger budget items.

Shop late. Those aisles might be packed to capacity the weekend before school opens, but the same products will be on sale a week or so later—and no crowds in store. “Turn a deaf ear to children’s pleas of ‘But I have to have it all today!’ and budget some cash for sale-end buys,” Ewer says. “That’s the time to stock up on the basics that will be needed all year.”

Ewer also offers a tried-and-true method for controlling clutter: “Designate a box, shelf, or (best) covered records box as ‘school supply central,’” she says. “This tip will serve you well all year. Find that stash of 9-cent boxes of crayons or a few packs of binder paper from last summer? Tuck them into the box; the short stuff will know where to find new crayons when they need them in November.”


“I’d like to make our annual back-to-school clothes-shopping excursions fun for everyone. What are the basics?”

Clothing is a big part of how kids feel about themselves, says Mary Lou Andre, president of the wardrobe management and personal shopping company Organization by Design. Many children enjoy picking out new pieces and finding different ways to express themselves.

But because back-to-school shopping is a “huge marketing phenomenon these days,” it can get complicated quickly. “Kids, especially tweens, are being marketed to and sold to on the Internet, on TV—especially with regard to fashion,” Andre says.

There are steps parents can take to make it easier, though. Encourage the kids to go window shopping with you or with friends, and set aside time to look through a few back-to-school catalogs together. Besides helping them think about what they want, it’s a chance to make a list and discuss the shopping budget.

“People have all different ideas for what they spend on kids’ clothes. You want to start talking about it before the first week of school,” Andre says. “Having a calm financial conversation at home is a good way to avoid an emotional blowout at the store.”

Whether your budget is low or high, Andre suggests limiting children’s choices. “Before buying something new, get rid of something—and do it before going to the store,” she says. Sticking to the shopping list you made together at home also helps avoid impulse buys and provides an unemotional way to keep kids from going overboard.

Andre offers the following tips for a smooth shopping excursion:

  • Make an appointment with your children to review their current wardrobes. Have them try on everything to see what they’ve outgrown and identify which pieces they like and dislike.
  • Donate outgrown and seldom-worn clothes, mark them as hand-me-downs for friends and family, or store them for younger siblings. Then talk about what’s needed to complete a back-to-school wardrobe.
  • Talk about the styles kids will be wearing this fall and the difference between fads, classics, and trends. Establish house rules about which styles are off-limits.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes and clothes that are easy to take off and put on for less hassles in the dressing room.
  • Don’t go at busy times. Be ready when stores open, then plan on having lunch with your children afterward.
  • Take children shopping for only a few hours, not the entire day. Shop-’til-you-drop sprees usually lead to impulse buying, arguments, and exhaustion.
  • Try to avoid buying everything before school starts. Once your children see what everyone else is wearing, they might change their opinions about what they want.


“Is there anything I should keep in mind when looking for a new backpack for my elementary schooler?”

Rani S. Gereige, a pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on School Health, says that young children today might carry as much as 40 percent of their body weight in backpacks. “Large backpacks are a relatively recent phenomenon resulting from various factors, including inadequate numbers of students’ lockers, less time between classes to get to lockers for students who have them, and larger textbooks,” he says. “Sports bags, musical instruments, and other objects can add to the weight children haul to school.”

A backpack worn correctly distributes weight between some of the strongest muscles in the body. An incorrect fit, however, can lead to joint problems and muscle injuries in the neck, shoulders, and back, even among children.

The AAP has guidelines parents can use to ensure a safe fit. When shopping for a new school bag, look for:

  • a pack that is light when completely empty
  • two shoulder straps—using one strap, even if it runs diagonally across the body, doesn’t distribute the weight evenly
  • wide, padded shoulder straps that don’t dig into your child’s shoulder, preferably wide enough to cover at least 50 percent of each shoulder and positioned toward the middle of the shoulder rather than the edge
  • a padded back
  • a waist strap, which can make it easier to carry heavy loads, and a chest strap, which can add to the bag’s stability

To prevent back injuries, teach children to bend at the knees (not at the waist) to pick up heavy packs. Have children use both shoulder straps at all times and shorten the length of the straps so the backpack sits close to the body and about 2 inches above the waist. “Many children think it is ‘cooler’ to wear the backpack very low or with one shoulder strap on,” Gereige says. “The waist strap should be tightened also around the 2-inch waist level and should be tight enough that the backpack does not bounce up and down with walking.”

Keep the weight of the packed bag within 10 percent to 20 percent of the student’s weight, and take advantage of all the available compartments, placing heavier items toward the bottom and closer to the child’s back. Take symptoms of back pain seriously, Gereige says, especially if you notice abnormally slumped posture or if children complain of back pain that radiates as tingling, numbness, or weakness in the arms or legs.


“Should we get our children their own laptops? How high-end do they really need to be?”

According to Techmamas blogger Blecherman, kids in Northern California’s Silicon Valley don’t usually need their own personal computers because they have frequent access at school. Until about 6th grade, she says, it’s not even imperative to have a family computer at home, at least with regard to school assignments.

As early as 3rd grade, however, students are learning to type, making presentations with word processing, spreadsheet, and slide show software, and creating projects online. “The question for parents is if they want their children to have experience with a computer at an earlier age and utilize the resources of the web,” Blecherman says.

Many of the parents Blecherman talks to have hand-me-down computers for the kids or give them access to a family machine. Desktops are the most economical, and their bulkiness make them harder to lose or steal, she says. But laptops with wireless access might be worth considering for older kids because they can work in different areas of the house.

One issue not to overlook: Internet safety. “By giving your child access to the internet on a home computer, what are you giving them access to and how will they use it?” Blecherman asks. “For any children with laptops or desktops, parental controls are a must.” She encourages all parents to learn about safe online behaviors, especially if kids have access to a computer-mounted camera, and to implement controls such as “safe searches.”

USB Flash Drives

“Does my child need his own portable USB drive? What other technology do we need to think about?”

In Silicon Valley, Blecherman says, students as young as 2nd grade are allowed to store their electronic classwork on school computers; by 6th grade, however, they’re expected to have their own flash drives for transporting assignments in progress that they’ll need to work on at home. She suggests finding a USB drive with 1 gigabyte of memory on it.

Once kids begin working on computers at home, it’s a good idea to give them access to a printer. Choices include buying a family printer or going to office supply or copy stores for occasional printing jobs.

Blecherman says students were also keen on electronic dictionaries and portable mp3 players. “No one mentioned the one tool I used in primary school: a calculator,” she says. “Oh, does anyone use a calculator anymore?”