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Cost for back to school supplies has some parents concerned

A recent survey shows the majority of shoppers said they are adjusting their spending plans specifically because of the economy this year, with half saying they will shop for deals on back-to-school supplies. These supplies were donated to the Stuff the Bus program. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

From markers and colored pencils to calculators and laptops, the high cost of back to school shopping has many concerned.

According to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, families with children in kindergarten through 12th grade are expected to spend an average of $688, compared to $603 last year.

The supplies lists provided by the schools seem to grow longer each year, said Joshua Huffman, financial counseling supervisor at The Village Family Service Center.

The center is headquartered in Fargo, N.D., and provides counseling of all types in offices in North Dakota and Minnesota.

The supplies lists, which are revised by teachers every year, now include everything from general school supplies like folders and notebooks to cleaning supplies such as disinfectant wipes and paper towels.

One list is typically provided for each grade at a school.

The lists can be found on school websites or in department stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

Nathan Cox, principal of Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar, said the teachers are asked to look over the lists as a grade and come to a consensus.

"We talk about keeping it as minimal as possible because we know it's a concern for many," he said.

According to the NRF back-to-school survey, 85 percent of shoppers said they are adjusting their spending plans specifically because of the economy this year and more than 50 percent said they will shop for sales more often.

"It's pretty much a six-week window," Elaine Funk, executive team leader of sales at Willmar's Target, said about Target back-to-school sales.

The items rotate within that window, with different supplies, apparel, shoes and electronics on sale each week.

"(Back-to-school sales) trickle into other items like snacks and sporting goods as well," she said. "We try to look at the needs of our customers."

Huffman, who has two young children himself, emphasizes that back to school shopping isn't just the supplies; it also includes clothes, shoes, electronics and other school fees.

"People really overlook back to school shopping," he said. "When we're going through a budget with clients, they tend to underestimate how much they spend."

He encourages his clients to shop for the supplies without their children.

"(Children) always want the flashy, more expensive things," he said.

He also encourages his clients to avoid using credit cards and to look at what they can cut back on.

"For some families, (back-to-school shopping) might be a hardship," Cox said.

Programs like United Way's Stuff the Bus collect items for west central Minnesota families that cannot afford the necessary supplies.

Last year, a total of 6,316 items worth more than $8,000 was donated and distributed among area schools by the United Way of West Central Minnesota.


Plan ahead

"The most important thing is for parents to have a plan of attack," said Laura Ostlie, financial counselor for Lutheran Social Service in Willmar.

- Get the supplies list from the school.

- Take an inventory of what you already have.

- Determine what items can wait to be purchased.

- Reach out to community. Ask churches, schools and other organization if they have extra supplies.

- Shop around at craft stores, dollar stores and grocery stores.

- Set a budget and stick to it.