Braving back-to-school shopping as a single parent

It’s happened. Next week August begins. Department stores are putting away their summer gear and replacing their barbecue displays with school supplies and other back-to-school “essentials.” Whether you want to believe it or not, summer is fast coming to a close. Pretty soon the kids will head back to school (perhaps giving you a much-needed break!).

However, with the back-to-school season on the horizon, you may have some anxiety beyond the stress of getting everyone back onto the school schedule with proper bedtimes and homework routines. That anxiety is this: who’s going to pay for all those back-to-school supplies?

Back-to-school by the numbers

According to, back-to-school shopping is the No. 1 stress parents have around this time of year. Despite their best efforts, parents spend anywhere from $150 to $250 per child on school supplies. Some even aim to spend no more than $100 on new shoes alone.

As a single parent on a single income, such costs may seem untenable. Even if you’re still going through divorce, you may feel alone in getting the kids ready for the upcoming school year. Perhaps your temporary parenting plan and support orders didn’t cover back-to-school supplies. So, what can you do?

First things first: talk with your kids’ other parent

Though child support is technically designed to cover a child’s basic needs like clothing and food, it may not necessarily be enough to cover every item on his or her school shopping list. Ideally, you and your coparent should discuss how to split expenses. A good compromise might be having one parent buy new clothes and shoes and the other cover notebooks, pens, pencils and other practical supplies.

Whatever you do, try not to make it into a competition, especially if you are still in the midst of divorce. Decide on a maximum amount both of you will stick to ahead of time to avoid the “Daddy loves me best because he bought me $200 Nikes” situation.

Use your own resources and lean on your network

You may be surprised at how many perfectly good notebooks or folders survived the summer in your office or your child’s bedroom. If your child is upset about not having “new” supplies, you can use this as teachable moment in budgeting and finance. By re-using last year’s backpack and supplies from your own home, you may have more money to buy those $200 Nikes, a brand new graphing calculator or another expensive item your child really wants.

You could also recruit grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles and others to help defray the costs. If an item is very expensive, perhaps you could all pitch in or treat it as an early birthday or Christmas present. Some communities and nonprofits organize back-to-school drives for those who may have trouble covering the cost of new supplies. A quick online search can reveal any such programs in your area.

Shop the sales and online marketplaces

Take advantage of end-of-summer sales and garage sales for clothes, instead of being drawn in by all the back-to-school merchandise. Who cares if that shirt bears an American flag or sports a neon”summer” color? Don’t forget to check online marketplaces for gently used electronics like graphing calculators, iPads or other technology your kids might need for the upcoming school year.

With a little planning and cooperation, your kids will start this new school year off just fine, as will you.