Parents pare school shopping. How to tell the kids?

Susie Dibbs checks the fit of a St. Mary's school uniform for her son J.D. Dibbs while shopping for back-to-school clothing in Tampa in July. Over a third of parents say they will spend less on school shopping this year than last, according to a recent survey.

In the summer of the most severe recession in decades, Kimberly Ben’s four kids all want new bikes. But the Atlanta family is already recycling leftover school supplies and shopping at Dollar General and other discount stores it would never have visited in the past.

“Right now I’ve had to tell them … ‘We’ve got to hold off,’ ” Ms. Ben says, “because we’ve got school starting.”

Over a third of parents plan to cut back on back-to-school shopping this year, according to a back-to-school survey released Tuesday by America's Research Group, a consumer-research firm, and UBS Global Equity Research, an arm of the Swiss bank. More are going to Wal-Mart and asking their kids to wear last year’s clothes. They're looking for sales, and less than 2 percent say they will pay full retail price for their school supplies. But how should parents tell their school-shopping kids that they need to cut back?

Some appear to be avoiding the question. Nearly a third of parents are not taking their kids along to stores, up from 10 percent in 2008, according to the survey. Surveyors see this as a sign of parental muscle-flexing in buying decisions.

Ben decided to be upfront, instead. For half a year after the recession began, Ben was the sole breadwinner for her family with a freelance writing business. Her husband has a job now, but they’re trying to rebuild the savings now that they used then. “It didn’t make sense to shield [the kids] from it, but to get them involved, too.”

Parenting adviser Jim Fay says that’s the way to go.

“Now is an awfully good time for people to start sharing the family budget with the kids,” says Fay, coauthor of the 2008 book, “Millionaire Babies or Bankrupt Brats?” and co-founder of the Love and Logic Institute in Golden, Colo., which offers practical parenting techniques.

Rather than kids “dictating” what they’d like to buy for school, Fay says it’s best to let kids know how much money is available and have them make a list of what will fit into it. If kids want items beyond the family’s means, he suggests:

•Putting the onus of earning on them. “Say to them, ‘Wouldn’t that be wonderful? You should have that. How will you go about earning that?’ ”

•Splitting the costs and offering matching funds for big-ticket items.

•Delaying. “Say, ‘Why don’t you put that on your wish list?’ ”

For school supply shopping, he advises letting kids go on a trial run to the store to add up prices before deciding what they really need.

Cutting back isn’t all about what the family is forgoing. Fay says budgeting in a recession offers parents an opportunity to teach their kids problem solving. “Buying school supplies would be a great time for that,” he adds. “It’s good practice for being an adult, isn’t it?”

– Guest blogger Taylor Barnes is a Monitor contributor.

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