- Tim Sheehan is the co-founder and CEO of Greenlight, a debit card for kids that their parents can manage.
- He says that back-to-school shopping season is a great way to teach children about budgeting and money by letting them take the lead.
- Create clear budgets with kids, help them assess what they already have, help them bargain shop, and have them handle checkout.
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It’s that time of year again — back-to-school season is in full force, and families around the country are flocking to stores with their shopping lists in hand. According to the National Retail Federation, families with children in elementary school through high school will spend a record amount of money this year.
Back-to-school shopping presents a great opportunity to teach kids about money and the importance of budgeting. Putting kids in the driver’s seat (with some adult supervision, of course!) can help instill ownership and prompt first-hand lessons in trade-off decisions.
1. Start with a budget
According to Deloitte’s 2019 Back-to-School Survey, the average family will spend $519 per child on supplies, electronics, apparel, and accessories for the new school year. That seems like a lot of money to me, but the important thing is to set a budget and ask your child to stick to it. My wife and I have found it helpful to give our kids two budgets: one for school supplies and one for clothes (because kids grow so quickly and we tend to review our kids’ clothes situation when they’re headed back to school). We use Greenlight to give each child their budgeted amounts so they are responsible for making sure they get what they need, and don’t run out of money.
2. Review the list (and then take inventory)
Have your kids take inventory of what they already have and what they need for next year, running through the essentials such as pencils, notebooks, and a backpack. We like to have our kids spread their things out on the kitchen table or their beds to spark conversation about what’s essential to purchase new this year versus what’s nice to have. So much of back-to-school shopping is around assessing need versus want, and we like to have that conversation with the kids before we hit the stores.
3. Bargain shop online
Sometimes the best deals are online. I like to take the shopping list and sit with my kids to hunt for great/low prices on Amazon, Walmart.com, or other sites. It’s sometimes easier to keep them focused at the house versus the crowded aisles of a big-box store. Online shopping also helps combat the availability of name-brand items, which may be limited in stores.
4. Be prepared and focused when shopping in-person
A budget can be made or broken in the crowded aisles of Walmart, Target, or your local shops. To avoid the crowds, we usually take our kids early in the morning or later in the afternoon. We also have them bring their shopping list so that they know exactly what they still need and have them keep track of how much money they have left to spend.
5. Have your kids handle checkout
If kids pay themselves, they’ll feel more ownership of the items they’ve selected and how much they’re spending.
When it comes to teenagers, letting them shop on their own or with friends can teach them independence and accountability, which will bolster their financial confidence. Since clothes shopping can be especially painful with our teenagers, my wife and I tend to drop our teenagers off at the mall (with a friend or two) with the shopping lists we’ve agreed to, their phones, and their Greenlight debit cards (which have the budgeted amounts on them), and pick them up later! Everyone seems much happier this way, and we think it’s a great way to help teach our kids to be independent and financially responsible.
A 2013 study from Cambridge University reported that kids are able to grasp money concepts between the ages of three and four. For those with younger kids, I recommend giving them a smaller list of supplies (perhaps five items) and making an effort in-store to locate those items, discuss the different options available to the child and introduce the concept of trade-off decisions. For example, you can get the more expensive My Little Pony pencils, but you may not have enough money left over for the markers you need.
I strongly believe kids learn by doing. Ultimately, they need to practice making spending decisions and have the ability to make mistakes in a safe, supervised way, so that they learn how to budget and make smart financial choices. Back-to-school season is a great time to teach important lessons that can become good, financially-healthy, long-term habits.
Tim Sheehan is the co-founder and CEO of Greenlight. Greenlight has helped more than half a million parents and kids manage their finances with their debit card for kids that parents manage by app. Prior to Greenlight, Tim was the Lead Entrepreneur in Residence at Georgia Tech’s startup incubator, the Advanced Technology Development Center. Earlier in Tim’s career he was Director of Yahoo! Finance, the SVP Products, Marketing and Strategy at Fiserv, and a Senior Manager for E*Trade Financial.