Growing up, my family didn’t go shopping very often. But when it came time to buy back-to-school clothes, there was one event we observed with almost religious consistency–the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale. Though we didn’t buy a ton—a few outfits, a couple of pairs of shoes—I’d pick out my choices with careful discernment, feeling both thrill and pressure as I knew that the wardrobe I got that day was meant to get me through most of the school year.
While I didn’t know it at the time, this tradition informed my understanding of money. Accredited Financial Counselor® and parent, Julia Lorenz-Olson, believes that every family has rituals around money whether they realize it or not. Approaching these rituals in an intentional way can help you pass on your values and avoid creating stressful associations with spending.
As you start back-to-school shopping, you might be feeling pressure to balance your budget with your kids’ preferences—especially in the context of inflation. Below are some strategies for using shopping as a way to teach your kids valuable lessons about money:
Include kids in budgeting
Lorenz-Olson advised including your children in the planning and budgeting process. “We do our kids a disservice by not bringing them alongside us as we create a plan. They’re going to catch more than we directly teach them.”
You can start by working with them to make a list of everything they’ll need for school, from supplies to clothes to sports equipment. Then, set a budget for how much you’d like to spend in total. Finally, go shopping alongside your kids, doing the math together to try and make the list work within the budget you’ve set.
Talk openly about comparisons
Comparing ourselves to our peers is human nature, and it starts young. Kids can easily feel inadequate or embarrassed if they don’t think their stuff is as good as someone else’s. But that’s not a reason to give in to their every request, especially if doing so would require you to go into debt. Not only would that put unnecessary strain on you, but it gives kids the message that it’s not okay to have less than other people. Eventually, everyone is forced to confront and accept the reality of having less than others, whether that’s in the form of material objects, accolades, or job opportunities, so learning to make peace with that can be a valuable lesson.
To help kids understand your decisions, Lorenz-Olson advised talking to your kids about what your goals are as a family. If that means saving up for their college tuition and avoiding going into debt, share that.
“Kids are much smarter than we give them credit for,” she said. Back-to-school shopping is a great place to start to help them understand that what works for their friends’ families— who have their own values and differing access to resources—might not work for yours.
If protests and tantrums happen anyway, trust that by holding firm to your boundaries, you’re helping your kids more in the long term.
It can be discouraging to focus only on limitations and what you can’t buy. Hunting for great deals can be its own kind of fun challenge though, and it’s one you can tackle together. By sharing your excitement about finding something on sale, you can frame it as a “win,” not something to be ashamed about.
Personally, I get a certain kind of joy out of shopping at consignment and thrift stores that I don’t get from shopping for new stuff. It feels almost like rifling through a chest in an attic. You never know what cheap score or unique item you’ll find. While you shop, you can encourage your kids to think creatively about their personal styles and tastes.
Consider age-appropriate lessons
It’s never too soon to start talking to kids about money in a broad sense, and doing so will help them understand that it’s a normal topic of conversation and not a taboo.
However, lessons specifically about budgeting likely work best for kids beginning at around 6 or 7 years old, as that’s when a basic understanding of addition and subtraction often starts to take root.
If you’re comfortable giving your child money directly, you can let them pick out some items themselves. That way, if a child has their heart set on a specific brand-name item that you wouldn’t otherwise buy, they can still have the opportunity to get it—they just have to understand that it may take time to save up for it and that it may mean not buying some other things.
“You can be super frank with them,” said Lorenz-Olson. “Say, ‘We have X set aside for your needs.’ The key is engagement and transparency. Once kids know the basics of math, they understand that money is limited. The more you involve them, the better.”
Start with cash
Using cash for some of your kids’ purchases can be helpful as it allows them to hold the money in their hands and count it out.
“Especially for younger kids, I think it’s important for them to have visual aids,” said Lorenz-Olson. “So much about money is digital these days and that lack of tactile experience with limits can really have an effect on your brain.”
Consider who’s best for the job
If all of the above still sounds like a major drag to you, consider delegating the entire task of shopping to someone else in your child’s life. Would your kids’ other parent, a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or even one of your friends be open to taking them shopping or having a money convo with them? Since back-to-school shopping is also kind of a nostalgic activity, it could be a genuinely fun way for another adult to form meaningful memories with your kids.
As a potential bonus, sometimes children are better behaved with people other than their primary caregiver. And it might be easier for another person to “blame” the budget on you from afar–“Sorry, your mom said we can only spend $100, and I’m not the boss!” Just make sure that whoever you delegate to respects your boundaries and doesn’t undermine them.
However you handle back-to-school shopping, remember that we’re always teaching our kids lessons about money whether consciously or not. By making the activity purposeful, we can ensure those are lessons we feel good about.