American parents struggle with inflation for back-to-school costs

When Sarah Longmore finished back-to-school shopping, a mother of five looked at a $25 backpack for her preschooler. Soaring inflation weakened the family budget, and she decided that her daughter could be content with getting rid of it. Backpack returned.

Like Longmore, many parents – regardless of income – are finding that their back-to-school money doesn’t go as far as it once did. Inflation has reached levels not seen in decades, with soaring prices for groceries, gas, household goods and everything needed to run a household.

Only 36 percent of parents said they’ll be able to pay for everything their kids will need this school year, according to the annual Back-to-School Shopping Report from Morning Consult. That’s down sharply from 52 percent in 2021, when inflation was lower and stimulus checks plus advance payments for the children’s tax credit helped some families.

“Shopping habits have changed dramatically,” said Longmore, an HR employee who lives in Poconos, Pennsylvania with her husband and five children.

Longmores earn more than $100,000 a year, well above the average American household income of nearly $65,000. But with five young children, the family’s expenses are also well above average, and Longmore said it’s not enough to comfortably keep her family working — a problem emphasized in the back-to-school season as four of the couple’s children are of school age.

Not everyone got everything new, [and] “Not everyone can have it all,” Longmore said. The 12-year-old chose new clothes rather than a new backpack and stationery, for example. Younger kids inherit sibling backpacks and desks with still lifes.

Other families are likely to make similar decisions.

Parents are expected to spend about $661 to $864 on K-12 school supplies for the 2022-23 school year, according to estimates by consultancy Deloitte and the National Retail Federation.

“Families consider back-to-school and university items to be an essential category, and they are taking all steps they can…to purchase what they need for the upcoming school year,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. Those sacrifices may include buying off-brand items, researching sales and cutting discretionary spending, he said.

Some families always face these challenges at the beginning of the school year. But it’s not something Longmore is used to.

“It’s been at least 20 years since I had to hold back this far,” she said. “This is a new and humbling experience for me as an adult.”

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The NRF’s proposed cuts may help, but they may not be enough to help every family afford what their kids need for school — even as retailers including Walmart, Target, Kohl’s and others slash merchandise prices to cut their ballooning inventories.

Molly Schmitz, a mother of four in Wisconsin, said she recycles supplies from the previous year frequently, as did Longmore.

Invest in Lands’ End backpacks that have a lifetime warranty, and carefully plan your shopping. “I start at dollar stores followed by Walmart and Target, even though dollar stores have raised their prices to $1.25,” she said, adding that she bought several supplies for her three school-age children for less than $50 in total.

Longmore has been shopping more at Walmart and Target for better discounts, especially on children’s clothing and shoes. However, her credit card debt “doesn’t look good now,” she said.

She is hardly alone.

“She’s been doing consumer surveys every two weeks, and the thing that has set off alarm bells for me is the huge rise in parents not feeling they can afford all of their school supplies this year,” said Claire Tassen, Morning Consult. Retail and e-commerce analyst with market data intelligence firm.

Families with one income or one parent can feel particularly vulnerable.

Gwen Corrigan, who lives in rural Maine, said her daughter — a single mother — told her she had been shopping at secondhand clothing stores for clothes and shoes, and bought food for lunches. But when Corrigan asked her about school supplies, “My daughter was clearly missing this in her budget,” she wrote in an email comment to CNN Business.

Corrigan stepped in and bought $140 of supplies for her granddaughter, and said she was happy to help her hardworking daughter. But she’s worried about schoolchildren who don’t have grandparents to help.

Beyond parents, teachers are also concerned about being able to properly prepare their classes for the new school year. Many people end up spending their own money on supplies, and those in lower income areas often purchase items for their students.

Sixth grade teacher Cynthia Angell, who lives in Tracy, California, finds herself less able to provide financial assistance for her class than students with mostly low incomes. “I’ve provided students in past years with school supplies,” Angel said in an email to CNN Business. “This year I won’t be able to do that.”

Angel said she hopes that families with the financial means will donate classroom supplies, “but I expect parents will also be limited in the amount of help they can help,” adding that she fears the problems will disproportionately affect students from low-income families.

“Do I limit what we do for fairness, beg for help, or give up on my needs to help students?” Angel said. “I think the answer is yes to all three.”

Longmore, a mother at Poconos, tries to see the silver lining in flop and sacrifice: “I think it will build character and teach my kids to reduce waste and stay on budget.”