America's public school system ensures that every child in the United States gets a free education, but "free" is a misleading term. State and local taxpayers pay for the buildings, utilities, teachers, desks, chairs, and, in many cases, computers. However, parents and guardians — even students themselves — pick up the tab for the rest. That means supplies like pencils, notebooks, clothes, shoes, jackets, electronics, and, of course, the all-important backpack. When the tally is complete, families can expect to spend more than $1,000 a year for even the youngest children.
Huntington Bank performs a comprehensive annual study examining the burden of back-to-school spending. Called the "Backpack Index," the survey is conducted in cooperation with Communities in Schools, which provides assistance to teachers and low-income families struggling to keep up with the cost of supplies. The study analyzes costs across dozens of categories tailored specifically to elementary, middle, and high school kids. For the first time ever, the totals for all three groups include a comma. Here's how much parents can expect to spend by grade level:
Elementary school: $1,017.37
Middle school: $1,277.35
High school: $1,667.90
Technology Is Driving Higher Costs
The Huntington Bank study, now in its 13th year, tracks prices for all the common age-appropriate supplies (such as glue sticks and crayons for young children; protractors and graphing calculators for high school kids). The breakdown also includes some things left out of traditional back-to-school spending surveys: estimated extracurricular fees and, for high school students, the cost of college prep materials. It does not include school clothes and shoes. The results reveal that the biggest expense across all age groups is technology, which the study's authors point out has become a necessity, not an amenity. Even elementary school students are increasingly asked to submit assignments from home, so the index now includes the cost of a basic laptop and home internet access. Here's a look at the costs by category:
- Supplies: $110.78
- Technology: $756.59
- Extracurricular activities: $150
- Supplies: $270.76
- Technology: $756.59
- Extracurricular activities: $250
- Supplies: $304.61
- Technology: $756.59
- Extracurricular activities: $350
- College prep materials: $256.70
2019 Could See Record Spending
The National Retail Federation conducts its own survey on back-to-school spending that focuses on retail items. The NRF predicts record spending on school and college supplies in 2019. In all, families are expected to pony up $8.7 billion. The average household will spend $696.70 in 2019, up from $687.49 in 2018, according to NRF projections. Here's how the average respondent's planned back-to-school spending breaks down:
Clothing and accessories: $239.82
Electronics like computers, phones, and calculators: $203.44
Supplies like pencils, notebooks, lunchboxes, and backpacks: $117.49
It shouldn't come as a surprise that people spend more year to year, considering that inflation and an increasing population cause per-person and cumulative spending to rise across most retail categories — but school supplies are different.
"Our forecast for overall retail sales for 2019 is for between 3.8% and 4.4% growth over 2018," said Thomas Jordan of the NRF.
The NRF's survey data for kindergarten to 12th grade, however, shows a 6.8% increase in expected spending over 2018 — closing in on double the growth of overall spending, putting extra pressure on families.
"In our research, shoppers who planned to spend more this year cited several reasons: 60% said they need more items this year, 38% said there are more items on school lists, and 29% said they need more big-ticket items," Jordan said.
Families Are Feeling the Squeeze
This is backed up by retail trends and data from discount site RetailMeNot. RetailMeNot’s research, which, again, doesn't include expenses such as extracurricular fees but does include apparel, found that parents plan to spend about $40 more in 2019 than they did in 2018: an average of $507 compared with $465 the year before. Here's how that study's numbers break down:
Clothes: $212 (compared with $189 in 2018)
Electronics: $209 (compared with $186 in 2018)
Shoes: $104 (compared with $95 in 2018)
No matter how you slice it, families are spending more than ever to send kids to school, especially now that connected devices are considered a necessity. Factoring in things like the cost of activities, sports, and clubs, on top of the supplies you buy at the store, pushes the annual price tag toward four figures, even for elementary school.
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