Money Savin’ Mama: Weighing the costs of school-age kids

I stared at the long and brand-specific kindergarten school supply list and compared it to the back-to school-aisle, which had already been given prime store placement in early July.

Fifty cents was a good price for the 24-count boxes of crayons, but I’d heard rumors of 25-cent boxes at Toys R Us. The folders were supposed to be just a penny at an office supply store, if I spent at least $5 on other items. And did I really need to buy Elmers glue, when the no-name bottles were half the price?

My mind swirled at the classroom requirements, the store options, trying to finagle the best deal on each piece. Until I realized all the planning and driving and shopping would likely save me a grand total of $3.18, not even enough to cover the gallon of gas I’d use.

Instead, I picked a week when it looked like most stores had most items on sale, took my 5-year-old daughter on a shopping date to one of them, and fulfilled the list in one quick trip.

Well, it would have been quick if I hadn’t had a panic attack about the zipper pouch (“No plastic pouches”? They’re all plastic!). And the “Pointed Fiskars For Kids” scissors (These say “Fiskars,” but aren’t pointed. These say “pointed” but aren’t Fiskars). And the two-pocket PLASTIC folder (Bold and underlined must mean it’s of dire importance I get the right one.) And the large container of Clorox wipes (The regular-size one is large, but the jumbo size one is larger). And the 10 yellow pencils (Pencils are not sold in packs of 10!)

Ay Crayola!

All told, I ended up spending about $30 for the supplies and an insulated lunch box for my new kindergartener. We packed them in a backpack she’d gotten as a gift.

But of course the back-to-school expenses didn’t stop there. There were new shoes for growing feet. A couple new shirts (purchased on clearance, of course). Checks were written for school lunches and PTA dues. Soon book order sheets and classroom fundraisers will fill her school bag.

I realized growing kids come with a whole slew of new expenses and not necessarily any more income to offset them.

I’ve been working some level of part-time hours since Eve (and then Owen) was born, and I’ve been fortunate to do so with minimal day care costs, putting in most of my hours remotely.

Until recently, I mused how much more financial sense it will make for me to work more hours once Eve was in school, and I’d only need to pay child care costs for 2-year-old Owen.

Oh, how wrong I’ve been, completely omitting from my math the after-school care needed from 2:42 p.m. each day, the myriad weekdays off and, my greatest miscalculation, summer.

Those three previously fleeting carefree months now loom as a potential financial burden.

There’s far more to every family’s work/home debate than just the dollars and cents. It is, however, the most tangible factor.

A lot of online calculators can help you see whether you can afford to stay home (Check out Few tell you if you can afford to go back to work, though entering in different scenarios is helpful.

I’m thankful to be married to an accountant who can precisely crunch the numbers, adding up increased wages and benefits, figuring out the additional taxes based on the progressive federal tax rate, and subtracting out the expenses like commuting costs, a work wardrobe and child care.

There are creative solutions to offset school-age care costs if you can swing them, like swapping child care with friends, staggering shifts with your partner, or working from home.

While our work/home debate isn’t settled yet, one recent headline made me a lot feel better: Some parents in New York now take out loans to pay for day care.

And I thought washable markers were expensive.

Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum. She can be reached at