School Supplies in 87 Seconds?

school supplies markers

It was just the sort of thing that irritated me.

Convenience at the expense of saving money.

Felicity had ordered Flora’s school supplies for the 5th grade from a company that sells packaged supplies based on a list provided by our elementary school.

Here’s how this works . . . the school provides a list of requested supplies that each student should bring for the new school year. Most supplies are for the student, but some are for the class (tissues, dry-erase markers, etc.). So far this is just like it was when I was growing up, minus the dry-erase markers – I was raised as part of the last “chalk generation”, at least in the schools in our area.

At some point, a few companies saw an opportunity. As a fundraiser for the schools (and a money-maker for the companies of course), the companies talked the teachers into sending over their back-to-school supply lists. The companies then marketed a package of all the requested supplies to the students’ parents. The companies would even ship all the supplies to the students’ homes or directly to their classrooms. One company advertised that parents could “finish school supply shopping in 87 seconds.”

Sounds pretty good, right? Felicity thought so, right before she handed over $80 for the school supply package.

$80 for school supplies!!! For one kid!!!

This didn’t sit well with me. Surely we could hit the website of one of the many office supply stores, or even Amazon, and order the necessary items. For at least $20 or $30 less.

Challenge accepted.

My time-to-beat was apparently 87 seconds, so I quickly jumped online to retrieve the supply list from the school’s website. I decided to start on Amazon, but quickly became frustrated with the inflated prices that can pop up on that site. I picked up momentum when I switched to Staples and found the needed purple folders for 50 cents. But then I struggled seeing four red pens for $6 when twelve could be had for $11. And I only needed three! I wasn’t headed in the right direction. I moved on to Walmart’s site and had some quick wins but then ran into pricing trouble there as well.

More than 87 seconds later, I had the cheapest price for all 39 items. And it was well over $80.

I had lost, or at least I was wrong. I guess I didn’t lose because my wife was smart enough to realize that these school supply companies could utilize bulk pricing to minimize costs. They didn’t need three red pens. They needed twelve, and a lot more really, at the lower per item cost.

While I usually view convenience as an expensive option, this time around it seemed like a win-win-win. Hopefully the school received some funding. The company made some money. And my wife was able to have a reasonably priced box of the correct school supplies delivered right to our home in, sigh, 87 seconds of effort.

My school supply challenge was a good reminder that public school isn’t free. There are a lot of hidden costs and the expenses can add up. But schools also have their undercover marketing machines, so it’s important to assess which expenses are worth it and which are not.

For all of us trying to navigate the school expense zone, and particularly those FI parents with younger kids who may be unaware of the costs of a public education, here’s the Franklin family’s take on some of the potential expenses you’ll face . . .

Field Trips

Class trips to Williamsburg and Jamestown to study Virginia history. Taking in a medieval times festival by watching jousting and eating giant chicken legs. Attending musical and theatrical performances at the Kennedy Center. Fun outings to the National Zoo. Touring Smithsonian museums like the Natural History and Air & Space museums. Watching “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theater and then visiting the historical site across the street to discuss the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. These are just some of the field trips that the Franklin children have been on.

Field trips are often the highlight of school. In our district, classes go on exciting trips, which I fully support. But these trips aren’t free so proper budgeting is required.

Almost all normal field trips cost at least $5 to $10. More extravagant ones run $50 to $80. And Flora recently went on a three-day, two-night 5th grade field trip that costs $130. While that last one sounds really expensive, it wasn’t a terrible deal considering transportation, meals, lodging, and outdoor activities like zip lines were covered.

We’ve learned that, on average, field trips cost about $100 per child each year. Plus if Felicity or I want to be a chaperon, we often need to pay as well. We believe the trips are worth the expense, but it’s important to be mindful of this cost that catches many off guard.

Parent / Teacher Associations (PTA)

Felicity and I are big believers that schools provide a better educational experience to students when parents are involved at the school. Most schools have a Parent / Teacher Association (PTA), a group that helps parents organize their efforts to better serve the school’s teachers and students. A PTA has a broad role, but it’s been my experience that the organization helps raise money for and facilitates the running of in-school programs (ex: art classes that tend to be dropped from core curriculum), after-school activities (clubs, sports, theater, etc.), and equipment purchase programs (ex: computers for the students or smart boards for the teachers).

You likely noticed that I said the PTA raises money. Where does that money come from? Parents like you and me.

While some PTA money does also come from community businesses via advertising and sponsorship, parents of students provide a healthy chunk of the funding. This can either be from direct methods (annual contributions) or indirect channels (food sales at the elementary school play). The amount of money the PTA requests in annual contributions can be significant. In some years the lowest amount ranges between $15 and $25, although schools in our area will often aim for $100+ contributions.

Felicity and I support the PTA efforts. We will often pay the minimum contribution amount, especially if a school directory is thrown in the deal. But we typically support our PTA by volunteering our time instead of our money. OK, OK, Felicity is really the one doing the volunteering. She particularly enjoys running the art appreciation activities in the classrooms.

Supporting the PTA is certainly optional. You may choose to decline PTA solicitations. Or you may choose to give your money, your time, or both. But as you budget for the future with kids, be aware of the often worthwhile costs associated with attending a school with an active Parent / Teacher Association.


“Will you sign my yearbook?”

When I was growing up, that was a question that brought with it great anticipation. A flirtatious message written by a cute girl could cause elation for weeks into the summer. The traditional end-of-school yearbook signing was a great way to gauge potential love interests for the following year. And it was also an opportunity to draw horns and mustaches on the pictures of a select few.

The signing of yearbooks was a key part of the end-of-the-year social festivities when I was growing up. These days, kids don’t even bother.

I have a box of yearbooks that I’ve been lugging around for over 20 years. Two are from elementary school. Two are from middle school. And five are from high school. No, I didn’t fail a grade, but I did transfer part way through my junior year and thus was in two yearbooks.

Just the other day, I threw out all those yearbooks. Lost memories? Not really, unless I want to remember the hair and clothing styles of the 80s and early 90s. High bangs and tight rolled pegged jeans anyone?

In the nearly 24 years since high school graduation, I think I’ve flipped through my middle and high school yearbooks twice. My elementary school yearbooks are a slightly different story, as I pulled those out on a few more occasions. Until recently, all three of my children attended the same elementary school that I went to. This provided the opportunity to bring in those old yearbooks and reminisce with the handful of my teachers who were still at the school.

But despite a few moments of social euphoria when I was young, and the extremely rare trip down memory lane in the decades since, I regret dragging those nine books around all these years. If it’s that important to them, Flora, Finn, and Fiona can use $25, $45, and $60 of their own money to purchase a yearbook. But I’d prefer to save and invest the combined $1,500 that some parents spend on yearbooks for their three children.

School Pictures

School Picture Order FormHow many of you out there are like me in that you can’t believe that “school pictures” is still a thing? The ease of digital photography should have crushed the school pictures industry long ago. But, it addition to funding likely given to the schools by the picture companies, school pictures are all about tradition really. Back in the day our parents purchased those expensive school photo packs, from which the glossy 8×11 photo was framed over the piano, while we handed out the wallet-sized pictures to our closest friends (or those we hoped to be our girlfriends).

Tradition is why we still feel the need to purchase these outrageous photo packages that range in cost between $15 and $100. Tradition, or perhaps we just feel bad telling our children that we don’t want to purchase a photo of them. Felicity and I have purchased two or three packages over the many years our kids have been in school but, not surprisingly, the photos have never made it out on display.

My advice? Look at the pictures, tell your children how wonderful they are, and then pull out your own digital device and snap away. Felicity prefers less-staged, outdoor, and more candid shots of our children anyway. If you want prints, order them online for 10 cents.

If you can’t go without the school pictures, Felicity has pointed out that one can sometimes get free photos by volunteering at the school on picture day. That could be an option for some of you.

(Before moving on, I want to note that at our current elementary school, one of the parents is a professional photographer.  She took two black-and-white photographs of every child. One picture was a normal smiling pose, the other was a “silly face”. The PTA then sold these photos as a fundraiser. The photos were 10 times better than the cheesy school pictures. Did we buy them?  No, but I actually considered it.)

Class Funds

Many elementary school classrooms have one or a few Room Parents. If your child’s classroom doesn’t have one, stop reading, go find a fellow parent, and sign the two of you up. A Room Parent makes the lives of both the teacher and students much better. In a volunteer role, the Room Parent helps manage certain aspects of the classroom, such as coordinating volunteer opportunities and heading up efforts to fulfill classroom needs. Room Parents also play a pivotal role in teacher appreciation efforts and throw several class parties throughout the year.

I’m not going to lie, being a Room Parent is a lot of work.  And that’s just how I feel after sitting on my butt watching Felicity do it for several years.

So if you’re not the Room Parent, how does this impact you? Well, to accomplish their volunteer job, Room Parents will hit you up for money in the form of class funds. While funds are spent throughout the year, experienced Room Parents will asked for a lump sum at the beginning (it’s a pain to collect money from folks more than once). Our experience has shown that class funds are usually between $35 and $70, although we’ve been hit with larger requests a couple of times.

As you are faced with the decision of whether or not to contribute to your child’s class funds, consider the following:

  1. Good Room Parents spend a ton of time helping make your child’s classroom a better place, so there are worse things you can do with your money than give the full amount to the class funds.
  2. Despite some social pressure, contributions are optional. Felicity has had parents tell her that they are not interested in contributing, which has always been fine.
  3. Volunteer!! Being a Room Parent (or another volunteer who has the Room Parent’s ear) allows you to influence the amount of money needed. Plus you can use your frugality skills to cut costs when you are putting on class activities.
  4. Give your own teacher appreciation gifts. The best Room Parents will communicate how the class funds will be used (ex: $20 of the $45 will be used for teacher gifts). If you desire to give the teacher a more personal and potentially less expensive gift, tell the Room Parent that you will be contributing a bit less than the requested amount because you have plans for your own teacher gift.

Spectator Fees

There was a moment of temptation to just stand on the outside and cheer.  At a recent high school cross-country running event, I noticed that part of the course ran along the entrance area. Instead of paying $5 to get in, I could wait on the outside and then cheer for Fiona as she ran by. Observing athletes at the not-so-spectator-friendly cross-country meets can be brief anyway, so why not save a few bucks by hanging out on the exterior of the course. Plus it wasn’t really a few dollars. My entire family was there, plus two of Fiona’s grandparents. The total entrance fee was $30.

While I’m wired to make the quick observation above and evaluate the value of any expense, it was pretty easy to decide to pay the $30 for access. And it was the right decision, as we were able to see Fiona before and after her race, plus we ran into several great families we hadn’t seen in a while – it was nice to catch up.

Spectator fees may not fit nicely into the school expense category, but we must be mindful of the school-related extracurricular activities that our children participate in. Whether it be a sporting event, musical performance, or theatrical show, money is needed to see our kids in action. This cost usually runs between $5 and $10 per person, which adds up quickly when the entire family is in tow. Some schools offer a discounted annual pass to certain events, but typically there aren’t a lot of options to bypass these expenses. Since family support is crucial for youth activities, proper planning is a must.

Additional Fees and Expenses

While class funds are typically for elementary school students, middle and high school bring their own set of fees and expenses. Ideally we’re all teaching our older children financial skills by having them work and pay for things on their own, but here are some items to consider as your kids get older:

  • Instrument fees
  • Uniform fees (sports, theater, music groups, etc.)
  • Class participation fees ($60 for art and $30 for shop class, just this year)
  • Student parking fees
  • Additional school supplies (high-end calculators, materials for science projects, etc.)

Expenses vary by a student’s age but based on the categories above, Felicity and I expect to incur about $600 in annual school related expenses for each child (even when we avoid yearbooks and pictures). That equates to $7,800 before graduation, or over $23K for Fiona, Finn, and Flora combined.

Understanding these school-related expenses helps Felicity and I to plan for them and also look for opportunities to reduce them. When we involve our children in that process, it helps them be more aware, grateful, and accountable for the money that is spent.

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