Back to school means big spending for families

It’s a little less than a month until classes resume at area schools, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start buying supplies.

“Start about … end of July, first of August, just to get in on some deals, get it out of the way,” said Caldwell resident Elizabeth Walker, 30, as she shopped at Walmart in Marietta Friday with her stepson, Ein Leonard, 9, and son, Blake Leonard, 4.

According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, families are expected to spend an average of $634.78 on back-to-school purchases, down about 8 percent from last year’s historic high of $688.62.

A release from the federation attributes last year’s numbers to “pent-up demand and a growing population of school children.” But spending is being dialed back a bit for the 2013-14 school year.

“Having splurged on their growing children’s needs last year, parents will ask their kids to reuse what they can for the upcoming school season,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “As they continue to grapple with the impact of increased payroll taxes, Americans will look to cut corners where they can, but will buy what their kids need. It’s important to note, however, that spending levels are still well above where they were a few years ago.”

Reusing last year’s supplies isn’t really an option when a child is going to school for the first time, said Marietta resident Sheral Lawell, whose 5-year-old grandson, Timothy Ryan, will start kindergarten at Washington Elementary School next month. Lawell, 56, said she tries to help with her grandchildren’s back-to-school expenses and estimated outfitting Timothy with supplies, a backpack, new shoes and more cost the family about $400.

“I’m surprised what kids’ clothes cost nowadays,” she said. “We try to go through the summer picking up stuff here and there and here and there.”

That way, Lawell said, the expenses don’t all hit at once.

Timothy said his favorite part of the process was “getting new shoes at the mall.”

“They’re Jordans,” he said proudly before running inside to show them off.

In the NRF survey, 23.9 percent of families said they would start shopping two months before the start of school, the highest percentage recorded in the survey’s 11-year history. Nearly half will do their shopping three weeks to a month before school starts, while 21.8 percent plan to hit the stores one to two weeks in advance. An estimated 2.8 percent will wait until the week before, while 2.6 percent plan to do their shopping after school starts.

Randy Hupp, assistant manager at Kmart in Marietta, said he’s seen some back-to-school shoppers in the store already, but expects their numbers to rise soon.

“Within the next week or so, it’s really going to hit,” he said.

Bobbi Davis, owner of A to Z Learning Supplies on Ohio 7 south of Marietta, said it’s usually the parents of incoming kindergarteners who start shopping earlier. And there also tends to be a difference between male and female shoppers.

“We have a lot of dads come in August, and they have the list and we check it off for them,” Davis said. “The moms usually know what they need.”

But it’s not just parents and other family members doing the back-to-school shopping. The survey said teens plan to spend $30.13 of their own money on supplies, while pre-teens will spend an average of $18.45.

“I’ll buy some. My mom will buy some too,” said Danielle Weddle, 16, of Newport. “But with older high school years comes that kind of responsibility.”

There are also local efforts to help families who may not be able to afford their children’s school supplies.

Washington-Morgan Community Action provides backpacks and school supplies to kindergarten through eighth-graders from families at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Donations kept the program alive when funding dried up, said Carrie McNamee, director of senior and community services for Community Action.

“The only reason why we’re able to do the program at all is because the Marietta Moose Lodge gave us $1,000,” she said.

That will allow the agency to provide supplies for 100 students in Washington County, not including the Marietta City school district, which is served by St. Luke’s Lutheran and other churches, although Community Action still handles the applications. McNamee said that program also supplies high school students.

Applications for Washington County students can be submitted to Community Action, at 218 Putnam St., Marietta, from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. weekdays. Applicants must bring proof of household income for 30 days, proof of county residency, name of school and grade the child is attending in the fall, proof of the child’s age and Social Security number of all members of the household..

A $500 donation from Peoples Bank will fund supplies for 50 students in Morgan County. That application period closed last week, McNamee said.

Students in Belpre City Schools are served by the United Way Alliance of the Mid-Ohio Valley.

McNamee said she can see the burden back-to-school shopping places on some families when pricing items for Community Action’s program.

“The prices are higher than they have been,” she said.