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Pinched schools put the squeeze on parents

Field trips, school auctions, fundraisers. Here's how to respond to the nearly constant stream of education cash grabs.

By Donna_Freedman Aug 21, 2013 10:13AM
Logo: Boy hiding eyes (Ned Frisk Photography/Corbis)Parents of school-aged kids are feeling the annual back-to-school budget pressure right about now: new shoes, classroom supplies, maybe a replacement backpack. If you're putting your child in school for the first time the sticker shock could be, well, shocking. (Who knew that a Hello Kitty pencil box could cost that much?)

Sorry, newbies: You ain't seen nothing yet.

"Just when you think it's safe to put up your wallet, the requests (start) pouring in," says Cameron Huddleston of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine.

Field trips. Classroom supplies. School auctions. Cookie dough sales. PTA fees. Class parties. Gifts for the teacher.

Schools ask for help because funding cuts leave them cash-strapped, Huddleston notes. "But if your own funds are limited, how do you respond if you can't open your wallet every time your child's school asks?"

There's no one-size-fits-all answer. But seasoned moms and dads have figured out ways to deal with the near-constant cash grabs.

Parents with teens as well as grade-schoolers are hit particularly hard, since more and more high schools now charge for things like dissecting a frog, performing onstage, playing on a team or marching in the band. Add that to the cost of little brother's school supplies and candy sales and the family budget bleeds red ink.

Secondary school administrators say those fees (which may be waived due to financial hardship) let them "continue to offer specialty classes and activities that would otherwise fall to the budget ax," notes The Wall Street Journal.

Some parents would "rather pay for honors physics or drama than see those opportunities eliminated altogether." Others, however, question fees for things like textbooks, required courses, riding the bus and registering for an ostensibly free public education.

Coming up with the cash

You can't get out of high school without taking science, and you don't want your kid to be the only one who doesn't get to go on the field trip. But how do you deal with other costs?

Here's what some parents and bloggers suggest.

Set a budget. Ask teachers or other parents what kinds of fees and other donations you’ll be asked to make. (Try to anticipate ancillary costs, such as spending money for that museum trip -- which always seems to exit through the gift shop -- your bids at the school auction and so forth.) Create a "school costs" line item in your budget and then "look for ways to reduce these costs as much as possible," says Andrew Schrage of the Money Crashers personal finance blog. Shop loss-leader school supplies, he suggests, and purchase musical instruments and sports equipment at consignment shops or online.

Get creative. Keep checking The Freecycle Network and/or the "free" section of Craigslist -- other parents may be anxious to get rid of that tuba or those outgrown hockey skates. If family members ask for holiday or birthday ideas, request help with a class trip or band instrument. Use rewards points to buy gift cards to office supply stores, bookstores or Amazon.com. (Don't have a rewards credit card? See "Get paid to do online searches" for tips on earning gift cards.)
Prioritize.
"Decide which contributions you can afford to make that will have the most impact," Huddleston advises. For example, buying tickets to the fall festival means money for the school plus entertainment for your family.

Cut costs elsewhere. Kelly Snyder prunes her family's budget pretty ruthlessly each August, then uses the savings to pay extra educational costs. "The kids don't really seem to notice" the cutbacks because of the excitement of a new school year, says Snyder, who blogs at Kansas City Mamas.

 

More tips from the pros
Learn to say "no."
You're not the only parent who will say it. Pay for what you can reasonably afford and decline other offers. Frame it as, "I can't help at this particular time" or "That's not in our budget right now."

Set other limits.
Courtney Solstad, who blogs at My Crazy Savings, lets her children participate in just one school fundraiser per year. "It's frustrating for the extended family to get asked for money too often," she says. This tactic will also cut down how much you wind up contributing.

Volunteer.
Work in the library, go on one of those field trips, run errands for the teacher or just do whatever needs doing. Working parents can contribute by helping out at weekend car washes or bake sales. The school benefits, and your budget lives to fight another day.

Compromise
. Can't afford/don’t want to pay $20 for wrapping paper or microwave popcorn? Make a contribution directly to the PTA instead. Are multiple field trips planned and you just can't afford them all? Lori Felix suggests asking your child to choose the ones that are most important to him or her, and explain the realities of the family budget.

 

"They are less likely to feel embarrassed or pressured when they know the family's strategy and have participated in the decision-making," says Felix, who blogs at More With Less Today.

 

Yes, it might still be a little upsetting to have to miss several events. You know else is upsetting? Having your parents worry about finances all the time.

Readers:
How do you handle school requests for money?

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32Comments
Aug 21, 2013 11:13AM
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Schools would have plenty of money for this stuff if they cut back on some of the administration positions that add no value to the education of students.  Most private schools get by with much fewer administrators and support staff, and they do a better job and get better results.
Aug 21, 2013 11:58AM
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why would you have give money for gifts for the teachers?? That is BS at its best they get pay to do a job just like every other person that has a job.
Aug 21, 2013 6:14PM
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I graduated high school a year ago. Our music program art program was dead. The only reason drama wasn't dead was because performances could still charge $20 a ticket. We couldn't keep some teachers for more than a year, sometimes less, and we didn't have enough chairs and desks for every kid in a classroom. We needed serious financial help. What did we get?

3 flat screen TVs for our hallways. $1,500 TVs that had absolutely no use or impact on student or academic life. Our school was not allowed to use its money to get what it needed most. The restrictions on its many budgets forced the school to buy things like useless TVs that did absolutely nothing while our teachers continued to be laid off and school activities were forced to close. IT IS NOT THE AMOUNT OF MONEY GIVEN TO SCHOOLS THAT IS THE PROBLEM. IT IS THE UNFAIR RESTRICTIONS THAT ARE WASTING OUR MONEY. GIVE THE MONEY BACK TO THE PEOPLE WHO KNOW HOW TO USE IT!
Aug 21, 2013 12:48PM
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Half of montgomery county MD taxes go to schools,far out pacing enrollment .What do they do with all that money.Coming from someone that has no children,tax increases every year stink.
Aug 21, 2013 5:27PM
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Does anyone remember when we were told the lottery money was for schools? Where does all the money from lotteries and school taxes go?  The politicians we elect need to learn fiscal responsibility. I would like to see an outside audit of government spending at all levels with recommendations  on curbing wasteful spending. The politicians of today can find more ways to waste our tax dollars,  its time they answer for the waste in government.
Aug 21, 2013 5:41PM
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Please don't ask me to buy ANYTHING!  I don't want frozen pizza's candy, cookie dough, magazine subscriptions, mulch, wrapping paper, candy bars...I have 7 nieces and nephews. 
Aug 21, 2013 6:46PM
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As a teacher, I paid over a thousand dollars last year for kids' supplies, clothing, shoes, coats, and extra food.  It is not just the parents paying for student supplies.
Aug 21, 2013 6:11PM
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  Remember when the rally cry for the lottery was EDUCATION. All that money was going to make Fl the best for educating the kids. Less taxes etc. Money was going to be plentiful. Vote yes for the lottery and ensure the kids will get a great education. Now they have to pay for pencils,paper , all they need to get through the year.And what is it with teachers having to go out and buy supplies for class? Where did all the money go. Lottery officials keep saying they have record sales.. Somebody should get a "F" in money management.. Just saying
Aug 21, 2013 5:26PM
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I was a divorced mother with two children in school in the 70's and my ex-husband moved out of the country and I didn't get child support.  Even with my college degree, and later a master's degree, and a relatively good job, it was still tough for me to provide everything the kids needed for school although they didn't require as much then as they do now.  When they were in high school, my daughter was a cheerleader and my son played soccer.  The cheerleading outfits, shoes, etc and soccer equipment was expensive.  I used to buy my kids shoes about two sizes larger so that they could grow into them so I wouldn't have to buy shoes so often.  Now it's much more expensive to send kids to public school.  I don't see how parents with several kids can afford all the expenses.
Aug 21, 2013 2:02PM
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i paid for 3 children to attend catholic school.  uniforms, tutition, books, supplies, transportation,plus time spent at church for the added requirements, weekly offerings as required.  i still paid my taxes for everyone else's little brats.  time to put in an educational tutition.  call it a tax, user fee, what ever you like just get your hands out of my wallet.  i busted my butt for my kids, now you do the same for yours. 
Aug 21, 2013 6:06PM
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I dont know why parents have to pay all these fees and send the kids to school with all their supplies.  When I was in elementary school, there was no demanding of what the kids bring.  I only had to bring a ruler and some pencils, everyone did.  Nowadays, there are fees, and the parents pay for all the supplies. How come the school doesn't pay for everything?  Doesn't make sense, it is supposed to be a free education.  When did it become normal for kids to have these long lists, even having to bring kleenex.  Ridiculous.
Aug 21, 2013 6:40PM
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Schools should teach the kids  Instead of sitting around, and letting the kids play on computers.

60 present of kids today can't do math with out a calculator. can't count money with out a calculator  them what the person is getting back of change

Aug 22, 2013 8:58AM
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What happened to just doing the basics? The three "R"'s Everything has to be bigger and newer or it can't be taught. Now it's all about sports and the like. Bigger stands for the football field. Bigger gyms for the the BB and Volly ball teams. All about revenue from those and it all goes back to bigger arenas and gyms and not into the scolastic cirriculum. BS, we've lost our way.
Aug 22, 2013 1:05PM
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Flat screen tv's in schools are to stream advertisements (it brings in income).  Fundraisers pay for the increase cost of special ed, social workers, and individual learning for each student.  Too bad the American Billionaire Creator can't get some of it's $$$ back from the "job creators" to pay for the basics of a strong successful America.
Aug 21, 2013 12:10PM
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school do a piss poor job. From what I see with the amount of tax money that  pay into the system. 1 kid, on to about 7 houses. Schools take up to about 84 % of the tax that pay in. That more then the county and city, police and fire and city administration use. There need to be a cap place on them. That does not count the money from the state. The funny thing is never cuts the muster send more. So were is it Piss off it. If it not the teacher then where is it at? Why do they have tears for same job, and make them keep going back to keep up, looks like the union needs to go
Aug 25, 2013 1:24PM
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I homeschool.....the public school situation is an embarrassment.......
Aug 25, 2013 12:07PM
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I don't want my grandkids or my neighborhood kids selling things that are way overpriced and for which the schools get only a percentage of the sale.  I often just write a check to the organization, be it school, sports, Scouts, etc.  I would like to suggest that each school district skip the fundraisers that strongly encourage students to sell a product and replace those with selling once a year, maybe every September, a sticker for my front door that says, "I am a **** School District supporter for the '13-'14 school year."  Charge me $25 for the sticker.  Then make sure that all students understand that if they see a sticker on a door it means, "Do not ask this householder to buy ANYTHING!"  That would save the schools a lot of time and effort that would be better spent on educating kids and insure that the school got the entire amount of the donation.

 

As for activities: I am good with car washes, and carnivals, white elephant sales or auctions when items are from the businesses in the neighborhood or from the families in the school that will benefit.  Sometimes people can do their part by volunteering time or contributing items when they might not have extra cash.  These are the types of fund raising activities that are fun and, also, develop a sense of community in kids.

Aug 25, 2013 11:37AM
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I don't know what century some of you grew up in, but we have ALWAYS had to bring/buy our own school supplies! The problem is the fundraising and where the money is going. 
Aug 22, 2013 10:17AM
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Same old story of the schools need money. Maybe they should have thought about that 30 years ago. But the people in charge are professionals at playing kick the can. Stop taxing the land owners and start taxing the parents. Or better yet, make all schools private. Wait before you respond-But what about the poor they can't afford it. No one can afford it! Homeschool your kids people. Public schools have become babysitters and child day warehouses. It's all about unions and special interests and more importantly, too the leftist, elitist, socialism!

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