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4 money lessons I learned this school year

Dawn Papandrea

Raising school-aged children is expensive. I mean, you can easily blow your budget on fidget spinners alone! As another school year comes to a close, my kids and I have learned a lot, including a few money-related lessons.

Here are my top financial takeaways as the last day of school approaches here in New York:

1. Always have some cash lying around.
Even in our plastic payments society, the kids will inevitably need $5 for teacher supplies, $3 for the sixth-grader raising money for a charity walk, $1 for pretzel day … the list goes on and on.

I can’t tell you how many times this year I found a crumpled up flyer in my sons’ backpacks late at night, only to realize that I didn’t have the exact change needed. As a result, I’ve gotten better at keeping some petty cash in the house and in my wallet, but I still find myself short of cash from time to time.

Extra credit: There was a point this year when I did feel like I was becoming my kids’ personal ATM, and I had to put a stop to it. If my sons really want to purchase an extra snack in school or order a T-shirt for a school event, for instance, we decided it would have to come from their money. That’s helped them be more selective about which extras they really want, and not surprisingly, they no longer want everything.

2. Budget for end-of-school-year gifts.
When it comes to teacher gifts, June can become the second most expensive time of year, behind the holiday season.

As the school year winds down, parents tend to be hit with collections for coaches, teachers, tutors and other school helpers. The problem is even after 10 years of having kids in school, the end of the year always seems to sneak up on me.

Extra credit: Moving forward, I’m making a mental note to keep teacher gifts in mind when I find amazing back-to-school deals and holiday shopping steals, or even when skimming through the latest Groupon offers or clearance racks. As for those cash collections, I think I’m going to start setting aside $5 a week to cover these surprise expenses. I’ll let you know how that goes.

3. Rack up credit rewards with school expenses.
It took me years, but I finally graduated from someone who carried a credit card balance and paid interest, to being able to use credit as a tool and earn cash back and rewards.

Now that I’m more in financial control, I should probably consider putting school-related purchases (like after-school programs, tuition, supplies and uniforms) on credit. Might as well, right? I just have to be sure I keep paying off those balances before interest accrues.

Extra credit: My automated tuition payment has always been done through my checking account, but I think I’m going to switch my payment method to my cash back rewards card. Over the course of a year, my rewards card can put a few bucks back into my pocket.

4. Not every accolade requires a trip to the toy store.
I’m all for positive reinforcement and rewarding children for a job well done, but I know many parents that go out and splurge every time their kids bring home above an 85 on a test.

One of my friends is constantly posting things on Facebook like, “Another 100 in math – what’s this going to cost me?” In our house, we modestly celebrate the four report card days a year, and we leave it at that.

Extra credit: When my kids started coming home and asking what I was getting them for their good report card, or informing me that so-and-so’s mom bought him the new Xbox because he aced his midterms, I knew it was time to manage their expectations a bit.

It’s not even about being frugal – it’s about wanting them to feel pride in their achievements for their own sake. For the three report cards they’ve gotten so far, they did great, and we did something special as a family to celebrate. One time it was going out for dinner on a school night (which rarely happens), and another time I took them to play laser tag.

For the final day of school, I will be making some cupcakes, and I may throw a small pool party with a couple of my sons’ friends. Heck, I may even spring for a couple of new fidget spinners – the light-up kind! More important, I’m going to tell my boys that I’m proud of how hard they worked, and that I noticed all those late nights studying, and the fact that they never missed a homework assignment.

With just a little over a week to go until school is out for summer, the kids and I are in countdown mode. Hopefully, I’ll remember to apply the money lessons I’ve learned this year once the next school year starts. Until then, I’ll be trying to ignore the back-to-school blitz (more on that next week) that has already begun, and I’ll be thinking summer thoughts.

See related: Money and credit games to play with the kids

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