Parents ready to send kids back to school, but inflation means high prices.
- After two stressful, pandemic school years, parents looked forward to a normal year.
- But instead, they're dealing with a different stress: inflation.
- Already squeezed by high food and fuel prices, parents now struggle with higher back-to-school costs.
Far fewer parents this year said they can afford their kids’ back-to-school shopping without any issues, likely a result of rising inflation and the end of pandemic stimulus checks.
Just 36% of the 2,178 U.S. parents surveyed said they can afford their kids’ back-to-school shopping, down from 52% last year, according to a recent Morning Consult survey, which also found that more than 37% of parents this year are stressed about back-to-school shopping – up from 32% last year.
Last year, parents benefited from stimulus checks and advance child tax credit payments, which have lapsed, and savings amassed during the pandemic.
“Now, these savings are being depleted as the burden of inflation gets heavier,” said Claire Tassin, a Morning Consult retail and e-commerce analyst. Morning Consult in May and June surveyed the parents of school-age children planning to shop for the 2022-2023 school year.
In the 12 months through June, consumer inflation rose 9.1%, the largest increase in more than 40 years.
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How does inflation affect back-to-school shopping?
School supplies are seen as a necessity, so many parents are expected to pay for them, even if they cost more this year.
Since early May, the share of back-to-school shoppers planning to spend more than $500 on their children’s supplies has increased to 25% from 11%, much of that due to inflation, Morning Consult said.
Early shoppers, having already seen their kids’ supply lists and prices, are more likely to report that they’ll spend more than last year, Tassin said, confirming inflation’s toll this year.
The average amount spent per child is up 8% to $661 from last year and up 27% from 2019, with 60% of the 1,200 parents surveyed saying they're spending more because prices are higher, according to a Deloitte poll. The poll was fielded online between May 20 and June 2.
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How can parents stretch their dollars?
Some savvy parents shopped Amazon Prime Days last month.
“With Prime Day moved to July from June, it’s closer to back-to-school so consumers took advantage of that,” said Vivek Pandya, lead analyst for digital insights at Adobe. “We saw an uptick in boys and girls apparel,” for example.
But if you missed those big online shopping days, don’t worry. Consumers can expect to still see sales through August as retailers compete for budget-conscious shoppers, analysts say. Many may also trade down wherever they can to private label brands and check out secondhand and dollar stores.
Nineteen states also either had or plan back-to-school sales tax holidays. Times and rules vary by state, so check the Federation of Tax Administration’s website.
In most cases, the tax holiday qualifies for online orders as well as in-store purchases, said Colleen McCreary, a consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma.
McCreary recommends using tools that scan the web for price drops and other offers that can help you take advantage of online deals as they occur.
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How will parents pay for it?
The usual approaches – such as cutting back elsewhere, dipping into savings, using credit cards, leveraging "buy now pay later," and other options – will be in play this season, Pandya said.
A survey taken July 7 - 9 by Qualtrics for Credit Karma showed that 42% of parents with kids in school planned to take on debt to pay for school shopping. It said it polled 1,045 U.S. adults above the age of 18.
“Just over half of parents who say they plan to take on debt to pay for back-to-school shopping expect to take on more than $300 in debt, with another one-in-five taking on more than $500 in debt to pay for things like clothing and other school supplies,” McCreary said.
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What does this suggest for the spending outlook?
Consumers may be reaching a breaking point that could mean a cut in spending just in time for the holidays, Tassin said.
“Back-to-school shopping is unavoidable, but if prices don’t start coming down on essentials like gas and groceries, we’ll see more squeezed budgets,” Tassin said. “Already, we’re seeing more and more people making trade-offs – buying smaller packages, less-expensive brands, deferring purchases. So far, they’ve been resilient in absorbing price increases, but we can't expect them to keep paying inflated prices.”
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Or it could work differently. Consumers could still be skittish after two years of dealing with shortages and may just purchase items as they see them into the holidays, Pandya said.
Supply chains have improved, but they remain fragile with China’s zero-COVID-19 policy forcing intermittent lockdowns and a scarcity of raw materials. Candymaker Hershey’s is already warning of a shortage ahead of Halloween and other year-end holidays.
Medora Lee is a money, markets, and personal finance reporter at USA TODAY. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.