The Back to School Spending Blues


Even as one of those weird people who has an emotional connection with office supplies (OMG Post-it Notes, amiright?) back-to-school shopping for my six-year-old still drives me crazy. First of all, some of the things on the list seem like a little bit much (six dozen pencils per kid?). But I’m not a teacher, and since someone else is nice enough to do this teaching  him math thing for me, I’m going to let it slide and say “thank you.”

But here’s what really gets me — the cost.

The. Cost.

We aren’t entirely sure what the military holds for us in the future. We’re waiting on promotion news, and even if that comes through we’re not entirely sure we want to stay. So we are squirreling away every penny we can get our hands on.

Back-to-school gets expensive. And over here in trying-to-save-some-coin land, it’s putting a squeeze on the budget. First you have all the supplies. Then there’s the new clothes (how did all of his jeans get holes in them?) and the new shoes (did this child become Big Foot over the summer?) and the new backpack (surprise! dragging a backpack puts holes in it) and the new lunchbox (a perfect no-lost-lunchbox record was maintained last year until … the very last day).

Back-to-school shopping got you down? You're not the only one.

So we are bargain shopping, coupon hunting, using’s handy back-to-school discounts guide, shopping sales and using our military discount where possible has been working great. But we could always be saving more, right?

According to financial services company First Command we aren’t alone on this. Thirty-four percent of service members they surveyed are cutting back on their  according to a recent survey they conducted. That matches up nicely, they say, with the number of service members who (like us) are increasing the amount they save each month juuuuuust in case Defense Department budget cuts hit them, too.

“The majority of America’s career military families are not new to implementing cost-cutting measures on purchasing back-to-school supplies” said Scott Spiker, First Command’s CEO. “These measures are typical of the way service members and their families are reacting to sequestration and Department of Defense budget cuts. Half of these families are increasing the amount they save every month in preparation for cuts. They are ready to send their children back to school with needed supplies, but are taking steps to save money along the way.”

Tell us  — how are you saving money this back-to-school season?

About the Author

Amy Bushatz
Amy is the editor in chief of’s spouse and family blog A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for where she is the managing editor of spouse and family content. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on, NPR, Fox News, NBC, CBS, ABC and BBC as well as in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.
  • BestGuest

    Imagine what back to school shopping is like for people without housing allowance and food substinence, and even food stamps. Millions of people are spending money on back to school supplies without government assistance.

    Also, if military dads are deployed, military families have extra money from that.

    Oh, those blues sound terrible. Maybe there should be a news story about it. Tell a private sector parent how tough it is to send your kids to a DOD school with all your assistance… Give me a break…

    • EducatedGuest

      You still don’t get the whys to BAH and BAS do you?

      Do you really think $36,000 is a normal rate of pay for a nurse? Cause that’s what an O1 nurse makes without BAH and BAS.

      Turns out the BAH and BAS just barely get total compensation in the military to equal total compensation in the civilian sector (ignoring that whole deployment thing since you view them as a waste of time).

      Your civilian check has BAS and BAH baked into your total amount (like how officers have clothing and part of their BAS baked in), and that’s fine, but it’s no handout.

      • BestGuest

        36 a year is plenty. If they don’t wanna make that amount, they can work hard and be a nurse in the private sector.

        Also, my salary is based on performance, not bas and bah. Also, since parts of my salary aren’t reported separately, I couldn’t quailfy for wic or food stamps like military families do.

        My whole point is, it’s ridiculous for military families to cry about having to spend some money on thier kids school supplies. What, should you get a special allowance for that?

        These kids must grow up with a serious sense of entitlement if these are the thought processes of thier parents.

        • EducatedGuest

          $36,000 is 72% of their civilian counterparts. And they don’t make $36,000, they make $50,000 when you include BAH and BAS putting them on par with civilians.

          You wouldn’t qualify for WIC or Foodstamps because you’re single. And guess what that nurse even if married wouldn’t qualify for them either, but that nurse would still be wary of spending on school supplies at a time where job cuts are real and is the possibility of relocation.

          No one here was complaining about pay, but it’s not such a huge amount that people can spend w/o abandon. And it’s not a handout.

          BTW foodstamps take into account BAS/BAH.

          • BestGuest

            If someone works for the government they shouldn’t expect to make what thier private counterparts do.

            Also, I know I don’t qualify for food stamps because I’m responsible and didn’t have kids I can’t afford.

            If you can’t afford to raise kids on a government salary plus benefits, don’t have kids. If you can’t make ends meet even with all the extra benefits you get, you have issues. What do you think non military people do? We plan ahead with our lives and money. We don’t watch a romantic comedy and decide on a whim to get pregnant only to complain about all the associated costs, despite free healthcare and special allowances.

        • EducatedGuest

          Those of us in the military plan ahead too, that’s the whole point of this article. And there are non-planners in the civilian side too, is this surprising? The servicemembers were civilians before they joined, and come from all walks of life.

          As far as making less than civilians, we do when you compare hours in a given year, but I was just going straight salary with an easily paralled careerfield.

          But this is my last post on you. Take care.

        • StuckWithDressCode

          That’s funny $36 a year is only $3 an hour more than places in WA made minimum wage. Please try that argument again.
          We are now at a DoD school that requires specific clothes.
          Pants x 2 kids, 5 pair $15 each – if you are lucky enough to find a place that actually stocks them $150. Move in the middle of the school year and you’ll be forking out $25 – $40 a pair.
          Shirts solid color polos x2 kids, 5 shirts each $10, $100 (again move in the middle of the school year good luck with that)
          Shoes $20 on sale x 2 $40
          money spent on required supplies $300
          Total around $600 so far.
          That’s if you have a kid who doesn’t want a sweater the whole year. All those hoodies bought in WA, forget it not allowed. Sweat shirts, not allowed. Anything with a zipper all the way down, not allowed. So shell out a few more hundred on polo sweaters.
          I work, so while I can afford it there are a lot of families who can’t. The kids are required to have this stuff; however, NO ONE stocks dress code appropriate clothing. Special bonus move here in the middle of the school year and get hit with that bill during a PCS when the spouse is likely not working due to the PCS.
          The point being if a dress code is required at minimum AAFES should be required to stock the stuff. Our kids just started school the other day. It took 7 different stores to find 3 pairs of pants that would actually work. I am feeling a serious sense of entitlement here…

          • BestGuest

            I guess these are things to consider before having kids.

            It’s not like the military movies, huh?

    • Navyjag907

      You’re right! When we go into war zones we sometimes get extra money and free mail. And we get free bullets to fire at the guys trying to kill us. That must frost you as a civilian that we don’t have to pay for our ammunition and grenades. If I were a sand crab (civilian) like you, I’d write my Congressman and tell him to make us pay for our bullets ‘n stuff. And here’s another shocker–our medical care is free when we get wounded. I’ll bet that makes you mad! Well, gotta go and cash another retirement check. Take care.

      • Guest

        Most of your medical care is sub-par, btw. A nice thing about being civ is being able to choose the care you receive, even if it costs more.

      • BestGuest

        Every time I speak to a member of Congress about reasonable cuts to military entitlements, they tell me that while they agree with most Americans on the issue, there are too many lobbyists that profit from the military benefits industry.

    • Guest

      Really? Only dads deploy? Glad all of those military moms get to stay home. Oh, wait . . .

  • Alicia Merlino

    I find it amusing the people complaining about the cost of school supplies while shopping and holding their coach purse. You spend hundreds of dollars on a crappy piece of vinyl, and complain that your child needs pencils. How about instead we complain that the teachers end up paying their own salary to buy supplies for their classroom. At least a nurse making 36000 a year, with or without bah doesn’t have to buy her own syringes.

    • Amy_Bushatz

      Surprise! Amy doesn’t own coach anything. But thanks.

      • the first mel

        I don’t see how your snarky comment will contribute to the success of this site. It seems to me that someone in your position would care more about the site’s success instead of your own emotional reaction to a comment made by a reader. This type of reaction by the editor in chief diminishes readers’ trust in this site’s ability to be objective and respectful of different opinions.

        • Amy_Bushatz

          I’m pretty sure being respectful of others’ opinions is different than letting stand a comment that proclaims some pretty negative assumptions about me.

          • the first mel

            Considering that a response to a perceived personal attack can be constructed without sounding like my teenage daughter, my initial comment still stands. There are ways to stand up for yourself while maintaining a respectful, professional demeanor. Also, not everyone uses the proper words and structure to address specific people and they unfortunately generalize. If she had said that it is amusing to see people complaining about the cost while shopping with their coach purse, it would not have generated any upset.
            I’m sure you have heard the concept that if the generalization doesn’t apply to you, just move on.

        • Navyjag907

          I thought Amy’s comment was appropriate, humorous, and well written. I found your comments appropriate to someone who is both humor challenged and chronically constipated. You should pay some attention to both of those problems.

    • the first mel

      I see your point. This is an expected expense when you have school age kids and the supplies contribute to the success of our kids in a learning environment. The education of our kids should be a greater priority in our personal budgets. SOME do have issues sacrificing their wants to provide for necessities and those are the ones who seem to complain the loudest. While I realize that the cost of these supplies seem to increase all the time, it is actually an issue of the government not providing needed funds to our schools to purchase what they need. Also, our teachers are not paid what they are worth, so they, along with many others, struggle to make it from payday to payday. They shouldn’t have to shoulder all the costs of basic supplies, such as tissues, disinfectant wipes, and hand sanitizer, for their classrooms. They are educating our children and purchasing a small portion of supplies is a small price to pay for that education.

      • That person

        I think her point was more, yes it should be an expected expense to buy your own child’s supplies. But no first grader needs 6 dozen pencils. The issue is the supply lists have gotten insane. They basically want you to supply the entire class. They know many people just won’t send supplies at all and they wager those hard working and honest of us, will strive to meet the expectations of the list. Even if that comes at financial hardship to someone, such as junior enlisted families who have the vast majority of elementary aged military children these gigantic supply lists affect. Maybe you haven’t had one of these insane lists. I kid you not the last year we had our child at public school (6th grade) we spent close to $200 on school supplies. Not shoes, not clothes… School supplies.

        • Becky H.

          “They basically want you to supply the entire class. They know many people just won’t send supplies at all and they wager those hard working and honest of us, will strive to meet the expectations of the list.” You hit the nail squarely on the head. My children are now grown but I encountered this same insanity with school supply lists. I finally compromised and bought the items requested but kept most of it AT HOME. And I had no problem letting the teacher know this. She knew that I would keep MY child supplied but had no intention of supplying the entire classroom. Communal items such as hand sanitizer or tissues I had no problem contributing to.

          • oldernavyretiree

            Yep, me too. The school list was a tad bit much for my liking, especially when I need to buy 6 boxes of 24 crayons, 4 dozen number 2 pencils, 4 big chunk erasures, 4 pack of wide-ruled paper, and more. The first thought that went through my head was, why does my daughter need so many pencils? I always have some laying around the house so I didn’t think it was necessary for 4 dozen pencils to go to school with her. I bought her 1 dozen instead. The problem about the uniform is a different issue.

  • That person

    The thing is, the infuriating part is: you’re buying 6 dozen pencils for all the other kids in the class. About 10 years ago it became the trend to have parents who had money basically supply the entire class with supplies. One year in elementary school the list had 10 boxes of 64 crayons and 10 reams of copy paper per child for our 4th grader, amongst all the other multiple item things, those two just stick out in my head. AND you weren’t allowed to put your child’s name on anything. Everything went into a community supply. The final straw for us was when we sent those 10 boxes of 64 Crayola crayons in and then we go to the school for a conference and find crappy dollar store crayons at our daughter’s desk. The next semester we wrote a nasty gram to the school, put her name on everything in Sharpie and told her teacher when she ran out of an item, to call us and we would make sure she had a replacement that day. Like you, money is important enough and tight enough we can’t afford to fund the entire class.

    • Becky H.

      And this is why classroom are FULL of supplies taking up valuable space. Bins and bins of supplies instead of books, supplemental teaching items and JUST PLAIN ROOM to move around without running your shin into a desk or chair. The final straw for me was when my high school age children had teachers requesting reams of copy paper….the school district was cutting down on supplying this to the teachers….disgraceful!

    • Meg

      We spend less on a year’s homeschool curriculum and supplies than we do on school supplies. And we won’t have to turn around and buy yet more supplies in a few months when we PCS.

      • donna

        I’m in a duel military family, both my husband any myself are USN, no home schooling option for us.

  • If you can’t afford to raise kids on a government salary plus benefits, don’t have kids. If you can’t make ends meet even with all the extra benefits you get, you have issues. What do you think non military people do? We plan ahead with our lives and money. We don’t watch a romantic comedy and decide on a whim to get pregnant only to complain about all the associated costs, despite free healthcare and special allowances.

    • Guest

      It’s not extra benefits. As others have posted in here for a civilian all the little part of military pay are combined into one salary or hourly pay, with maybe a few bonuses thrown in. It’s a comparable income level across skill sets.

      Who gets pregnant on a whim? Everyone I know had kids at a stable time in their life, now I know its a BIG military and things exist outside of the military life I experience, but I’d venture more people live thoughtfully than not.

      As far as school supplies, people will make that happen, but they can still complain about it. It’s like my sticker shock at the price of some pre-schools (there are some that cost more than Uni), I still paid it because it’s no big deal in the scheme of things, but when your research says the national avg is x so you plan for x, but the duty station you get assigned to is 3x it can make you pause for a second.

  • Most of your medical care is sub-par, btw. A nice thing about being civ is being able to choose the care you receive, even if it costs more.

    • Guest

      Par, as in average? I’d argue that the healthcare we get is certainly above average in all aspects besides wait times, and wait times are the trade off for free care (just look at free clinics in the civilian sector).

      Are there some offices, or some hospitals that do it better? Sure, but if you compare the military medical system as a whole to the civilian health system as a whole the military is above par

  • oldernavyretiree

    I have to disagree with you Managed IT, I and my entire family, gets excellent care. I’ve been stationed places that don’t have military facilities so I have had to go out into the civilian community for medical care, I cannot say that I got the best of care. I would take a MTF any day of the week over civilian care.