A Tight Back-to-School Budget, and the Impact on a Child’s Self-Esteem

A tight budget can be a worrisome thing in the run-up to the back-to-school frenzy. Every parent knows that a new backpack and new clothes can go a long way toward putting a smile on a child’s face on that first day back to school. But not every parent can afford oodles of nice new things. The solution is for parents to boost a child’s self-esteem by preparing for school in other ways: visiting the school, carving out a homework space, and getting your child back on schedule. The rest will be more about feelings: talking children through any back-to-school fears and anxiety, and offering them your emotional support.

It’s true, of course, that having nice new things makes children feel good about themselves. That’s why parents with budget restraints worry that they are putting their children at a disadvantage. They can’t afford new backpacks, lots of new clothes, and fancy school supplies. Is it possible for children to have a good start even if they are lacking in shiny new things for school?

First day back at school Father Little Girl
A tight budget goes only so far, but the walk to school with a loving parent is priceless.

There’s always someone worse off, of course. Too many children don’t have even the most basic school supplies. Teachers spend an average of $500-$1000 out of their own pockets each year to provide their students with items like pencils, erasers, rulers, and notebooks. This proves there are many struggling parents out there. We can’t help but wonder: if children with new things feel good about themselves, do children with hand-me-downs or worse, feel bad? And if they feel bad, does this affect their performance in the classroom?

It might.

A single study from 2008, by researchers at New York University, suggests that family wealth has a positive effect on parenting, home environment, and a child’s self-esteem. The study found that kids from wealthier homes had better math scores than reading scores. And in a world ruled by STEM, that’s saying a lot.

The researchers behind this study think that children from wealthier homes may do better because of the money that is spent on educational resources. This would be things like private schools and extracurricular and other activities that expand a child’s cultural experiences. For older children from wealthy homes, it’s also about being aware of class differences. When kids have more things than their friends, and those things are nicer, too, it’s easy to feel a sense of satisfaction and even self-importance. Such feelings increase a student’s self-esteem which in turn has a positive effect on school performance.

Tight Budget versus Economic Security

Lead author of the NYU study, Professor of Sociology W. Jean Yeung, suggests that in addition to these advantages, families with old money offer their children a feeling of safety. “While wealth may help smooth consumption on a more short-term basis, the presence of wealth over time in a family (or extended family) may have a stronger impact of engendering a sense of economic security, future orientation, and the ability to take risks among all family members which, in turn, positively affect child development,” says Yeung.

But not every expert agrees. Dr. Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on CBS TV feels that the focus on having things and self-esteem is exaggerated. “It’s not about money and materialism as much as taking care of your child’s emotional state on the inside. Sure, it helps if you can scrape a few extra dollars together and buy him one new school outfit and a brand new notebook with pens and pencils. He can use last year’s backpack and lunch box!”

Walfish feels that back-to-school anxiety is the real issue. “After months of playing, vacationing and spending time at home, it’s completely natural for a young child’s nerves to be on overdrive as the first day of class approaches.”

Kids Need Connection

Psychologist Avital K. Cohen agrees. “Kids don’t need the shiniest new thing to have a great first day back to school,” she says. “What kids really need is connection—take the time not just to ask them about their day, but to actually listen!

Budget blogger Nicole Durham, on the other hand, would be the first to admit that it’s hard on the emotions as a parent, to not be able to do that full-out back-to-school shopping spree. Especially as she prepares to send her daughter to the first grade. But for all that, Durham is realistic about both her tight spending budget and her daughter’s resilience.

“While I personally feel a little hurt by the idea of not getting to send my child to school with as many new fancy things as other kids, I also understand my daughter’s wonderful personality. She is a kid that loves everything, and while she would love to have new things, she isn’t afraid to voice her opinion about older things either. So while she may get 2 or 3 new outfits added to her current wardrobe selection, she isn’t missing out completely and is perfectly fine wearing the same shirt she has had since she turned 4, a few years ago,” says Durham.

Back to School Hug black father child

Durham doesn’t rule out the idea that struggling with insecurity can help a child grow. Her own experience attests to this idea. “Growing up, my mom never could afford to send me and my siblings to school with the latest and shiniest objects. While I had much lower self-esteem back then, I learned from it and have built my daughter to love and appreciate everything.

“My husband and I constantly tell her to never look in someone else’s bowl to compare, but only to see if they need more. It’s truly helping her to see that she shouldn’t feel bad about having less and that she should be happy with what she has,” says Durham.

Tight Budget? Start a Sinking Fund

At the same time, Durham is making the effort to ensure she won’t be caught short in the coming year. “Something that I do to help remain on budget during the school year and to prepare for the inevitable growth spurts is to start up a sinking fund. I aim to place $200 in a savings account by building it up a little at a time before the start of school. Then during the year, if my daughter is in need of new shoes, pants, or supplies, I can buy them for her without disrupting my monthly budget system.”

According to Durham, a sinking fund is term much in use by budget guru Dave Ramsey. “It’s basically a savings account where you build up savings over time with a specific reason or goal in mind,” says Durham. “For instance, if you get 2 paychecks a month and want to have $300 saved up for Christmas, and there are 6 months between now and then—you’d want to save at least $25 from each paycheck. So on payday, you’d shove that money aside into a savings account “sinking fund” and once you’ve reached your goal, you’re done. You can put as much or as little as you want into your sinking account at any one time, there are no rules. But of course, the more money you put in, the faster you reach your savings goal,” she says.

Back to School Tips That Won’t Break the Bank

Even parents on a tight budget want their children to have a great first day in school. What are some of the things a budget-conscious parent can do to bolster a child’s self-esteem in the final weeks of summer? Dr. Walfish offers these back-to-school tips:

  • Begin a regular bedtime and routine beginning 10-14 days before school starts. This will help your child’s body get into the groove of winding down and waking up at an earlier hour. When school begins, your child’s body, energy, and focus will be prepared for school’s physical and mental expectations and demands.
  • Talk with your child about what to expect. Get the details of your child’s schedule, then talk about it with your child. For example, “First, your class will gather on the yard and all of the children will say ‘I pledge allegiance,” and then you will walk to your new classroom,” and so forth. Talk about the feelings, too. You might say something like, “You may feel excited or even a little nervous or scared. Those are natural feelings that everyone feels on their first day at school or in a new job.” You want to normalize the experience.
  • If you do buy school supplies, bring your child along. Encourage him to choose his own backpack and lunchbox. Make these purchases personal and specific to your child.
  • Visit the school campus with your child beforeschool resumes. If possible, allow her to see her new classroom and encourage her to play in the schoolyard. Familiarity breeds comfort.
  • Arrange play dates with two or three of your child’s classmates to be.Ask the principal for a class roster with contact numbers. If your child can make one or two friends before school starts, he will be so much happier to go to school.  This is a sure antidote to school loneliness and feelings of isolation.
  • Establish a regular homework space. For instance, place a personal desk and chair in your child’s bedroom or in the kitchen. Have your child always do her homework in the same area for continuity, routine, and structure.
  • Get a timer with a buzzer. Set the buzzer for the amount of time your child is required to sit and focus on his homework. Your child must sit with his work until the buzzer sounds off. If he rushes and finishes early, he has time to proofread and check his work for mistakes. Instead of you being the target of his anger, resistance, and fighting—let the timer be the Homework Cop.

Smiling teacher kids with raised hands in classroom

As for that very first day, Avital Cohen notes that new clothes and supplies aren’t the only way to make a child feel good. “It can also be great to tuck a special note in their bag or pocket, something they can pull out to boost their confidence and self-esteem.”

And of course, while everyone wants that first day to be a good one, it’s also about keeping up the momentum, all year long. Board Certified Behavior Analyst Leanne Page, offers this advice, “Lavish your child with attention and praise—but not about how they look or anything new for school. Give praise specific to their actions and behaviors. Notice the kind, smart, and authentic things they do. Then tell your child that you noticed and how you feel about those things.

“If you tell your child ‘good job,’ ask yourself: do they know what for? Praise what you prize. But be sure to tell your child exactly what it is that you prize about them.”

When it comes to the back-to-school shopping spree, the bottom line is figuring out where the focus should be. Dr. Ari Yares, a child and adolescent psychologist, feels that the meaning of a brand new year of school gets lost when the emphasis is on buying brand new things. “The start of the school year shouldn’t be about the shiny school supplies, but rather the celebration of something new starting,” says Yares. “Think instead about establishing rituals for the start of the school year. This can be a picture in the same spot each year, a special breakfast, or even being escorted to school (assuming your kids will let you). The key is to mark the time and make it feel special rather than getting caught up in all the stuff you need to buy.”

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Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

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