Parents struggling with inflation: ‘I left that $25 backpack for my preschooler at the checkout.’

New York (CNN Business)

As Sarah Longmore finished her back-to-school shopping, the mother of five looked at a $25 backpack for her preschooler. Soaring inflation had crunched the family’s budget, and she decided her daughter could make do with a hand-me-down. She put the backpack back.

Like Longmore, many parents — regardless of income — are finding their back-to-school dollars aren’t going as far as they once did. Inflation is at levels not seen in decades, with prices spiking for groceries, gas, home goods and just about everything needed to run a household.

Just 36% of parents said they would be able to pay for everything their kids need this school year, according to Morning Consult’s annual back-to-school shopping report. That’s down sharply from 52% in 2021, when inflation was lower and stimulus checks plus advance child tax credit payments helped some families.

“My shopping habits have changed significantly,” said Longmore, an HR professional who lives in the Poconos in Pennsylvania with her husband and five children.

The Longmores earn more than $100,000 a year, well above the median US household income of nearly $65,000. But with five young children, the family’s expenses are also well above average, and Longmore said it’s not enough to keep her household running comfortably — a problem underscored in the back-to-school season as four of the couple’s children are of school age.

Sarah Longmore and her baby Lizzie.

“Not everyone got everything new, [and] not everyone could get everything,” Longmore said. The 12-year-old chose new clothes instead of a new backpack and stationery, for example. The younger children are inheriting siblings’ backpacks and desks that still have life in them.

Other families are likely making similar decisions.

Parents are expected to spend about $661 to $864 on K-12 school supplies for the 2022-23 academic year, according to estimates from consulting firm Deloitte and the National Retail Federation.

“Families consider back-to-school and college items an essential category, and they are taking whatever steps they can … to purchase what they need for the upcoming school year,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. Those sacrifices may include buying off-brand items, hunting for sales and cutting back on discretionary spending, he said.

Some families always face these challenges at the beginning of the school year. But it’s not something Longmore is used to.

“It’s been at least 20 years since I have had to pull back to this extent,” she said. “This is a new and humbling experience for me as an adult.”

Tapped out

The cutbacks the NRF suggest might help, but they may not be enough to help every family afford what their children need for school — even as retailers including Walmart (WMT), Target (TGT), Kohl’s (KSS) and others drop prices on merchandise to cut down on their bloated inventories.

Wisconsin mother of four Molly Schmitz said she frequently recycles supplies from the previous year, as Longmore did.

She invests in Lands’ End backpacks that have a lifetime guarantee, and carefully maps out her shopping. “I begin at dollar stores followed by Walmart and Target, although even the dollar stores have upped their prices to $1.25,” she said, adding that she bought many supplies for her three school-age kids for less than $50 total.

Longmore has been shopping more at Walmart and Target to score better discounts, especially on kids’ clothes and shoes. Still, her credit card debt is “not looking great right now,” she said.

She’s hardly alone.

Morning Consult has “been polling consumers every other week and the thing that set off alarm bells for me was the spike in the number of parents who don’t feel like they can afford all the school supplies this year,” said Claire Tassin, a retail and e-commerce analyst with the market data intelligence firm.

Families with one income or a single parent can feel especially crunched.

Molly Schmitz said her three children Jack, Lily and Jase are recyling and reusing many of their school supplies, including backpacks, this year.

Guen Corrigan, who lives in rural Maine, said her daughter — a single mother — told her she’d shopped thrift stores for clothing and shoes, and purchased food for lunches. But when Corrigan asked her about school supplies, “it was clear that my daughter had overlooked this in her budget,” she wrote in an emailed comment to CNN Business.

Corrigan stepped in and bought $140 worth of supplies for her granddaughter, and said she was happy to help her hardworking daughter. But she worries for schoolkids who don’t have a grandparent to help.

Beyond parents, teachers are also concerned about being able to adequately prepare their classrooms for the new academic year. Many end up spending their own money on supplies, and those in low-income districts often purchase items for their students.

Sixth-grade teacher Cynthia Angell, who lives in Tracy, California, finds herself less able to financially assist her class of predominantly low-income students. “I have in past years provided students with school supplies. This year I will not be able to do so,” Angell said in an email to CNN Business.

She hopes families with means will donate classroom supplies, “but I expect parents are also limited in how much they can help,” Angell said, adding that she fears the problems will disproportionately impact students from lower-income families.

“So do I limit what we do for equity’s sake, or do I beg for help, or do I give up my own needs to help the students?” Angell said. “I guess the answer is yes to all three.”

Longmore, the mother in the Poconos, is trying to see the silver lining of scrimping and sacrificing: “I think it will build character and teach my children to reduce waste and stay on a budget.”

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