Back to School Shopping: Parent-Teen Worlds Collide

A renewed sense of thrift has overtaken back-to-school shoppers, setting the scene for parent-teen conflicts

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Despite strengthening job and housing markets and expectations for stronger economic growth the second half, a renewed sense of thrift is gripping back-to-school shoppers, numerous surveys show.

Families with school-age children will spend an average $634.78 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, down from $688.62 last year, the National Retail Federation reports. Behind the more frugal approach:

  • A period of thrift led to pent-up demand last year, when spending was higher than normal. That left parents with an array of school supplies that still work and a significantly shorter shopping list this year, NFR says.
  • Sluggish growth believed to be less than 1% in the second quarter kindled fears of another downturn and has triggered household budget cuts—even though the pace of recovery is widely expected to pick up the rest of the year.
  • Concerns about rising medical expenses and the recent tax hikes have left families with less to spend, according to Deloitte’s annual back-to-school survey. Parents who said they would buy only what the family needs jumped to 57% from 52% last year and those who plan to reuse old items jumped to 35% from 20%.

(MORE: Back to School Sales Already? Kids Get Ugly Reminder School Isn’t Too Far Off)

It’s not as though no one is shopping. Total spending on kids K-12 will total $26.7 billion and when you add in college students the number soars to $72.5 billion, according to the NRF. Working Mother says that 41% of moms with jobs will spend more than last year.

Certainly, there seems to be room for some largesse. Only a third of parents believe the economy is in a recession, down from 48% last year, Deloitte found. And at least one survey found that spending will increase: 68% of consumers plan to spend up to $500 this back-to-school shopping season, up from 63% last year and 48% in 2011, reports shopping site Pricegrabber. Half of all shoppers start procuring in August. But a third begin in July while 3% wait for deals in October, when supplies are sure to be hard to find.

Back-to-school shopping can create parent-child conflict, Capital One warns. In a survey, the company found that parents and teens don’t see eye-to-eye, and fewer than half of teens have worked with parents to develop a budget. Nearly half of parents consider price the most important factor in back-to-school items but teens regard price as least important and want to focus on style, Capital One found. Likewise, parents overwhelmingly prefer to shop at discount stores while teens want to go to department stores.

The biggest divide of all? One in five teens says new technology items are must-haves for the new school year. But smartphones and the like don’t show up on a single parent’s list of highest priorities.

MORE: Communication Breakdown: If You Think You’re Talking About Money, Your Kids Don’t Hear It