Summer is one of the roughest times for a low-income family with children. Not only are electricity bills higher because of air-conditioning, but having the kids at home every day also puts a strain on finances. You might not think there would be a difference between the summer and the school year, but feeding hungry mouths an extra two times a day (if breakfast and lunch are usually provided at school) is a financial burden that's hard to handle for some families.
To make matters worse, there’s a small part of the summer that’s the even tougher for many families with limited means: back-to-school shopping season. This time of the year, generally running from mid-July to early September, entails the added cost of school clothes and supplies.
These expenses are often too much for poor families to handle.
According to a 2018 survey by professional services firm Deloitte, 29 million households plan to spend $27.6 billion on back-to-school shopping in 2018, with the average family spending $532. Obviously, families need a lot of money to send kids to school — money that many of them simply don’t have. Fortunately, there are options for getting kids the resources they need to be successful students.
Further Reading: “What to Do About Back-to-School Clothes”
Back-to-School Shopping on a Budget: Finding Resources
In my hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, the McCracken County Public School District maintains the Lone Oak Family Resource Youth Service Center. The center serves underprivileged students from four primary schools in the district (pre-K through eighth grade). One of its main functions is providing free school supplies to low-income families for the upcoming school year, as well as things like personal hygiene kits and food for the weekends. Lone Oak is available to any student in the federal free- or reduced-lunch program.
Centers like this don’t exist only where I live. A friend told me about Empower Youth, an organization in her hometown of Bethel, Ohio. According to the group’s website, “Empower Youth was founded in February 2015 to partner with children and youth in hopes of instilling in them the confidence and resources needed to break through the chains of generational poverty.”
One of this organization’s primary functions is running EY Weekend FoodPacks. This program provides more than 600 food packs to the students of several schools in Clermont County. This helps them get through the weekend, when they may not have ready access to food. The EY Weekend FoodPacks program, not unlike the one in my hometown, is available to free- and reduced-lunch program participants or to faculty- and staff-recommended students. Empower Youth takes donations from corporate sponsors and generous community residents and invests the money in kids who may be struggling at home and not telling anyone.
Further Reading: Learn about the impact of poverty on education.
Back-to-School Shopping for College Students
The back-to-school financial plight isn’t just isolated to children. It’s also a problem for college students, who face similar yet different challenges when they go out on their own into the world of higher education. The cost of textbooks, the logistics and expense of transportation to and from classes, and the worry of where their next meal will come from are all concerns of college students around the country.
Textbooks — a necessity in the life of a college student — are ridiculously expensive. A 2018 study by the U.S Public Research Interest Group revealed that the national average price for textbooks and other course materials was $153 per course. In a normal 15-credit-hour five-course workload, that’s more than $750 per semester.
This cost can seem insurmountable to students who are struggling financially, but there are options.
Take, for example, the University Connect and Persist (UCAP) Lending Library at Northern Kentucky University. After a course has ended, students can donate their textbooks to UCAP. The organization then matches the books with needy students who couldn't otherwise afford them. This service is available to students every semester, regardless of financial need.
Further Reading: Check out these tips for finding cheap textbooks in college.
Transportation is another big consideration when going to college. Figuring out how to get from class to class or to and from campus (if you’re a commuter), not to mention getting to school if you live several hours from campus, can be a challenge. For many students, buying and maintaining a car is not a possibility. As a result, they must rely on other means of transportation.
ZipCar, a service found on many college campuses across the country, is transforming the way that people rent cars. The company offers car rental by the hour or the day for people 18 and older, cornering a market that was previously untapped. Many mainstream companies are hesitant to rent vehicles to people under the age of 25 because of insurance difficulties. Few rent to people above age 21, and almost none rent to those below that age. But ZipCar is accessible and simple. You sign up and pay a membership fee (if you're a student, you can get a discount). Then in a few days, you get a card in the mail that grants you access to the company’s vehicles.
Further Reading: “5 Cheap Transportation Alternatives to Cars”
Food is something else that a lot of college students struggle with. The 2016 report Hunger on Campus indicates that 14 percent of college students experience some form of food insecurity every year. While that percentage may not seem especially high, it’s still alarming when you take into account that it should be zero. Again, there are resources that students can tap. Many schools have a food bank on campus to help those who are struggling to afford the necessities. And there are food banks in your community that you can reach out to for assistance. Go to the Feeding America website to find the food banks in your community.
Back-to-School Shopping for Low-Income Families: The Bottom Line
Back-to-school season is a challenge for low-income families. I’ve been both the low-income child in elementary and middle school and the broke college student, and I can tell you that it’s not easy. I can only imagine what it’s like for parents who feel helpless because they don’t think they can provide for their children. I’m here to say that it’s not your fault. Stuff happens, and situations arise that make things difficult for every one of us at some time in our lives. The internet is your best friend when it comes to finding resources to make your life easier and to help lift some of the burden from your shoulders.
Further Reading: “The Lesser-Known Cost of Going to a Public School”