Back-to-school costs add up for families, college students

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Nina Pilson rifled through tablet cases at a local Best Buy as her two sons, Rohan, 9, and Clive, 7, played video games on some iPads on display.

The 41-year-old Houston mother was shopping for a kid-proof case to protect a $399 iPad she recently purchased for her family to use for school, work and entertainment. Pilson budgeted between $30 and $40 for the tablet case, yet another one of many expenses she expects to incur during the busy back-to-school shopping season.

There’s $135 for two prepackaged school supply kits, $150 for new clothes and shoes and another $150 for new helmets, bats and a baseball bag for her older son. Last year, she spent $200 for lacrosse gear for her sons as they headed back to school.

“It’s never-ending,” Pilson said.

As thousands of Houston-area students return to school classrooms and college lecture halls this month, parents and young adults across the region are opening their wallets and purses for new clothes, school supplies and electronics.

Back-to-school represents the second-largest shopping season of the year, eclipsed only by the holiday season. Spending on K-12 and college supplies is expected to reach $80.7 billion this year, down from last year’s $82.8 billion largely due to fewer households with children in grade school, according to the National Retail Federation.

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Texas’ tax-free holiday, Aug. 9-11, is expected to ease financial stress for families while bolstering back-to-school sales for retailers. The tax holiday exempts sales tax from most clothing, footwear, school supplies and backpacks priced below $100. Texas families have saved more than $102 million since the state enacted the sales tax holiday in 1999.

“As a father of three, I know how these expenses can add up,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said.

Prices rise

In Houston, the average family with two school-aged children will spend $609 on back-to-school shopping, an increase of 6.7 percent from last year and $90 more than the national average, according to Deloitte’s 12th annual back-to-school survey. Deloitte firm polled 1,200 families nationally, including 400 in the Houston area.

Local shoppers who responded to Deloitte’s survey said they plan to spend an average $339 on clothing and shoes and $136 on school supplies. While apparel and school supplies remain perennial staples of back-to-school shopping, families are increasingly buying computers, cell phones and tablets as technology seeps into children’s classroom and social life. Many grade schoolers today submit class assignments and homework online, and communicate with their teachers and friends through apps.

Pilson said her two sons, who are entering fourth and second grades, are still too young for cell phones, but said most students start sporting smartphones in the 6th and 7th grades.

“They really want one,” Pilson said. “In middle school, the kids all have phones.”

About a quarter of Houston families said they plan to purchase computers and electronics this year, spending on average $382 and $248 respectively. While spending on most back-to-school items is expected to remain flat this year, electronics sales are projected to rise by 29 percent, according to Deloitte.

“Laptops are going crazy,” said Ron Phillips, general manager of the Best Buy in the Galleria area, which is offering $50 to $250 discounts off Lenovo, HP and Dell laptops for students.

Tariffs on Chinese goods, which have roiled the stock market in recent weeks, have not had an effect on prices or sales of computers and electronics.

“From what I’ve seen, tariffs haven’t really translated yet into increased prices,” said Jeff Buhr, a partner in Deloitte’s Houston retail division.

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Although retailers are increasingly selling apparel and school supplies online, the majority of back-to-school shopping still occurs in brick-and-mortar stores. Houston families are forecast to spend three-quarters of their back-to-school shopping dollars in stores and a quarter online, according to Deloitte.

That’s because children still influence more than half of all back-to-school shopping decisions, from what style of clothing and colors of supplies to purchase, Buhr said.

Back-to-school shoppers prefer mass merchants, such as Walmart and Target, followed by e-commerce, dollar stores and specialty and office supply retailers, according to Deloitte.

Higher education, cost

Although back-to-school shopping often focuses on grade-schoolers, the bulk of the season’s dollars are spent on college students.

Nationally, the average family will spend $1,362 per college student, more than double that of K-12 students. Computers and electronics represent the bulk of back-to-college spending, with the average family spending $759, up 12.6 percent from last year, according to Deloitte.

Sohee Park, 20, visited the Galleria-area Best Buy on a recent Wednesday, searching for a new power charger for her Acer laptop, a gift from her parents as the northwest Houston resident transfers from Houston Community College to Texas A&M University.

The sophomore engineering student decided to purchase an off-brand, universal charger for $59.99, as she waits for her scholarship money to come in. Park is financing her college education by herself, working at her college library, interning at Rice University’s research lab and by applying to various scholarships.

“My budget is tight,” Park said. “I’m still waiting on scholarships so I can budget better.”

Nearby, Julia Frazier, 20, was applying for a Best Buy credit card to finance a new laptop purchase. The Conroe native, who is going into her first year studying biology at Houston Community College, is hoping to spend no more than $2,000 on a top-of-the-line HP laptop-tablet that she plans to use throughout her college years.

Frazier, too, is paying her way through college, working full time at a Chinese-American takeout restaurant inside the Loop.

“I’m now realizing how stressful this must have been for my parents,” Frazier said of back-to-school shopping. “It’s not fun.”

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