Back-to-school time is expensive — Minnesota parents offer tips for survival


The back-to-school marathon is in full sprint and testing parents’ sanity.

“I run around like a crazy lady,” said Anissa Keyes, a Minneapolis business owner and mother of five. “It’s all the logistics and all the adjustments from the summer schedule to the fall schedule. Where they are going to be after school and what buses and activities they have to balance. It’s a lot.”

Factor in the cost of new backpacks, computers, notebooks and the big money families plan to spend this year on school sports, instruments and field trips, it’s no wonder families get stressed when September rolls around.

Professional organizers, life coaches and financial planners increasingly hear from parents who need help managing the deluge that comes with returning to school.

“A lot of things are coming at parents, that is for sure,” said Michele Dudley, who notes that 30% of her clients at Reyestone Organization in Shorewood struggle to manage their children’s academic careers, countless extracurricular activities and all the chores that accompany each.

Besides school supplies, parents must keep track of youth sports, band practices, dance rehearsals, school uniform purchases, busing and all the food prep demands that flood a family’s school year checklist.

Dudley and other organization coaches recommend parents of school-aged children embrace budgets, school websites, synchronized digital calendars and home “command centers” to organize paperwork and all the other chaos.

Adopt habits that simplify things. “It’s a time saver,” Dudley said.

The question of meals

Parents can lasso some control by designating a set day of each week for laundry, lunch making, menu planning and grocery shopping. Know your meals in advance, make a grocery list and buy in bulk. That saves money, time and prevents the surprise of an empty pantry or an untimely missing ingredient.

Beyond better nutrition, when even a fast-food meal costs at least $5 a person, planning can save the household budget. In Minnesota, full-price school lunches can run $2.40 to $3.50 a day — or up to $78 a month per child.

Many parents must go through the money vs. time debate each week. Some will budget a weekday dinner meal when activities or work take too much time, or allow children to buy lunches on only some days of the week.

One of Dudley’s peers cooks double batches of taco meats, pulled pork and casseroles and then freezes half so her kids can have quick meals the next week. She also puts her munchkins in charge of packing their own school lunches at the start of each week.

“The more systems you add that can simplify and streamline things, the better off you will be,” Dudley said. And remember, “the goal is not perfection. As organizers we try to work with progress and build momentum, not perfection.”

Making the master schedule

The advice couldn’t come at a better time for Keyes. Keyes prepares for the start of school as much as possible.

Weeks ago, she jumped on school websites for each of her children and signed up for teacher orientations, the annual school uniform sales event and registered her older boys in school sports.

“I’m kind of a super planner” but with five children she still finds herself “figuring it out as we go. It’s what all parents do.”

This fall, Keyes’ 13-year-old son will again play soccer at Ascension Catholic School in Minneapolis. Her 15- and 16-year-old sons both work, attend Cooper High School in New Hope and will soon start a class at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park.

Keyes will shuttle her youngest four between schools, soccer and day care, all while running a mental health care clinic with 35 employees and overseeing a $1.6 million building renovation. In between, she tries to remember: “Breathe. Breathe! That’s a big one.”

Courtney Laufenberg, owner of No Loose Ends organizing company in Ham Lake, said there is help for busy moms like Keyes and herself.

While shepherding five sweaty teens to dinner in between soccer practices on a recent Thursday, Laufenberg said she advises her equally busy clients to plan ahead and embrace schedules.

“My kids are jam-packed. And I am a professional organizer, so we really live and die by our schedules,” Laufenberg said.

While some parents base decisions about activities on how much is too much — to fit on that master schedule — others need to be mindful of budgets as well.

Consider that some parents pay $270 to $560 a school year to rent a violin, cello or bass. Others pay hefty athletic fees from $45 to join school soccer, wrestling or basketball teams to $100 for hockey and $350 for Alpine ski teams.

On top of that are extra athletic clinics, dance and private instrument lessons. At some dance academies, students buy three outfits for recitals, depending on age.

Take advantage of technology

Laufenberg, her husband and their 10- and 14-year-old daughters faithfully use a wall calendar but also rely on a synchronized and color-coded Google calendar to help everyone in the house keep track of school and client meetings, as well as soccer practices and game dates.

The daughters, who play soccer and dance competitively, also use their schools’ TeamSnap and SignUpGenius mobile apps to get all the information needed to show up on time for team events and rehearsals.

The apps are “fabulous,” Laufenberg said. “I have it. Both of my girls have them on their electronic devices. Then when they want to know, ‘Do I have practice today? And what color uniform do I wear?’ they can just check TeamSnap before harassing me with questions.”

Sarah Cronin, a mother of four kids ages 9 to 17 and the owner of Simply Inspired Home Organizing in Savage, also depends on technology, but said it doesn’t have to be fancy.

For example, Cronin relies on the alarm clock on her cellphone.

“The alarm tells everyone, ‘It’s time to put shoes on!'” Cronin said. While Cronin loves her cellphone, she’s just as quick to slap Post-it Notes on the hall or garage door to remind her brood to pack their backpacks with the homework, sports gear, Boy Scout uniforms, lunch and water bottles for the day.

Whatever organizing system you use, “it doesn’t have to be complicated,” she said.

Cronin had one client start using bulletin boards and a calendar in her “command center.” Now the mom posts her meals for the week there, while her 7-year-old tracks her dance rehearsal schedule with little magnetic ballerinas.

Experts agree that it reduces the burden on parents when kids start managing their own schedules, and sometimes their own school costs.

Finding ways to cut costs

Cronin’s oldest boy, an Eagle Scout, sells holiday wreaths and gets sponsors to cover the hundreds of dollars it costs for his troop registration, camping fees and all the supplies he needs for Scout projects.

While many organizations try to provide fundraising opportunities, bills for after-school care and activities can add up quickly.

Ellen Harrmann, who has four children ages 7 to 14 attending three schools in St. Paul, said she will pay $200 for her older daughter’s track uniform at Twin Cities Academy this year. But she expects minimal fees for her younger children because they will register for youth basketball and baseball activities through St. Paul Parks and Recreation instead of school.

Harrmann looks for other ways to save on school expenses. Last year she bought enough bulk folders and notebooks to last two school years.

Her 14-year-old uses her babysitting money to buy lunch on days she doesn’t make and take her lunch from home. Many Minnesota schools provided free school lunches for all students during the pandemic, but it’s unclear if that practice will continue this year, Harrmann said.

Harrmann embraces hand-me-downs and shops garage sales and thrift stores for clothes because kids grow too quickly.

“As a family we just weigh how much things cost and do a lot of things to budget,” Harrmann said. “We really limit how much money we spend on clothes because it’s so expensive. And for shoes, we wear them until they are worn out.”

Dudley, the professional organizer, said schools sometimes offer money-saving help.

The Ascension Catholic School in Minneapolis hosts an annual sale each year of used school uniforms that cost much less than the $80 new ones. The parent teacher association at the JJ Hill Magnet School in St. Paul buys most of the school supplies its students use during the school year, so parents get a break.

Other schools or parent groups organize thrift sales for used instruments, sports equipment, athletic wear and outgrown clothing.

“I have seen a lot of parent groups doing things like [this],” Dudley said. “Joining groups like that can be a big support and have some savings as well.”

For school sports, a lot of parents rely on Play It Again Sports to buy used cleats, pads, gloves and other equipment at a discount.

Laufenberg advises clients to set a strict budget for each child’s activities. And don’t be afraid to look for scholarships and ask for help. Some schools discount fees if the parent volunteers provide their services, she said.

“There are some things you can put in place before the madness happens,” she said.

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