Back-to-school shopping is a big deal. Parents in America spend over $24 billion in back-to-school shopping every year, and not just on traditional school supplies that schools need. They buy backpacks, clothes or new shoes—assuming all the old backpacks, clothes, and shoes are beyond repair. And if my family is anything to go by, why bother? That fleece jacket will go missing on day one and reappear on the last day of school, if at all.

Back-to-school is intended as a time of new beginnings, new learning, and new knowledge. According to Little Passports, it is also a time of sweet traditions around the world.

So here’s an idea. Or five ideas. Let’s make the back-to-school season one of new decisions. Decisions to bring back learning and knowledge, and well, some savings.

Visit a public library: They’re free! Yes, free! Dust off those library cards and make a monthly visit to the library. In case you haven’t noticed, public libraries are no longer just for books; they host events, workshops, and performances that are all free! As a family, pick books together, turn in late fees together (or wait, maybe that’s just my family), and learn together. Did I mention libraries are free??

Learn together: Play a new game as a family. Monopoly never goes out of st‌yle, nor does a game on the Xbox. Make a commitment at the beginning of the year that no matter how many soccer practices and playdates and sleepovers there are, you will still make some time during the school year for a little family fun. Aren’t you curious what your kids think of your victory dance when you win a game or what a sore loser your spouse can be? Learning moments!

Be a part of something: Maybe it’s that urban gardening group. Or a little volunteer service at the food bank. No matter our interest, we can be a part of something more than the everyday grind so that maybe, just maybe, we will learn from people around us. It might not make saints of our kids, or of us for that matter, but it brings a perspective that money can’t buy.

Buy (horrors!) used: See jacket story above. Why spend a fortune (even at Target) if you could get smart, stylish clothes at a fraction of what you would spend in an actual store? Better still, if you are a “get things done” kind of person, organize an exchange with folks in your own school! Because recycling isn’t just about blue bins outside our homes every Thursday. It’s about knowing how to make things last and teaching valuable life lessons in economics. Oh, and saving the planet in a tiny way.

Bring news into your family: Listen to podcasts together, subscribe to kid’s news experiences, or just talk about news at dinner. As parents, we have apps, shared news links, and Facebook stories that define our idea of news, and it’s not always pretty. But kids? They are fascinated by news! For them, news is about discoveries and science and technology and amazing stories around the world, happening right now!

Maybe you don’t do all of these things. But before putting aside hundreds of dollars for back-to-school shopping, it might be worth asking: what do we really need? It just might be all of the above and a name tag on jackets, but that’s just me.


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