Back-to-School Shopping Lesson

Long before “Tax-Free Weekend” became a component in our Back-To-School ritual, my mother used the August clothes-shopping ritual as an object lesson in fiscal responsibility. This particular lesson was probably the most valuable financial lesson she ever taught me.

I spent most of my time growing up poor. With the few exceptions of particularly lucky years sprinkled throughout my child- and teenager-hood, back-to-school meant endless hours sifting through used clothes at the local Goodwill or Salvation Army supplemented by sifting through trash bags of hand-me-downs my mother would bring home from neighbors/co-workers or my father would pick up near Dumpsters. The vast majority of cash was usually spent on actual school supplies: Paper, pencils, pens, and folders. Even though my mother would stock up on the actual supplies, taking advantage of the once-a-year sales, I often didn’t have the “required” school supplies.

In fact, here’s the 2009-10 list of Eighth Grade school supplies for the district from which I graduated high school, with the items I would not have taken with me marked with *. The bracketed comments are mostly things my mother would say:

      *2 packages of notebook paper (to be replenished throughout the year)
      *6 spiral notebooks [You’ll get one 5-subject and deal with it.]
      *3 brad folders with pockets
      *2 pocket folders
      *12 pens (to be replenished throughout the year) [You get five, and if lose ‘em, you deal with it.]
      *1 package of highlighters [Use the map pencils.]
      *2 packages of map pencils [You only need one, and you don’t need the big one. Five colors is enough.]
      *1 hand-held pencil sharpener [There’s one bolted to the wall in every classroom. Use them.]
      *1 personal hand sanitizer [No one outside of the medical community even knew what this meant when I went to school.]
      *1 stretchy book cover [Use the ones the school gives out. I don’t care what the list says.]
      *1 composition notebook [Here’s another brad folder. Put notebook paper in it. Don’t look at me like that, we are NOT the VanAsterBuilts!]
      *1 package of graph paper (1/4” quad-ruled) *1 spiral set of 3x5 index cards [Here’s a rubber band to hold these normal index cards together. You don't need the fancy ones.]

The summer before my Eighth Grade year was happened to be in the middle of a lucky stretch. Both of my parents had decent jobs, and money wasn’t as tight as usual. My mother saved every dime she could for four whole months to give me a great experience: back-to-school shopping for new clothes. New! Hot damn, here we go!

My mom, at the last minute, decided use new clothes shopping as a learning experience. As we sat at the Waffle House across the parking lot from K-Mart, we made a list . . . Shoes, check. Underwear, check. Socks, check. Jeans, check. Shirts, check. Barrettes and ponytail holders, check. Light jacket for fall, check. Backpack, check. Belt, check. Winter coat, hat, gloves? After-Christmas sales.

All set? Good.

Then she handed me what seemed like an un-Godly amount of money and said these words to me . . .

I think you’re old enough to do this on your own. Remember, what you buy now, you’re stuck with for the rest of the year. Be smart. If in doubt, don’t buy it.

I was stunned. I had no idea what to do. I shoved the money in my pocket, keeping it in my fist and my fist buried so deeply in my pocket that I almost pushed my shorts down, as I blindly wandered across the parking lot to the front doors of K-Mart.

What I sight I must’ve been! That I never thought to ask her whether she watched me go and look back two or three times is a shame. She died before I thought to ask.

I’ll spare you the details of a prospective Eighth Grade girl’s first solo shopping expedition. Suffice it to say that by Christmas Break I was crying for a hell of a lot more than just winter gear . . . I’d either not bought enough of one thing, or too much of another, or cheap versions that fell apart or shrank so much as to be unwearable because I had no idea how much I needed of anything or what might constitute a good purchase or a bad one. I bought things that didn’t match, didn’t fit, and didn’t hold out.

By the time my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I’d already been borrowing her socks for two months and had stolen her work-worn oldest jeans, cut them off at the knees, and hemmed them myself. Years before workman-chic became the rage, I’d pulled my dad’s ruined light-blue uniform button-ups out of a trash bag, had a friend draw pictures over the stains (with a black Sharpie, the only kind then!), and covered his company patches and embroidery with music band logos from other people’s torn-up concert t-shirts salvaged from another Dumpster.

Needless to say, all I wanted for Christmas was, “Clothes! And you’re coming this time!” Christmas break was a thrift-store bonanza. And good God, was I was happy for the opportunity. I never went shopping with her again, for anything, without paying close attention and asking so many questions that she would eventually have to give me “The Look” to shut me up.

We didn’t have uniforms in public schools back then, so there was no “financial assistance” to purchase back-to-school clothes during the other years when we really could have used it. I wonder what kind of changes going to “uniform schools” would have made in my life, if any at all



  1. I think you're mom taught you a valuble lesson. I must admit that I'm rather jealous of it. I was never given the benefit of learning those lessons early and was of the opinion that money and the things I had simply fell from the sky. It made my adult life rather difficult and I'm still paying the price as I learn about finances.

    Good mother!

  2. Barbara Rhyne-TuckerAugust 28, 2009 at 7:42 PM

    what a beautiful story! What a wise mother. Thank you for sharing this part of your life me. You made my day...