There are three words that bring joy to the hearts of parents, and dread to their children. Three words that feel like freedom for grownups, and prison for kids. Three words, that seem to get more expensive every year:
Back to School.
I have to admit, that even 25 plus years after graduating high school, I still get a little nervous adrenaline rush on the first day of a school year. I guess most of us never completely recover from high school.
In Texas, about 4.8 million public school students went back to school this morning after the long summer break, my two teenaged daughters among them. They joined millions of other kids around the country who are now trying to figure out if they got the hard history teacher or the easy one, a good locker location or a bad one, if this will finally be the year they keep that pledge to do their homework early.
I, on the other hand, am joining the millions of parents doing serious checkbook math today, trying to figure where all the money went.
I actually know where it went. I just can't quite believe it.
"Daddy," my seventeen year old, Rachael, said to me one day last week, "can you put some money on my debit card so I can buy school clothes?"
"How much?" I asked. I already knew it would be expensive. Questions that begin with "Daddy" instead of "Dad" usually are.
"Just a hundred dollars," she said.
"Oh, sure," I answered. "I'll put in a hundred for your sister, too. Take her with you."
I thought I was getting off easy - two hundred bucks for two teenaged girls to go back-to-school shopping? Bargain, right?
It turns out, that was only the "pre" back-to-school shopping trip. My wife took them both out again this weekend for more clothing and essentials (like makeup, hair cuts, more clothes, and Starbucks). Price tag: $248.57. It would have been more, but in Texas it was a tax free weekend for clothing.
"Well," I said to my wife, Kiki, after she returned, "that's still less than the national average. Only $448.57 for two teenaged girls."
For the record, the national average is $549.00. That's how much the National Retail Foundation says the average American family will spend on back to school shopping this year, including supplies, clothing, backpacks, etc. I doubt they included Starbucks in their average, but they should have. All told, Americans will spend 17.4 billion dollars on back-to-school shopping this year.
"We're not finished yet," Kiki said. "We haven't even started on school supplies. They're both in high school, so we won't have the list of what they need until after their first day."
"Okay," I said, "but then we really are finished. Right?"
"Until the weather cools down," she answered. "They need new fall clothes, but it's too hot to shop for that stuff now."
I wanted to mention that when I was in high school, the girls I knew all got jobs to pay for their clothing, or got nothing but clothes for birthdays and Christmas. I decided to quit while I was ahead.
In truth, there are many parents who have it much worse. Unemployment is higher than it's been in decades, making back-to-school shopping an even greater financial burden this year.
Tanisha Bell, a single mother who cares for three children, was among 60,000 people who attended a back-to-school fair in Dallas to get free school supplies and health check for her kids. Bell has a Masters degree, but was laid off from her corporate job last October, and has had no luck finding work.
"It can get hard," Bell told me, "It can get depressing but you know there's life on the other side, so you've just got to stay strong, especially for the kids. Stay positive because if they see that we're in this rut then it can get them down because they're always going to worry about what we're going to have and if we're going to eat and things like that."
To save money, Bell has cut back on the amount of school supplies and clothes for her kids this year: one pair of shoes each, for now. They're also recycling backpacks and folders from last year. She admits, some other bills might be late this month because the money to pay them went for back to school supplies instead. Still, Bell is optimistic that things will work out.
I, meanwhile, anxiously await the school supplies list that's due home with my girls this afternoon. It will surely push our family expenditure to, if not well beyond the national average.
But instead of complaining, I will be thankful that I have a job and remember what's really important.
Our kids are blessings.
Be sure to check out our piece tonight, on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.