MONEY Education

12 Big Back-to-School Trends Affecting Kids & Parents

Essential reading for the start of the school year.

The 2015-2016 school year is upon us. Are you ready? To get up to speed, take note of a dozen trends around the country that are having an impact on what students are wearing to school, when your child has to get up in the morning for the start of the school day, how much families must chip in for class supplies and school activities, which kids are most likely to be left behind inside and outside the classroom, and more.

  • Later School Starting Times

    girl in bed sleeping with alarm clock
    Aitor Diago—Getty Images

    The CDC and pediatricians are among the many who recommend later start times for schools in order to assure that kids get enough sleep. And slowly, schools seem to be getting the message. Three-quarters of high schools in the northern-latitude states of North Dakota and Alaska begin the day at 8:30 a.m. or later, and a trickling of schools in places like Yakima, Wash., and Denver, Colo., are joining their ranks this fall. States such as New Jersey have agreed to study the impact of later school start times as well. On the other hand, nationwide, more than 80% of public high schools still start the day before 8:30 a.m.

  • Growing Extracurricular Activity Gap

    students in theater group
    Getty Images

    Over the past few decades, researchers have traced a trend they describe as “alarming”: The percentage of upper- and middle-class kids participating in the drama program, hobby clubs, and other non-athletic afterschool activities has steadily increased, while poor students have followed the opposite trajectory. In the early 1980s, participation in such activities was measured at 65% for low-income high school seniors and 73% for their wealthier counterparts. A decade later, the numbers shifted to 61% and 75%, respectively. By 2004, extracurricular participation rates for low-income seniors were down to 56%.

  • BYO Band-Aids

    150831_BTS_Trends_BandAids
    Shutterstock

    It’s not your imagination. Schools really are asking parents to buy more supplies to keep their kids’ classrooms stocked with the basics—everything from tissues to copy paper to Band-Aids. According to the annual Backpack Index from Huntington Bank, a family with three kids (one apiece in elementary, middle, and high school) can expect to pay more than $3,000 this year for school supplies and extracurricular activities. So much for the idea of a free education.

  • More and More Student Fees

    children boarding school bus
    Jamie Grill—Getty Images

    It’s not just increasing school supply lists that are pinching parents. Families are also facing new or significantly higher fees for things like riding the bus or parking a car at school, and participating in sports and other programs. Some schools simply asked students to arrive on the first day with a $50 check to serve as payment for vague “activity fees.” School districts usually cite budget cuts as the reason fees must be instituted.

  • The Lunch Lady Goes Gourmet

    150831_BTS_Trends_dietary
    Getty Images

    Forget about Sloppy Joes. Increasingly, parents and school cafeterias are catering to the dietary restrictions and preferences of young people today, with more gluten-free, organic, and vegetarian options. The cuisine at some school cafeterias is growing increasingly sophisticated as well, serving everything from butternut squash ravioli to made-to-order smoothies, and featuring bistro-style breakfasts and carving stations.

  • Free Lunch for More Students

    150831_BTS_Trends_lunch
    Getty Images

    As of the 2012-2013 school year, 21.5 million kids in American schools received free or reduced-price lunch, as part of the federally funded National Lunch Program. In most cases, free or reduced-price lunches are provided based on the student’s household income levels falling within a certain limit. And the number of students eligible for free lunch is on the rise thanks to an increased income threshold, as well as the expansion of communities that can simply forget about the paperwork and provide free lunches to all students. When 40% of the local students qualify for free lunch, the entire school system becomes eligible, allowing vast student populations in parts of Michigan, Massachusetts, Oregon, Idaho, and beyond to get free lunch at school without any stigma, and regardless of their household income.

  • Back-to-School Spending Shrinks

    school supplies
    Getty Images—iStockphoto

    Over the past decade, back-to-school spending has increased 42%, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). So the anticipated decrease in spending this season—estimated at an average of $630 per household, down from $669 last year—is perhaps more than anything else an indication that parents are realizing they’ve gone overboard in the past.

  • More School Uniforms

    Young student; school uniforms
    Getty Images—Getty Images

    One of the more interesting trends cited by the NRF for the 2015-2016 school year is that 28% of surveyed parents say their kids wear uniforms in school. That’s the highest rate ever in the poll’s history.

  • First-Day-of-School Fashion Stress

    school children chatting in hallway
    Nancy Honey—Getty Images

    According to a survey conduced for Ebates.com, a coupon and cash-back shopping site, parents and teenagers are in agreement that the most stressful category of back-to-school shopping is clothing. In the comment section of the survey, parents lamented, “My son is so picky,” and explained that “Having to negotiate what [my daughter] can and cannot wear to school” is what makes shopping for school clothing so stressful. As for what stresses out teens about clothes shopping, the two top factors cited were “My parents can’t afford what I want” and “My parents don’t agree with what I want.” No wonder more schools are resorting to uniforms.

  • Common Core Backlash

    Standerdized test
    Tetra Images—Getty Images

    The Common Core initiative seeks consistent educational standards throughout the country. That doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. But the Common Core and the standardized tests that come along with it have come under enormous criticism from conservatives and liberals alike. Many teachers and parents aren’t fans either, largely because the one-size-fits-all approach and the narrow focus on test preparation undermines the teacher’s ability to cater lessons to individual students, potentially leaving some kids in the lurch. Movements to opt out of Common Core tests have gained traction in New York, New Jersey, California, and Colorado, among other states, and according to a recent poll, the majority (54%) of public school parents say they oppose teachers using Common Core standards to set the agenda for what they teach.

  • Bye-Bye Lockers

    150831_BTS_Trends_laptops
    Getty Images Laptops in school

    As more traditional books disappear from schools thanks to e-books and web-based learning, schools are finding that there is less need for the lockers that have lined school hallways for decades. The disappearing locker trend began several years ago and has picked up steam around the country since. And what are schools doing with the extra space once occupied by lockers? Some are installing laptop charging stations.

  • Nobody Knows How to Pay for College

    College student
    Getty Images—Getty Images

    It’s a good thing that many colleges offer heavily discounted tuition via grants, scholarships, and such. After all, the vast majority of Americans say they could not afford the full “sticker price” college tuition. According to a new poll conducted for the financial services firm Edward Jones, a whopping 83% said they couldn’t afford the full cost of college for themselves or a loved one. Even among well-off respondents earning $100,000 or more annually, only 37% said they could cover the entire cost of a college education.

MONEY deals

2 Amazingly Simple Tips for Cheap and Lazy Back to School Shoppers

150818_EM_SchoolSaving
Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Parents grasp the idea that only suckers pay full price.

Over the past decade, the amount of money parents spend during back-to-school shopping season has increased a hefty 42%, according to National Retail Federation data. But this year, parents seem to have hit their limit.

The average household with school-age kids expects to spend $630 during back-to-school season, down from $669 a year ago. Probably the most common way to save is by shopping strategically and snatching up good deals as they arise. Retailers like Office Depot, Staples, and Walmart roll out new promotions and discounts once a week, if not more frequently, and loss-leader deals like notebooks for 25¢ or even 1¢, potentially saving big bucks for families. Sales tax holidays offered around the country in July and August shave a few percent off the household back-to-school budget as well.

Here are two increasingly popular back-to-school saving strategies that require even less—perhaps no—effort on the behalf of parents.

Procrastinate. The number of parents who wait until after the school year has started to complete back-to-school shopping roundups is on the rise, and for good reason. According to a Deloitte survey, 31% of parents plan on doing some or all of their back-to-school shopping once their kids are already back in school. That represents a 5% increase over 2014.

To some extent, the increase appears to be part of a general trend of procrastination, laziness, and/or refusing to admit that summer is coming to a close. The National Retail Federation similarly noted a rise in parents saying they’ll shop at the last minute (one to two weeks before school), from 25% last year to over 30% this year.

But consciously or not, there’s some strategy behind the refusal to buy in advance: By doing so, not only do parents get to skip out on the chore of browsing weekly brochures and trying to figure out when to buy protractors, glue, and whatnot, but they also get to benefit from broad clearance sales. Around the time Labor Day hits, after all, retailers resort to deep discounting to empty the aisles of back-to-school items and make way for Halloween and (groan) Christmas merchandise.

Do nothing whatsoever. This “tactic” is even easier than procrastinating and buying everything on discount in one fell swoop after school starts. This approach—essentially doing zilch and getting by with what you already have on hand—is being embraced by more parents as well.

According to the same Deloitte research, since 2011 there has been a 13% increase in parents adopting the anti-consumer strategy: “Our household will reuse last year’s school items rather than buying new.”

Again, going this way yields the dual reward of a) requiring minimal effort; and b) saving money. It also plain makes a lot of sense, especially in light of the data noting that families have been spending more and more on back-to-school items—so, in theory at least, households should have quite a backlog of products to use, or reuse as it were. American households are generally pretty cluttered with stuff as well, and somewhere in the mix parents know there are probably more than enough perfectly good supplies and clothes for their kids to start the school year.

MONEY Banking

7 Things College Students Need to Know About Picking a Bank Account

college students with backpacks at atm machines
Norma Jean Gargasz—Alamy

Understand a bank's fees, ATM network, account options, and more.

College season is nigh, which means that millions of freshmen from around the country will leave the snug confines of their childhood home for a room with a view of the quad.

For many 18-year-olds, this newfound freedom will also bring the first taste of financial independence. While some may already have savings accounts in place, most will have to set up new accounts as they leave home and manage day-to-day cash flow for the first time.

Parents may worry their children will stumble. After all, even adults make unnecessary banking errors all the time. But plenty of mistakes can be avoided with a little bit of planning and foresight.

College freshmen should consider the following seven rules before starting a relationship with a financial institution.

1. Focus on Free

Almost by definition, students don’t have a lot of money—so they need to be especially conscious of fees that can eat away at what little funds they do have. MyBankTracker.com co-founder Alex Matjanec recommends looking for an account that has the following features: no monthly maintenance fee, negligible or no minimum balance requirement, free debit card, free ATM usage at your bank, free online banking, free check writing, and no money transfer fees. (One place to start looking is Ally, MONEY’s 2014 pick for Best Online Bank.)

Check out the new MONEY College Planner

2. Mix It Up

Your checking and savings account don’t have to be at the same bank, especially if you can receive a higher APY on a savings account elsewhere. You may have to go online to find the best deals, something that shouldn’t concern most millennials who were raised on the Internet.

“Online savings accounts offer higher yields and lower minimum deposits while maintaining access to the money and the safety of federal deposit insurance,” says Bankrate.com’s chief analyst Greg McBride. (For savings accounts, MONEY recommends the Barclays Dream Account.)

Make sure you’re comfortable transferring money electronically, however, otherwise you’ll have to mail in any deposits. If your part-time job involves a lot of cash, for instance, you might be better off at a bank with brick-and-mortar locations.

3. Ditch the School Pride

You may be tempted to just go with the first bank you see near campus, or the one your university seems to endorse. Not so fast, though.

“Don’t pick a bank or credit union just because your school has a relationship with them,” says NerdWallet.com’s Nico Leyva. “Make the decision after doing the research to determine what is going to suit your needs best.”

4. Weigh ATM Convenience

A checking account is essentially a spot to store short-term cash—so when you need to access that money to buy stuff, you’ll want to avoid ATM fees. You have a few options to consider.

  • Large national banks will probably offer a number of branches and ATMs from which you can access your cash for free. Just make sure that you’re not being hit up for other fees on the account.
  • You can also look to regional or community banks with a strong presence near campus; these may have fewer fees than their too-big-too-fail counterparts. Unless you’re sticking close to home, however, be sure that your parents can transfer money easily into this account without fees.
  • Another option is a credit union. “Many credit unions offer free withdrawals through a shared branching network that includes thousands of locations nationwide,” says Tristram Coffin, CEO of Alternatives Federal Credit Union in Ithaca, N.Y. The Co-Op network, for instance, offers access through 30,000 ATMs from 3,500 credit unions.
  • Online accounts also tend to provide a number of free ATM transactions. But read the fine print; Ally, for instance, recently installed a cap.

5. Use Your Phone to Keep Tabs

Your phone can be a powerful tool for keeping an eye on your balance. “Using technology to monitor your account activity and available balances is a great way to be on guard against fraudulent transactions and also your best strategy to avoid costly overdrafts,” says McBride.

Most bank apps also include other features, like mobile check deposits and real-time alerts that let you know when your account is below a pre-set limit.

6. Beware Overdraft Protection

While the name may sound prudent, overdraft protection is generally something that students want to avoid. Because such services usually bring high fees, you’ll be better off simply sticking to a budget — or accepting the embarrassment that comes with a declined transaction.

“Don’t let anyone persuade you into overdraft protection,” says Money-Rates.com’s personal finance expert Richard Barrington. “Overdraft fees are very expensive, and in particularly college students should learn to do without overdraft protection so they develop responsible banking habits.”

7. Think Ahead

If you’re using a specially designated student account, be aware of any age restrictions. “Many student accounts have age limits, at which point the account converts into a standard checking/savings account with different fee structures,” says Matjanec.

If you’re going to get stuck with an automatic conversion, make sure the standard account doesn’t come with onerous fees, high monthly minimums, or other undesirable traits.

Read next: 3 Secrets to Maximizing Your Credit Card Travel Rewards

MONEY’s 2015-16 Best Colleges rankings

MONEY deals

The Back to School Item Every Student Needs Costs Just 1¢

081315_EM_sale
Getty Images

Load up for the school year soon.

When the school year starts, kids can probably get by with using old pencils, and even (the horror!) previously worn clothes. But if there’s one back-to-school staple that needs to be purchased freshly for a student to kick off the school year right, it’s the notebook. Several notebooks, ideally.

Because notebooks are such a necessary purchase around this time of year, retailers have been using them as “loss leaders”—the products that don’t pull in profits but that serve as magnets to draw in customers, who likely make other purchases while they’re shopping.

At Walgreens, for instance, basic one-subject (70-page) notebooks are on sale right now for 49¢.

That sounds like a pretty good deal until you realize that it’s twice as expensive as what a couple competitors are charging. Both Staples and Walmart are listing single-subject notebooks at a price of just 25¢ in brochures this week. Rite Aid, meanwhile, has a deal offering three single-subject notebooks for a total of 99¢.

As terrific as these promotional prices seem, a deal starting on Sunday blows them all away. As of August 16, single-subject store brand notebooks at Office Depot are knocked down to a mere 1¢ each.

Understandably enough, there is some fine print on the offer from Office Depot and the others. For the most part, these prices are only valid for in-store (not online) purchase. Supplies are limited, and, like Black Friday doorbuster deals, are prone to sell out, so act quickly. In the case of Office Depot, there is also a limit of three 1¢ notebooks per customer, and shoppers must rack up a bill of at least $5 to get the deal.

Bear in mind also that every retailer has a rotating list of insanely cheap loss-leader deals during the back-to-school season, and that there’s almost always a way to avoid paying full price. To keep your family’s school supply bill down to a minimum, play your cards right by strategically snatching up bargains as they arise—like, when glue is 50¢ and classic wooden rulers are marked down to 35¢. Both of those examples, by the way, are offered by Staples right now.

MONEY

Parents, Brace Yourselves: This Is How Much You’ll Spend on Back-to-School Shopping

parent holding hands with two kids with backpacks
Alamy

It's a whopper number, but parents actually say it's lower than last year.

The start of the school year is still more than a month away, but subtraction is already on the lesson plan. Parents this year say they will be spending less on back-to-school clothes, electronics supplies, and other items for their kids, according to a new survey released by the National Retail Federation.

That’s in spite of the fact that a smaller number of parents say the way they shop is influenced by the economy — about three-quarters of parents surveyed, down from more than four out of five last year and the lowest in the seven years the NRF has been asking that question.

Among that 76%, fewer say they’ll be tracking down sales more often or buying store-brand items this year. They’re also confident enough that they’re starting their shopping later this year, rather than getting an early jump on bargain-hunting or spending slowly to minimize the budgetary hit. The number of families who say they’ll wait until just a week or two until school starts went up from 25% to 30% in only a year.

The lower total may simply be due to yearly fluctuations, says NRF president Matthew Shay, as some big-ticket items need less frequent purchases: “It’s unlikely most families would need to restock and replenish apparel, electronics and supplies every year.”

Collectively, American parents with kids in kindergarten through 12th grade will shell out $24.9 billion — a drop of about 6% from last year. On average, a family with school-aged kids expects it will spend $630.36 this year, the lowest it’s been since 2011 and down from $669.28 last year.

It’s not just backpacks and binders. The biggest chunk of families’ overall back-to-school budget goes to clothes, which around 93% of families buy. Across all shoppers, clothing and electronics account for more than $400 of the average family’s back-to-school outlay.

And while not all parents are buying electronics, the 57% who do so spend more on that than on clothes — an average of an average of just about $346 per family. For parents who grew up in an era where a graphing calculator was the most costly gadget a kid could need, this is a big adjustment.

And parents, if you think your kids are going to defray some of the costs by kicking in the contents of their piggy bank of summer job, guess again: Only about four out of 10 teenagers will help pay for their back-to-school expenses, and those who do will only contribute around $82 to the total.

MONEY deals

5 Reasons September Is the Best Month to Go Shopping

Red lawn mower and sprinkler on lawn
PhotoSlinger—Alamy

September is an in-between month for consumers. It's not really a peak period to buy anything—which is why it's absolutely a peak month for savvy shoppers looking for deals on everything from lawn mowers to houses.

You may be still paying off your summer vacation. You may feel the need to start socking away money to cover your winter holiday shopping budget. There may be nothing that your household really needs to buy right now. Even so, there’s a good argument to be made that you can and should be shopping in September—and that you can feel smart, thrifty, and virtuous about it. Here are five reasons why.

1. Summer is over. The need for summery goods such as lawn mowers, barbecue grills, patio furniture, bicycles, bathing suits, and anything related to the beach is rapidly disappearing. So, naturally, stores want all typical summer purchases off their shelves and out of their aisles, pronto. Look for them at increasingly discounted prices until they’re gone. For instance, patio furniture should be listed at clearance prices of 50% to 75% off, according to dealnews. In addition to markdowns on summer items, Consumer Reports noted, shoppers can also expect stores to be discounting snow blowers for a similar reason—they’re just not top of mind for consumers, so some extra incentive is needed to make customers bite.

2. Kids are back in school. Retailers started pushing back-to-school sales in June, before most kids even started their summer vacation, and August is generally considered peak season for back-to-school purchases. But this year, at least, shoppers seem to have wised up to the simple fact that prices drop for those who wait. After a fairly lackluster summer season, stores were promoting early Labor Day deals to pump up apparel sales in particular. Even that wasn’t enough to drive many shoppers into stores.

“Consumers, not stores, are driving the trends these days, which means September will be the busiest back-to-school month this year, contrary to what stores and retailers may think,” the NPD Group’s Marshal Cohen noted recently. Here’s how Cohen explained why consumers have changed in their approach to back-to-school shopping:

Parents are prioritizing by purchasing supplies first, then some basic wardrobe necessities, and lastly following up with fashion, putting summer aside and purchasing clothing and apparel for colder rather than warmer weather. The reason consumers are delaying this significant aspect of their back-to-school shopping is twofold: they want to find out what’s “cool in school” before making their purchases and, looking at the broader trend, consumers don’t want to buy early anymore; consumers today want to buy in season.

Seasonality is just part of it; parents are also hip to the fact that prices are likely to drop on many back-to-school items and fashions once retailers consider peak back-to-school season to be over.

3. New gadgets are coming. Which means that older models will be marked down soon, if they haven’t been already. Consumer Reports suggests September as a great month for buying all sorts of small electronics (MP3 players, Blu-ray players, etc.), and dealnews points out that iPhones currently on the market are bound to be discounted when Apple introduces the new model, which should take place next week.

4. The winter holidays are looming. The overarching reason that stores are extra aggressive with markdowns in September is that they are eager to gear up for the Thanksgiving–Christmas shopping period. Sure, summer is an important season for retailers, but it pales in comparison to the end of the year. Some outlets routinely ring up more than half the year’s sales during the winter shopping season. So they understandably want to be fully prepared to make the most of it. To do so, it helps to start with a clean slate, with little or nothing in stores left over from the summer. Hence, major deals to clear out stores.

5. House hunting slows to a crawl. A new Trulia report explains that September marks the beginning of a sharp slowdown in people searching for homes to buy in most markets. For the most part, the arrival of Labor Day is bad news for owners who have listed their homes but have yet to close a deal with a buyer. On the other hand, fewer buyers in the market means an advantage for those who remain. Sellers who would have laughed off a lowball bid in, say, early June will be much more likely to consider such an offer come September.

MONEY College

Don’t Bash Ivy Leaguers: They’re Just as Greedy as Everyone Else

140826_FF_IVYLEAGUE
Michael Burrell—Alamy

In Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz slams the Ivy League for having a "finance-first" culture. But it's not just Harvard grads who run to high paying industries, it's everyone.

College entrants, beware. Choosing your dream school might be the worst decision you’ve ever made. That’s the message from William Deresiewicz, author of the recently released book Excellent Sheep. The ex-Yale professor’s latest work blasts the Ivy League, and other similarly prestigious schools, for turning young, idealistic learners into the titular livestock, who end their time in college by wandering aimlessly toward Goldman Sachs.

The heart of the argument, which Deresiewicz summarized last month in an article for The New Republic, rests on the fact that about a third of Ivy Leaguers go into big business (namely finance and consulting) and not his preferred areas, which include the clergy, the military, politics, and academia. Schools like Harvard may teach their pupils, sure, but all they learn are the “analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions.”

In contrast, Deresiewicz says, public and lower-ranked schools like Wesleyan, Sewanee, and Mount Holyoke “have retained their allegiance to real educational values.”

So should Harvard‘s freshman class start filling out transfer applications? Not so fast. A closer look at the book’s claims reveals a sobering truth: Ivy Leaguers might be greedy little sheep eager to join the ranks of Wall Street—but no more so than students outside their hallowed halls.

In fact, the Ivy League simply is not unique in the way Deresiewicz wants it to be. Yes, it is true that 20% to 30% of elite college grads go into finance or consulting. But at Reed, a school Deresiewicz specifically uses as a model for a less money-hungry higher education, 28% of students went into business and industry—a category that includes consulting, finance, and other profit-heavy sectors—based on its 2014 alumni database.

That’s compared with 27.3% of Yale students who went into consulting or finance in 2012, 24.5% of last year’s Princeton class employed in finance, insurance, or professional services (including consulting), and 22% of Brown’s class of 2013 that entered finance, banking, or consulting. (These categories vary slightly since there is no standard method among colleges of grouping professions.)

Many public schools are no different. UCLA, a top ranked state institution, reports that 32% of its graduates go into business or consulting. Penn State, another public institution Deresiewicz mentions favorably, has even named its career services center after Bank of America. For those with an aversion to these industries, there aren’t many academic oases left.

Why do such a large portion of graduates everywhere rush to join the Morgan Stanleys of the world? Because they pay well and offer plenty of jobs. The financial services industry alone accounts for 7.9% of the economy and over $1.2 trillion; it’s so large that no small group of schools could ever hoard a significant share of it. According to data from NACE International and the U.S. Census, finance and insurance offer the 5th most jobs and the highest average salary of any sector.

Shockingly, students at Reed and UCLA seem about as likely to want a sustainable career and high incomes as their peers at Harvard. (And what’s wrong with that again?)

It’s also incorrect to assume that students at Ivy League schools are any less likely to go into more charitable trades. One might be surprised after reading Deresiewicz’s article to learn that the largest employer of recent Columbia graduates is not Goldman Sachs or J.P. Morgan, but Teach For America. Princeton, which has a reputation for sending grads straight to Wall Street, recently announced 22.6% of the 2013 graduating class is employed in the nonprofit sector.

Does this mean Ivy League schools aren’t often annoying and pretentious? Not at all (I should know, I went to one). But it does mean we shouldn’t label them as educationally deficient because their graduates behave just like everyone else. As MONEY’s own college rankings show, there are plenty of great schools, both in and outside the ancient eight. Choose based on educational quality, price, and yes, how employable students are after they graduate. And by those measures, the Ivies do pretty well.

MONEY College

What Your College Kid Isn’t Telling You About Money

More than half of students admit they keep financial secrets from Mom and Dad, a new survey finds. And one of the biggest may be how much debt they're racking up.

It is an American rite of passage. Little Johnny finally grows up, goes off to college, and starts handling money on his own. He probably spends a little too much, and racks up some debt.

Does Johnny tell mom and dad the truth—or keep it a secret?

More than half of college students (55%) admit they hide information from dear old mom and dad about all that money they are spending, according to the 2014 RBC Student Finances Poll. But only 33% of parents realize that’s the case.

Another disconnect: While 90% of parents claim to be on top of how much debt their kid owes, just 78% of students agree their parents are up-to-speed on their finances.

Welcome to a college course that is not really on the curriculum, but that every student is grappling with. Call it Secrets and Lies 101.

“It may be that a student doesn’t have as much money as their peers, and is trying to keep up with what their friends are doing,” says Christine Schelhas-Miller, a retired faculty member at Cornell University and co-author of Don’t Tell Me What To Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years.

“Or they may be getting lots of credit card offers, and naively sign up,” Schelhas-Miller adds. “Then they’re not sharing this information with parents, because they’re afraid of getting into trouble.”

Of course, money disconnects between parents and kids are nothing new. In fact they are par for the parenting course, whether they revolve around tooth fairy money or allowance sizes.

The difference when kids reach college is that the sums involved are taken to the next level. Serious money, which can, in turn, have very serious consequences, like debt accumulation or poor spending habits that could dog families for years to come.

After all, the average Class of 2014 graduate with student-loan debt is in hock to the tune of $33,000, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at Edvisors, a site about planning and paying for college. That’s the highest number ever.

The potential scenario, for a college student whose only financial-planning experience has been with Monopoly money? A couple of adviser Darla Kashian’s clients were gobsmacked to find out that their kid—unbeknownst to them—had blown through a significant inheritance in his last years of college, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

“They didn’t know what he had done, and were astonished to find out,” says Kashian, who is an adviser with RBC in Minneapolis. “In their minds, he was using the inheritance to pay off his student loans, and now he was returning home with lots of debt. He was totally unprepared.”

Of course, students may suspect how badly they are screwing up financially. According to the RBC poll, 26% of college students admit they may be doing damage to their credit rating. Only 17% of parents think their little angels could possibly be doing such a thing.

Tough Talk

Such blind loyalty to one’s offspring isn’t cute; it’s actively harmful. But when it comes to such a delicate and emotional topic, many parents just don’t know where to start.

“It’s like the sex conversation: Parents are worried about how to even bring it up,” says Schelhas-Miller. “But they need to get over that hurdle, and think of it as a big part of their parenting responsibilities.”

Her advice: Arrange a pre-emptive strike, and have The Talk over the summer, before your kid even heads off to campus. Then arrange for regular money conversations throughout the school year—maybe once every couple of weeks, or maybe once a semester, depending on how responsible they are—to ensure budgets stay on track.

If you just avoid the subject and table the conversation for later, an unprepared college kid could stack up debt very quickly indeed, and it could be too late.

Kashian is a fan of online budgeting tools like Mint.com, a unit of Intuit, which can be set up to allow access to both parents and their kids. That, of course, requires plenty of trust from both sides.

“That way you can have real transparency, and open up a dialogue about the spending that is happening—instead of just shaming and screaming.”

More on student debt:

MONEY deals

Labor Day Sale Prices Are Here—a Week Before Labor Day Weekend

Banana Republic 50% off promotion
Jin Lee—Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a brutally competitive back-to-school season for retailers, clothing stores like Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch have busted out extra-early clearance sales to the tune of 40% and 50% off everything.

Check out some of the impressive sales taking place right now:

Abercrombie & Fitch: 40% off everything in stores and on the web;

American Eagle: extra 50% off items already on clearance;

Ann Taylor: 50% off a broad range of merchandise;

Banana Republic: 40% off your entire purchase online with the code BRGET40, or $50 off when you spend at least $100 in stores;

Gap: 30% off for everyone (use code AUGUST), or 40% if you have a Gap credit card (code: $40STYLE) now through August 24, plus $25 in Gap Cash for every $50 you spend now through September 1.

If you didn’t know any better, you might have assumed that these big, across-the-board discounts are for Labor Day sales, or for post-back-to-school clearance sales. Heck, 40% off everything has more or less been the standard markdown level to get shoppers to bite on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, renowned as the best sales days of the year.

So why are retailers pushing such hefty discounts at such a seemingly odd time? One reason is that right now is an especially competitive, arguably desperate moment for apparel stores in particular. Iconic retailers like Target, Walmart, and Sears have been struggling mightily of late, and a wide range of clothing stores are trying to cope with consumers’ shifting fashion (and shrinking household budgets) that have brought about the need for deals like $10 jeans.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), household spending on clothes during the back-to-school period is basically flat compared with last year. Shoppers said they planned on spending $231.30 on clothes this season, versus $230.85 a year ago. What’s more, more parents seem to be taking the slacker approach to back-to-school shopping, procrastinating on purchases rather than prudently completing shopping lists long before school starts. As of August 12, an NRF poll indicates, 24% of families hadn’t done any back-to-school shopping yet, compared with 21% at the same time last year. Though fashionistas would disagree, trendy clothing is less of an essential for the start of the school year—kids need notebooks and markers more than new outfits—so it’s a safe assumption that procrastinators have been shying away in particular from clothing purchases, especially if they’ve been avoiding back-to-school shopping because of a tight household budget.

All of these factors add up to a situation in which stores simply haven’t been able to convince shoppers to buy enough clothing yet during the end-of-summer, back-to-school period. They could have waited to drop their big discounts on Labor Day Weekend, but because stores are constantly trying to beat competitors to the punch nowadays, sales tend to start earlier and last longer than ever—hence back-to-school deals beginning in June and Christmas advertising starting just after Labor Day.

Speaking of the winter holidays, they’re a major reason why retailers are being especially aggressive in clearing out summer and fall inventory right now. The November–December period is by far the most important time of year for all of the retailers mentioned above, and to make the most of it, stores want to start with a clean slate (and cleaned-out stores) as early as possible, to prep for the busy months ahead.

In fact, the world’s largest retailer already announced the launching of a holiday season initiative two weeks before Labor Day. “At Walmart, we never stop thinking about the holidays,” a post from Walmart’s Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising and marketing officer, stated in mid-August. And yes, he was referring to the winter holidays: Starting around Black Friday, Walmart plans to have all of its store registers open during peak shopping times, according to a new Checkout Promise introduced by Mac Naughton.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why stores are resorting to big, broad markdowns at a seemingly strange time. But before you bite, bear in mind that next week, the sales will probably be even better on whatever merchandise hasn’t already been snatched up. The folks at dealnews anticipate that many stores will offer deeply discounted clothing during Labor Day clearance sales, sometimes with markdowns or 70% or even 80% off.

MORE: Why Parents Should Procrastinate on Back-to-School Purchases

MONEY College

12 Things We Wish We’d Known When We Were 18

Girl moving off to college
Eric Raptosh Photography—Corbis

Suze Orman and other experts share their financial advice for the Class of 2018. Follow these tips to keep your college experience from becoming a major money mistake.

Prepping for freshman year at college typically includes activities like shopping for dorm essentials, reviewing orientation packets, and Googling your new roommate.

Most students don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how they’ll manage their money in this new phase of their lives.

And yet, what you do in those first few years of parental emancipation can affect you for years—or decades—to come. Students graduated last year with an average $35,200 in college-related debt, including federal, state and private loans, as well as debt owed to family and accumulated via credit cards, according to a Fidelity study. Half of those students said they were surprised by just how much debt they’d accumulated.

To make sure the class of 2018 gets off on the right foot, MONEY gathered sage advice from top financial experts about the lessons they wish they, their kids, or their friends had known before starting school.

1. Limit your loans. “Do not take out more in student loans than what you are projected to earn in your first year after college. If you only expect to make $40,000, you better not take out more than $40,000. The chances of you being able to pay it back is close to nil. If you need to take a private loan, you’re going to a college you can’t afford. Remember, going to an expensive school doesn’t guarantee success. The school never makes you, you make the school.” —Suze Orman, host of The Suze Orman Show and author of The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke

2. Finish in four. “Many kids are finishing school in five or six years. But every extra year is potentially an extra $30,000 to 40,000 in expenses. Map out your coursework and figure out exactly what you’ll need to do each semester. Be vigilant about sticking to your plan. Try to catch up on any credits by taking classes at a community college over the summer.” —Farnoosh Torabi, author of You’re So Money

3. Study money 101. “Sign up for an economics or personal finance course. This way, when you graduate, you’ll be better equipped to manage money for the rest of your life.” —Brittney Castro, CEO of Financially Wise Women

4. Leave the car at home. “Everyone feels like they need a car, but with the combination of sharing services like Uber, Lyft, Zipcar and public transport, that isn’t always the case. If you’re living in a major metropolitan center or on campus, consider leaving your car behind. It’s much cheaper to use one of these car services than it is to pay for insurance, gas, parking, car maintenance and car payments.” —Daniel Solin, author of The Smartest Money Book You’ll Ever Read

5. Lead rather than follow. “Especially in college, you’re going to be surrounded by people doing dumb things financially. You’ll see people financing their lifestyle with student loans or their parents’ money. Don’t feel bad if you can’t afford the same things as others. I knew a student who was financing his whole college experience with debt and he was always asking people to go shopping with him. If I’d tried to keep pace, I’d have ended up in the same debt-ridden place as him.”—Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt-Free U

6. Find free fun. “You can still do fun things at school, without spending a lot of money. You’re paying an activity fee in your tuition, so you ought to make sure you’re taking full advantage of whatever the school offers for free—be it concerts, trips, lectures. The school I went to provided grants to help students travel abroad and offered free plays and trips through different clubs.” —Farnoosh Torabi

7. Be purposeful with plastic. “The idea that you need to build credit in college is wildly overrated. It’s not a bad idea to build credit, but having built up a bad credit history will hurt you more than having no credit history. You don’t need to feel pressure to get a credit card. You can get by just fine with cash and a debit card; no one is expecting you to have a ton of borrowing history when you’re getting your first apartment anyway.” —Zac Bissonnette

8. Put your budget on autopilot. “Keep track of the money you’re getting in from loans and your parents, as well as your expenses. Use an app like Mint.com, which lets you link your debit and credit cards to your online account to track your spending and easily help you keep on budget.” —Daniel Solin

9. Enlist Mom and Dad. “Check in with your parents once a month and review your spending with them. Talking about this will help you to avoid what I call ‘budget creep,’ where all of a sudden you’re spending $30 a day on food and entertainment. All those little extras add up and you could be spending over a hundred a week… on what?”—Neale Godfrey, chairwoman of Children’s Financial Inc.

10. Protect your stuff. “College students may not think they have a lot of valuable possessions. But think about the value of electronic devices alone, not to mention textbooks, clothes, even that ratty futon. The good news is that renters insurance is typically inexpensive and can protect you from fires, theft and other incidents. The even better news is that students’ stuff may be covered by their parents’ homeowners insurance. Check the policy prior to hitting the books.”—Kara McGuire, author of The Teen Money Manual

11. Establish rules with roomies. “If you’re renting an apartment with friends, be sure everyone and their parents sign the lease. Try to have everyone’s name on the utilities bills as well. Kids will take advantage of other kids, and you don’t want to be the one who is stuck being responsible for everything. If you can’t attach everyone’s names to all the bills, have them prepay. Also, make sure everyone chips in for general expenses like cleaning supplies and toilet paper, so you don’t end up paying for all of that as well.” —Neale Godfrey

12. Share with discretion. “Social networks are a public record. Your future employers will look you up on your social sites and judge you based on what they see. So something that you thought was cute in college could keep you from getting the job. Know that every move you make on those sites could have a direct consequence on your ability to land a job.” —Suze Orman

 

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com