Save on School Expenses Without Ruining Your Kid's Childhood

Requests for money from schools are relentless. Appeals start in late summer, crescendo in the first couple of months, and persist with numerous opportunities throughout the school year. From kindergarten to high-school graduation, even in public schools, expenses for education and extracurricular activities can run from about $5,000 for bare-bones fees to $20,000 or more (and that's per child).

Yes, many costs are optional. And the steepest expenses are incurred for school-based extracurriculars, generally in high school. But that doesn’t make the requests, lengthy considerations, parent-child debates, and angst about whether to spend money or just say “no” evaporate. Having a son in high school and another in college now has given me perspective on how to handle the near-constant sales pressure. To get you ready for the pitches and up-sells, consider these types of expenses and their value to you, your child, and children in your community. (See also: How to Save on School Supplies Without Going Crazy)

School Pictures

My kids’ schools offer fall and spring photo opportunities. The first is a traditional portrait for the yearbook; the second is more casual and serves as a fundraiser. There are package deals along with extras for additional fees. These include retouching, airbrushing, special backgrounds, names imprinted on photos, and images on key chains.

Who doesn’t want portraits of their children? The offers are enticing because the sessions are arranged for you. Plus, the photos are handy for holiday gift giving, serve as wonderful keepsakes for the family, and support the school. But the twice a year schedule yields an overflow of prints, and typically there are no digital images that allow easy storage and reproduction.

Average "value deal" costs are $40, though you could spend $150 if you opt for special features, plenty of prints, and novelty products. Avoid the extras to keep expenses low. Consider skipping the purchase of one or both of the seasonal packages. Instead, schedule a family portrait or learn techniques for snapping great pictures yourself.

Fundraisers and Donation Requests

My children had the fortune of attending a new elementary school. Because leaders had a proverbial blank slate in terms of traditions, they decided to forgo standard fundraisers in favor of flat-out requests for money (100% goes to the school!). Even so, fundraiser creep happened; special events like book fairs, fall festivals, and silent auctions were held to generate money. Later, middle school and high school brought sales of magazines, cookie dough, citrus fruit, sunglasses, chicken pies, and more.

Will my child’s self-esteem suffer if he doesn't make a sale? Should I make a purchase as a show of support? Do I encourage my children to sell door to door or call family and friends?

Participating in fundraisers (buying things or selling them to friends and family) and making suggested donations can cost $50-$200. If you are like me, you will respond to straightforward requests and give money for specific projects identified as high priority by administrators and parent leaders (such as playground equipment for students with disabilities). In regard to the other fundraisers, buy fairly priced items if you want or need them, but don't feel pressured to purchase overpriced trinkets just to win cool prizes for the kids.

Teacher Gifts

Teacher appreciation week was a huge event at the elementary school that my children attended. One year, the PTA encouraged parents to give gifts to all their teachers, not just the regular classroom ones. This list included those who taught media, computer, accelerated learning, physical education, art, and music. In addition, many parents gave holiday and end-of-the-year presents.

As a good parent and responsible citizen, didn’t I want to show appreciation for those who teach and nurture my children? But couldn’t an expensive gift or a plethora of small presents be perceived as a way to inappropriately ingratiate myself with a teacher?

If you give for all occasions as well as multiple teachers and coaches, you could spend $100 or more each school year. Be judicious — contribute a small but needed amount to group gifts, pass along a gift card obtained by redeeming rewards points or loose coins, or give a special item or thoughtful note of appreciation at the end of the year.

Field Trips

Day outings in elementary schools were inexpensive. But registration forms included a request for donations to cover the cost of children whose parents could not afford the full amount. Multi-day travel, such as class trips in the last year of elementary school and middle school, had much higher price tags.

I have fond memories of school field trips (there were no class trips in my childhood). Didn’t I want my kids and all of their classmates to have fun too? Won't the kids who stay at school be miserable when their friends are on outings?

Paying for your child and sponsoring others on field trips can cost from $20 for daylong events and nearly $500 for class trips. To reduce the impact on your bank account, encourage your children to earn money and designate birthday or Christmas money for big trips.

Book Fairs

Book fairs at my kids’ elementary and middle schools were held twice each year. Prices were high compared to online booksellers. Complementing pricey books were expensive educational toys, games, posters, and funky pencils. If you happened to have all that you needed, you could buy wish-list items for your child’s teacher.

At first, I found book fairs hard to resist. What parent doesn’t want to give their children money to buy a book, a purchase that also benefits the school library? Why wouldn’t I want to help the teacher build her library to help future generations read, learn, and contribute to society? Eventually, though, my children had as many books as they could possibly read; ditto for many of the veteran teachers.

You could easily spend $50 at each event, more if you indulged in educational toys or bought wish-list books for teachers. Trim costs by giving your child a designated amount to spend and/or forbidding purchase of non-book items.

Extracurricular Activities

For my children, extracurricular activities sponsored by schools in their younger years were mostly free, though I was encouraged to donate afterschool snacks. Costs skyrocketed in middle school and high school. Expenses were incurred for summer football camp, sports rehab, musical instruments, private music lessons, uniforms, end-of-season banquets, and more. And I could have easily spent more on specialized sports instruction and music camp.

How do I distinguish between supporting my child in his endeavors and throwing money at an opportunity to excel? Do I consider possible return on investments (such as college scholarships)? What are spending priorities for our family and our children?

Going deep into extracurriculars even at public schools can exceed $1,500 each year, more if you need special equipment. Figuring out which costs are essential and which are superfluous isn’t simple as they will vary depending on your child’s interests, desire, and potential. Consulting with a friend who is familiar with the costs and benefits of activity-related purchases can be helpful. Take advantage of free services before moving to paid resources.


The sale of yearbooks starts in kindergarten. Accessories include engraved name plates, protective plastic covers, and digital editions. You can also get ads for personal or business purposes.

Don’t you want your children to experience the excitement of getting yearbooks and having their friends sign them? Don’t you want your children to remember good times and names of former classmates?

A basic yearbook prior to high school costs about $25; high school editions are much steeper and can cost $75 or more. Skip the extras to save money or wait until your kids are older before buying these.

There's more: 

  • School supplies are small when kids are young but increase noticeably in high school requiring advanced calculators, books for English literature (usually requiring a specific ISBN, not just any edition), and book bags that can withstand hauling large and heavy loads
  • PTA memberships for you and your family members
  • Testing fees that may include evaluations for giftedness and learning disabilities along with AP courses in high school
  • Tutoring for kids who need extra help
  • Snacks for parties and birthdays
  • Event tickets for athletic competitions, band concerts, and plays
  • Uniforms and/or special attire for musical performances, class presentations, and dress-up banquets

Finally, senior year expenses can add up quickly. There are cap and gown rentals, senior pictures, and graduation ceremony invitations.

You want to make sure that your children have everything that they need to do well in school. But how do you distinguish needs from wants? If you are spending out of fear of rejection (your child's or your own), landing in second place, etc., evaluate the messages that the schools are sending. Embrace the idea that your kid will have a great childhood with caring parents even if they don't qualify for a fundraising incentive, bring the best snacks to school, and attend every banquet.

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Guest's picture

We have four kids in public schools. we have found that expenses for them for extra-curricular activities have gone DOWN the older they get.

Swimming, baseball, soccer, volleyball, dance, gymnastics, basketball etc. etc. in the elementary/middle school years are NEVER covered by schools, except a few sports for a few weeks. Any sort of select club or sport or music is all parent-pay. Once our kids hit high school (we have two now) we've found expenses have gone down as our kids have made certain sports/activities in high school.

swim team in high school -- basically FREE except team gear. no monthly club swimming payment. Band in high school -- Free, small fees related to shoes. Basketball-- free shooting lessons/clinics/weight training. Dance -- who has time when band practices are three evenings a week? In mid-size to large towns, if kids want to make teams in high school, the parents have most likely been spending a small fortune on lessons & club sports.

So, in reality for us, spending has gone down as they get older when it comes to activities. AND -- a plus, the older the get, the more money kids can bring in. Our 16-yr old pays for a lot of his stuff on his own from his summer job lifeguarding.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for sharing your experiences, and so glad that costs have gone down for you!

Guest's picture

My kid just entered kindergarten and I cant believe all the "fundraisers" we get each week. I am almost at the point that I will offer to pay for them to stop sending them home.

Guest's picture

I have 2 children that have graduated high-school, (now on to the big college expenses...yay me), and 2 children in high school, 1 Junior and 1 Freshman, and 1 entering Pre-K next year. It may sound horrible, but I tend to skip the fundraisers.

Our school's trips tend to be very expensive, from around $80 for a day trip to NYC, (NOT including gas and time to take them to the bus station in a nearby city 35 miles away), to $2,400 for trips to Paris or Brazil, (NOT including spending cash). Mind you, these are optional trips, the school offers day "field trips" that are free except maybe lunch money.
For the out of country trips, they offer payment plans that start about 10 month's before. The Senior class trip generally runs about $500, and the school has no plans for students that can't afford the trip. There's really no way to get around these costs but to skip the trips. The way I have always dealt with them is that I know they're coming. A separate savings for my children's Senior trip has always come in handy. We have always skipped the out of country trips, mostly due to safety concerns.

Class rings can run $300-$400 easy...

Prom...GAH...My plan for my current Junior is either Rent the Runway or buying used. Tickets are over $60, and shared transportation with friends.

I would say the greatest expense in school is Senior stuff PERIOD. Caps & gowns, Senior packages, (announcements, invites, etc.), Senior trip, graduation clothes, graduation party...