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‘Not only a financial burden, but an emotional burden’: How inflation is affecting back-to-school shopping

Shoppers are expecting to spend 8 percent more on this year’s school essentials than in 2021.

Volunteers at Cradles to Crayons stuff school supplies in backpacks to be given away to kids this year. Many families are wrestling with higher prices of school essentials.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Each August, parents pour into stores to take part in the $34.4 billion industry that is back-to-school shopping. With school supply lists that range from pricey graphing calculators to those classic multicolored spiral notebooks, August is a spending marathon that many parents face as the new school year approaches.

But this year, there’s an added twist: inflation.

A study conducted by the National Retail Federation says that expected back-to-school spending per household is $864 this year, up from $697 in 2019. (That sum includes electronics, which have grown in importance with the rise of online learning.) The 2022 Deloitte back-to-school survey reports that parents are expecting to spend 8 percent more now compared to 2021.

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All sorts of stuff has gone up in price. Kids shoes cost 8 percent more than they did a year ago, according to federal inflation data. Office supplies like pens and paper? 11 percent more.

Costs pile up fast, leaving some parents stretched thin. When adding in rising costs at the gas pump and in grocery stores, Patrick Muyonjo, a single father of four, is feeling the financial strain.

Mari Sesody, 11, of Brookline, volunteered to stuff backpacks with school supplies at Cradles to Crayons. The packs will be distributed to local school districts, for students in need.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“This year, it’s much harder,” Muyonjo said. “This is the first time in a couple of years that I’ve had to scratch my head to try to work out a budget to meet the needs of the kids going to school.”

Back-to-school spending isn’t a new problem for Muyonjo and his family, who have been below the poverty line for much of the last three years. His four children, ages 11 through 13, attend Boston public school and rely solely on their father for financial support.

With inflation rates rising dramatically in recent months, steeper back-to-school prices often force low-income parents to choose between paying bills or spending on school supplies.

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“Inflation is a huge part of it,” said Aubrey Henderson, executive director of local education nonprofit Cradles to Crayons. “Parents are just trying to provide for the rent and the housing and the food. When you get to backpacks or new sneakers, it becomes simply unaffordable.”

Muyonjo said he’s sacrificing quality in order to check every item off the shopping list. The trendy and appealing items that many stores market aren’t affordable on a tight budget. And that weighs on Muyonjo and his kids.

“It’s very emotional, not being able to afford everything that you want or need,” Muyonjo said. “Sometimes when you tell the kids, ‘We’re going to get this instead of that,’ you can see the pain on their face. So for you, as a parent, it’s painful.”

Charcretia DiBartolo, a mother of two from Marblehead, pointed to a few key items that can be difficult to attain come shopping season.

“Probably the most difficult items are shoes, and any electronic stuff that they need,” DiBartolo said. “Electronic stuff, you know, making sure that they have a decent laptop and headphones. More of what they do in school now is online, right? So it’s a little bit different than what we used to have to buy.”

Struggling to afford essential supplies has increased stress among parents and students in the checkout line.

“It’s not only a financial burden, but an emotional burden,” Henderson explained. “And for kids, you just want them to feel confident and ready to go to school and excited to be there.”

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Among the most expensive items that families struggle to afford are clothing items such as shoes, clothes, and winter coats. With additional spending on backpacks, books, pencils and pens, notebooks, and dozens of other items, August spending sprees mean tighter budgets for other essentials.

“For families who struggle with poverty, clothes and school supplies are luxuries,” said Larry Seamans, president of FamilyAid, another Boston-based nonprofit assisting families in the back-to-school frenzy.

Besides cutting costs on higher-quality supplies, parents like Muyonjo are seeking support from local nonprofits such as FamilyAid and Cradles to Crayons to get everything they need.

These are some of the school supplies being stuffed into backpacks by volunteers at Cradles to Crayons in Newton. The packs will be distributed to local school districts, for students in need.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Cradles to Crayons is purchasing over 70,000 backpacks, and with the help of volunteers, is stuffing each bag with various items on back-to-school shopping lists. The backpacks will be distributed to Massachusetts students and families in need. The organization also offers “outfit packs,” which provide students with seven days’ worth of good, well-fitting clothing.

Both Seamans and Henderson pointed to rising costs for housing, food, and gasoline as major factors in the shrinking of back-to-school budgets.

“Their incomes are down, their work hours are down, the cost of living is greater,” Seamans explained. “Families now are struggling with extra burdens and extra costs. So the desire of a parent to have their child start the school year off right is obviously there, but families who are living in poverty, that’s been offset by the reality of the situation.”

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Despite assistance from local nonprofits, Muyonjo said the back-to-school shopping experience isn’t getting any easier, especially with prices at an all-time high.

“It’s all very stressful because the cost of everything is very high,” Muyonjo said. “And being a single dad with four kids, you know, each one of them requires specific back-to-school things and it’s just almost impossible if you don’t get help.”


Collin Robisheaux can be reached at collin.robisheaux@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ColRobisheaux.