As summer approaches, it’s time for many to think about back-to-school shopping, like notebooks, backpacks, and new clothes.
As an economist who has studied consumer prices for years, I wonder how inflation is affecting the cost of typical back-to-school gear.
According to the latest data released on August 10, 2022, consumer prices rose by around 8.5% in July. But this figure is only an average. The price of some items, such as airline fares and gasoline, jumped more than that, while the price of other items, such as the price of televisions and phones, actually fell.
To determine how the cost of paying school children needs has changed, I tracked two sets of prices: First, the cost of back-to-school needs. Second, the cost of school meals – it’s hard to learn on an empty stomach.
Clothing and backpacks
Children often sprout during summer vacation. This growth usually means they need new clothes for the cooler fall weather. The US government’s Consumer Price Index has tracked the price of girls’ and boys’ clothing since 1977.
Government statistics show that the price of girls’ clothing peaked in 1992. Six years later, in 1998, the price of boys’ clothing reached its peak. Clothes are cheaper today than they were in the 1990s, but girls’ prices have risen less than 2% over the past 12 months, compared to overall inflation of 8.5%. However, the price of boys clothes has jumped about 5% in the last year.
Back to school means new shoes, because kids’ feet grow too. The average price of boys’ and girls’ footwear has risen steadily since 1977. Over the past year, the price of shoes and sneakers has risen by about 8%.
As for school supplies, inflation is a mixed bag. The price of notebooks and papers has increased by 11% in the last year. And while the consumer price index doesn’t track pencils, markers and crayons, its close cousin, the producer price index, shows retailers are paying 11% more for pencils and markers than last year, while art supplies are up nearly 18%. .
Backpacks prices, on the other hand, increased at a much slower pace of around 4% in July 2022 from 12 months ago. And if your kid needs a new laptop or tablet, you’re in luck. The price of computers has actually fallen by around 4% since July 2021.
Combining these categories into an equally weighted index suggests that back-to-school spending won’t hurt your wallet as much as parents fear. My back-to-school index rose 5.1% in July from a year earlier.
The index shows prices virtually unchanged from nearly a decade ago. This is a small consolation for parents who had no students in the school 10 years ago. However, back to school items show that prices don’t always go up.
Another major expense when going back to school is buying lunch at school cafeterias.
Pre-pandemic data indicate that about two-thirds of students are buying lunch at school. Consumer price data shows that food prices in urban elementary and secondary school cafeterias fell 43% in May 2022 from a year earlier — the latest figures available.
In fact, the index level is the lowest since the index began tracking data in 2005, primarily due to universal free lunches during parts of the pandemic. That program has now ended, though some states are stepping in, so lunch costs are likely to increase in most school districts in the coming year.
For families who prefer to pack school lunches for their children, the data looks even worse. The average price of food purchased for home cooking rose 13.1% in July, the fastest rate of inflation since 1979.
But since it doesn’t reflect the actual cost of food in a kid’s lunch box, I did my own calculations based on what my mom packed for me when I was a kid: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which remain a staple today. For my children.
My lunchbox usually consisted of a PB&J sandwich on white bread, apple slices, some baby carrots, a bag of potato chips, 8 ounces of milk and a chocolate chip cookie – just to keep me happy. Using the US Department of Agriculture’s school lunch buying guide, I found portions that provide about 666 calories, which is more than what the government recommends. My personal lunch box index is over 13%.
This was mainly driven by jumps in the prices of bread, peanut butter, milk and potato chips, all of which rose more than 14%.
While prices are higher than usual for back-to-school, there are still bargains to be found, like kids’ clothes and computers.
Or in the lunch box example, if you add more apples, the price will only increase by 5%. Adding more apple slices will not only lighten your wallet but also improve your baby’s nutrition.
Prices on most commodities may be higher than they were a year ago, but it’s important to remember that not everything is experiencing sky-high inflation. With careful shopping, even families on a tight budget can find what they need at a price they can afford.