'We learned to cut corners': Inflation looms over back-to-school shopping

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A teenager shopping for school supplies. (Philippe Lissac/Getty Images)
A teenager shopping for school supplies. (Philippe Lissac/Getty Images)

A few days before the start of school in Quincy, 10-year-old Joshua took stock of his new supplies. His 4-year-old sister, Liberty Grace, and his mom, 40-year-old Deonne Luacaw, watched him tear open the plastic wrapping and spread his colorful notebooks and markers on the couch.

Joshua loves learning about the weather. He spent some of the summer reading books about how tornadoes form and why lightning strikes. Now that he's heading to middle school, he's excited about all of the extracurricular programs.

"Like science programs, after-school programs," he said. "I want to join a team, but I don’t know what yet."

His mom is proud — and relieved — that most of her kids' school supplies are crossed off the shopping list. This year, it was a much bigger challenge than usual.

"I had to start early, because the prices are so high," Luacaw said. "You have to get the right deals at the right time."

For Luacaw, that meant going to several stores and comparing prices, downloading coupons, hitting up yard sales. When it came to finding a deal, she left no stone unturned.

"We learned to cut corners. We go to 'buy nothing' groups,' " she said, referring to online groups dedicated to giving away used items, such as clothing and furniture, for free. "People are trying to help each other out."

Deonne Luacaw and her son Joshua with some of the school supplies they have purchased for the start of the new school year. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Deonne Luacaw and her son Joshua with some of the school supplies they have purchased for the start of the new school year. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Inflation is stretching finances for many families. According to federal data, prices were up about 7% in greater Boston in July compared to the same time last year. The higher prices are forcing more families to seek help preparing their kids for school. Aubrey Henderson, the executive director of Cradles to Crayons in Boston, which gives out free supplies for kids 12 and younger, said demand for school supplies is about 20% higher than it was two years ago.

"We're getting calls for more backpacks," she said. "Families are still struggling."

So far this year, her organization has given out 70,000 backpacks stuffed with school supplies.

Luacaw, whose monthly budget is about $1,200, turned to the Boston nonprofit Women's Money Matters for help. The group coaches women with low-incomes on how to manage their finances.

Danielle Piskadlo, the organization's executive director, said many of her clients lost wages during the pandemic, and their incomes still haven't fully recovered.

"And then on the heels of that, having the rising inflation and rising prices is just a whole new dynamic," she said.

The women Piskadlo and her team serve learn all about budgeting, banking and building credit scores.

But so many economic forces are outside of their control, like inflation and housing costs. Median rent for a 2-bedroom in Boston is now $3,400 a month, according to the real estate website Zillow.

"We're very cognizant to the fact that you cannot budget your way out of poverty," Piskadlo said. "Larger barriers like the lack of housing or affordable child care ... those do impact the women that are in our programs and their finances."

Luacaw knows this better than anyone. She's worked hard to stay within her budget. She recently opened a new savings account, where she set aside $200 for emergencies and adds funds any chance she gets. But that's becoming more difficult — especially now that she has a kid starting middle school. She remembers the pressure to fit in at that age, and she worries her son might face bullying.

"He wants name brand clothes, name brand sneakers," she said. "I told him, 'Josh, listen, we're going to have to compromise here, buddy.' "

She tries to find the brands he likes by shopping at thrift stores.

Once her kids go back to school this week, Luacaw said she'll have more time to look for a new job. She took the last few months off to care for her children while they were home over summer vacation.

"Being a parent, I want to give them the world," she said with a slight quaver in her voice. "Sometimes I wish I could give them more."

Still, she's celebrating her wins, like knowing even with inflation, she provided her kids what they need for the school year ahead.

This segment aired on September 6, 2022.


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Yasmin Amer Executive Producer, Radio Boston
Yasmin Amer is a business reporter for WBUR.



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