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Back to spending: Some area residents see a cost increase for school supplies

DeKALB – Genoa resident Tricia Winters' three daughters filled two shopping carts with folders, markers and notebooks at Walmart recently, preparing for their imminent return to school.

Winters expects to spend about $300 on school supplies this year for her three daughters, who range in age from a freshman in college to sixth grade. One of her daughters is required to purchase a graphing calculator with color display worth more than $125.

"I know every year the general idea of what I'll likely spend," Winters said. "I try to make sure I don't spend that money so I have it for school supply shopping. It seems like over the years, it has gotten more expensive."

Winters may be right. An annual report from Huntington Bank's 2014 Backpack Index shows the average amount spent on school materials, extracurricular items and test fees for a single elementary school student is about $642, up 11 percent over last year's estimate. Middle school student costs are estimated at $918, up 20 percent.

Although high school students face the highest cost at $1,284, they also saw the smallest increase, about 5 percent, according to the survey.

The bank's results are calculated using school supply lists from six Midwestern states, not including Illinois. It assumes parents all purchase a new backpack for their child every year and that each student participates in sports and plays a musical instrument.

Still, by Huntington's own measures, the annual cost of school supply shopping increased 11 percent from 2013 for elementary students, 20 percent for middle school students and 5 percent for high schoolers.

Overall, the National Retail Federation predicts back-to-school shopping to reach $74.9 billion this year for both college and K-12 students.

Huntington Bank spokesperson Maureen Brown said spending this year is projected to increase because students are expected to buy more expensive calculators, and high school juniors are spending more on ACT/SAT prep books and test fees.

Parents often do not make all school-related purchases in one week, Brown said. The actual amount they spend adds up as the school year goes on,

"It doesn't come as one package," she said. "It comes over a week or two. Sometimes you don't even realize how high the costs are going."

The costs can be so overwhelming for some that they enlist the help of others. Genoa resident Angie Brooks was shopping at Walmart on Thursday for her niece's children, one of whom is in high school while the others are in elementary school.

Brooks' niece is a single mother who has gone through financial hardships, Brooks said, which is why she decided to help without even telling her niece.

She was buying crayons, rulers and folders for her great-nieces and great-nephew. Brooks expected to spend about $100 on her niece's children alone. She also has two children of her own, and expects to spend about $200 more for them.

"We make a day of it," Brooks said. "It's a fun time. They may not like going back to school, but they like the shopping."

For parents who do not enjoy the long lines and hassles of school supply shopping, they can buy all their children's supplies online from School Tool Box, headquartered in Sycamore.

School Tool Box CEO Doug Stice hopes the business he founded in 2000 continues to grow despite shoppers' preference for shopping in stores. A recent survey from the International Council of Shopping Centers, a global trade association of the shopping center industry, found nearly 90 percent of shoppers prefer brick-and-mortar stores as opposed to online shopping for school supplies.

To use School Tool Box, shoppers find their school along with their grade and are instantly shown all the school supplies that particular grade needs. Parents can remove supplies they don't need.

School Tool Box offers both ship-to-school and ship-to-home options, although Stice said they are shifting away from ship-to-school because it requires PTA volunteers. School Tool Box donates a meal to Feed My Starving Children for every box that is purchased.

"Some people like going shopping and picking out stuff. They should do that," Stice said. "But a lot of parents work and don't have time to go shopping. If we can make your life better and still provide what your child needs, that's what we're here for."

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