In 1996 — 21 years ago — Staples created and released one of the greatest television commercials in human history. Yes, we know that is a bold claim, particularly for an ad that was not released during a Super Bowl. But, over the course of 30 seconds, Staples managed to capture the deepest feelings of tens of millions of the nation’s most active and avid consumers: parents.
For those who can’t watch the video, the ad features a father skipping around a Staples store to the Christmas classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” giddily swiping school supplies from the shelves — all while his two children follow behind, crestfallen. And parents everywhere clapped when they saw the ad, then fled to Staples, the only retailer who fully understood the joys of having the long, national nightmare of kids' summer vacations finally come to an end.
So, today, having suffered through another 12 weeks of entertaining children who’ve long since grown hot, bored and generally unruly, the most wonderful time of the year has come again for the nation’s moms and dads: It's officially back-t0-school shopping time. The last several weeks have seen beach chairs and barbeque fixings give way to stocking up on shoes, shirts, crayons, pencils, pens, notebooks, backpacks, laptops and lunch boxes — a list of back-to-school supplies that can (and does) go on forever.
In fact, it's worth noting that going back to school is more than an opportunity for children to resume their educations and parents to remember what their floors actually look like. Back-to-school is a major commerce event — probably even more major than most of us think.
Monthly Mortgage-Size Expenditures
Back in the old days of 2006, the inflation-adjusted cost of supplies for an elementary school student hovered around $375. These days, that figure is up to $650, and it only goes up from there. The average middle school student supply bill comes in at roughly $1,000, up from $525 in 2006. And high school students? That’s now $1,500 or more compared to $800 a decade ago.
Averaged out, parents are paying upwards of $1,000 to get kids suited up and back in classes — which also happens to be roughly the same amount the average American pays toward a mortgage per month, according to the annual Huntington Bank's Backpack Index.
Oh, and that’s for just one kid.
Families with two or three kids? They're looking at San Francisco-sized monthly mortgage payments for school supply spending, an amount that nears $4,500.
But, since inflation has largely been in check for the better part of this last decade, what’s driving the out-of-whack spending? Out-of-whack school supply lists, according to parents.
"Just got back from the Walmart’s [sic] and spent $350 per child on school supplies," said author Susannah B. Lewis in a Facebook video. "My daughter is 11. She needs two four-inch binders...You ever seen a four-inch binder? ...Holds 60,000 sheets of paper. Now, what does an 11-year-old need with something that holds 60,000 sheets? All she's going to have is 45 sheets of diagramming sentences in there."
But, this isn’t all funny or fun. These list demands have gotten so unmanageable that 60 percent of U.S. parents struggle to pay for all the items on them. And parents aren’t the only ones complaining. The average teacher can count on spending $600 of his or her own cash on school supplies each year.
The reason, cited by analysts, is that most U.S. states have cut back on what they’d otherwise allocate to teachers to offset elementary and secondary school programs — and some are still cutting, according to a 2016 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report.
Not everyone is complaining.
In one YouTube video, New Jersey mother Dena Blizzard shops at Target for school supplies, then also throws in a microwave for a teacher, plus candles and a rug. While shopping, she explains why she is so, so happy to be doing so.
For those who can’t watch the video, some highlights:
“I have spent hours, hours of my life teaching my daughter math and history,” said Blizzard. “I don’t know anything about history. And there’s a [teacher] somewhere willing to teach my daughter about some history? And she wants a yellow binder to do it? I’m gonna get that b**** a yellow binder.”
Because as parents everywhere know, there is no price too high, no binder too yellow, no request too odd to take the shine off the most wonderful time of the year.
Okay, the second-most wonderful time of the year. After a few months of solid rest, parents everywhere will be ready for the real most wonderful time of year main event: winter holiday shopping. And of course, we'll be here will all the glorious (and gory) details.