Call me a miser, but a lot of the headlines about weak consumer spending bring a smile to my face. People have been overextending themselves for a long time and the hippie in me believes that a recession may be just what need to bring our focus back to what's really important.

The USA Today reports that "New back-to-school duds and supplies will be at the bottom of many family shopping lists this fall, with 71% saying they will spend less on back-to-school items this year than last year." According the Deloitte survey, 83% will cut back on clothing.

The USA Today coverage continues without a hint of irony: "More say they plan to do back-to-school shopping at dollar stores than at department stores, office supply stores (such as Staples) or off-price stores (such as TJ Maxx).Oh the humanity! How can a student be expected to do well in English class with ballpoint pens that cost $1 per pack instead of $3? And how will a kid develop a sense of self-worth if he has to wear last season's Abercrombie polos from TJMaxx that cost $20 instead of $49.50? If the insurance will cover therapy, intense counseling and reflection on this injustice may curb the otherwise inevitable addiction to crystal meth that results from not being fashionably with it in middle school.

If you're a parent tightening the belt on back-to-school shopping, I think you have a tremendous opportunity to make this a great learning experience for everyone. Here are some tips:
  • Make bargain shopping fun! Set a small budget and stick to it, and use the internet to find good deals. Have your kids log-on to the websites for all their favorite stores and browse through the clearance merchandise. Old Navy polos for $7.99!
  • Find out if there is a Plato's Closet in your area. These young adult-oriented used clothing stores feature Abercrombie, American Eagle, Hollister, Aeropostale, etc. -- all at least 70% off mall prices -- in great condition! And, you don't have to worry about stuff shrinking! Talk to your kids about how green-friendly this is. If the nearest Plato's Closet is a long schlep, consider making it a back to school shopping trip with friends. I was runner-up for best-dressed in my high school yearbook, and I think I spent about 1/10th as much as the winner, all because of Plato's Closet. I'm in college and own a condo and he has credit card debt, so I'm happy to concede the first place prize.
  • If you have high school-aged kids, go to your library and pick up a copy of What Would Jesus Buy?, a hilarious mockumentary that examines our culture's addiction to conspicuous consumption and its painful consequences. See also: Maxed Out. If you need tips on bargain shopping, consider How to Be a Budget Fashionista, one of my favorite gift items for college-age friends.
Most of all: stay upbeat with your kids. Do not create a connection between decreased spending and misery. Don't apologize, and sell it to them as a values-based decision instead of a purely financial one. In the long run, that's what it should be and, if you play it right, lean financial times can lead to lifestyle changes that leave you more prosperous, happy, and socially-conscious in the long run.

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