Curb the stress of school expenses by prioritizing

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Bills start hitting home early in the school year. Parents may be asked to pay higher fees for supplies and enrichment programs. Activities children anticipated participating in may be prohibitively expensive. And, if the budget is already stretched, the additional costs may add to parental stress levels.

"The very things parents are asked to do to help their children aren't affordable," says Janet C. Benavente, extension agent, family and consumer science, Colorado State University Extension, Brighton, Colo.

The whole family may feel the stress, according to Samuel T. Gladding, PhD, professor of counseling, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Parents may feel guilty about not providing their children with all that they want, and their children may feel resentful, according to Gladding.

However, even though you shouldn't court it, "adversity can teach us a lot," Gladding says.

Families can set priorities, decide common goals and work together to manage financial belt-tightening, say counseling experts.

"Families do pull together when they lack resources," Gladding says.

But first they have to talk.

Don't try to duck the conversation. Children have stress radar and will pick up on parental mood changes.

"It's what you don't know that hurts you. If parents are feeling budget cuts and the children don't know, they may become more resentful when they're not getting what they want," Gladding says.

How parents phrase the discussion depends on the children's ages. But children will understand that parents can't do everything they did in the past. Parents have to decide what's most important.

Mom and dad may be surprised and appreciative of how their children respond.

"I think children begin to pitch in [after the conversation] and have a common goal. That brings the family together emotionally," says Gladding, author of the textbook, "Family Therapy" (Prentice Hall, 5th edition, 2010).

Start family rituals, such as walks or Sunday night dinner together, instead of expensive activities.

If parents have to limit their children's after-school programs for budgetary reasons, choose one that the child really wants rather than half a dozen.

A child may become more skilled by having one sport or musical instrument to focus on.

Share money-management strategies so your children become savvy savers and spenders, Benavente says.

Cook together, find coupons for a supermarket trip or plan a museum visit during a no-fee day.

Appreciate the valuable characteristics you and your children can develop.

"You're learning about your children, your family and yourself," Gladding says. "Personal fortitude, resolve are important lessons that have lifetime value that you don't necessarily get when the economy is thriving."

Parents should get help if they feel emotionally battered by family finances this school year, Benavente says.

Otherwise children may suffer.

"How well we tell children what we can or can't afford goes back to our emotional state," says Benavente.

Parents will want children to know that "not everything is horrible, horrible," she says.

They can often find the support needed through other families.

"Get involved in groups that offer support for special needs or interests. If you have a child with a special need, get together with others in the same situation," Benavente says.


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