Summer is winding down as anyone who has recently set foot in a Target can attest. You can’t move your shopping cart three feet without being assaulted with back-to-school reminders, especially those towering shelves at the Dollar Spot. Just that sentence is enough to send new and veteran teachers alike deep into fantasies about cute classroom decor. Set down your credit card mentally for a moment and check out these 10 back-to-school money moves that all teachers should make before buying anything else.
Note to self: That includes you, Penny.
Ways to Spend Smarter in Your Classroom
You’re going to spend money on back-to-school time if you’re a teacher. Even if you’re not big on bulletin boards or reading corners, even the most minimalist of teachers is going to drop a few dollars on their classroom. Here’s how you can spend smarter starting right now.
It’s no secret that teachers spend a small fortune on their classrooms each year. We spend $479 a year if you believe Education Week. I didn’t track my spending my first year I set up my classroom, but I do know that I spent enough to make for a totally miserable time period waiting for my first real paycheck to hit. Buying posters, bookcases, a classroom library, and art supplies on a $7/hour bookstore salary was rough.
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Here are a few ways that I make my dollars go further now:
- Buy loss leaders…and only loss leaders. Everyone from Target to your local grocer is advertising sales on school supplies. Those loss leaders are meant to get you in the door where you will then spend more money on pricier things. Don’t do it. If you can be wise with your time and hit a few of these stores in a row, your wallet will thank you for it.
- Stock up on a classroom library slowly. I’ve written before about how to score free and cheap books, and now is an ideal time to check your local library. They often turn over their shelves in the summer, so they may have used books you can pick up very affordably.
- Ask for a discount or other perks. It’s amazing what happens when you wield a teacher ID. Many stores will offer a small discount. Coupled with a tax-exempt letter, that savings can make your money go much farther.
Also, if you’re buying in bulk, speak up. I used to also purchase notebooks for all of my students before our school went 1:1 with Chromebooks. That meant I would buy 75-100 spiral notebooks each year. So I would call ahead and ask to speak to a manager. Often times, they would make an exception to the limit once they realized what I needed all the notebooks for. It doesn’t hurt to ask. The worst thing that can happen is someone says no.
Ask for funding.
The notion that you can request supplies or funds didn’t even dawn on me until I had been in my own classroom for months. Because my first district was so poorly funded, we mostly just heard no. But it never hurts to ask. If enough staff request the same items, it can help your administration prioritize.
In addition to asking for funding via your department, grade-level, team, or building, you might be able to snag some items other ways. Communities often create small grant opportunities for educators. You could also set up a Donors Choose account for your classroom.
Stick to a budget.
I am positive I spent well over $1000 my first year of teaching. While I don’t know that I needed everything that I bought, I do think that I got a lot of value out of most of it. But I could have spent the money more slowly. Now, I give myself a budget of $50/month to spend on my classroom. It’s generally directed toward books for my class library, but I also use it to buy calculators before testing time and snacks for students who don’t have enough to eat.
Depending on your situation, $50/month might be way too much. Do what feels right for you. Even a budget of $10 a month can go far with 50-cent used books and a trip to your nearby Dollar Tree. Assuming you exercise the restraint that I don’t have.
In addition to reaching out to other teachers in your building, you can also reach out to your community. I’ve seen several posts on Next Door recently making requests for items like Legos and kids books to be used in classrooms. Specifying that nothing needs to be new is a huge help as well. Remember, your school, your classroom, and you are a pillar of the community. Don’t underestimate your community’s willingness to help, especially if you give them a specific way to do so.
Money Moves Teachers Should Make
I had to make the list in this order because I’m going to do something that will blow most teachers’ minds. I’m actually going to talk about helping us, not our students, for the rest of this post. Why?
Because you deserve to be paid well.
Because you likely aren’t paid what you deserve.
Because even if you aren’t paid what you’re worth, making these money moves will help you help yourself.
And us teachers need to learn to do more of that.
Read your contract
Your contract isn’t written for you, not really. It’s written as an agreement between the school board and a team of teachers and at least a few lawyers. It’s likely riddled with compromises masked in legalese.
Read it anyway.
And if you find yourself with questions, ask them.
Things you want to pay particular attention to include: sick days, personal days, leaves of absence, substitute pay, extra duty pay, and overloads. Every district sets up their contract differently, and sometimes veteran teachers are familiar with a past policy, but don’t realize that a new contract tweaks the language. Don’t take anyone’s word for anything – always refer back to your contract.
Our contract changed this year, and you had better believe that I am going to download it, read it, and print out a copy for myself. Our union is good at giving us a head’s up regarding what has changed, but I want to see it for myself.
Explore your salary schedule
Most school districts operate on some sort of salary schedule or pay lanes. Figure out what it’s called and then get yourself a copy of it. There’s a good chance it’s included in your contract. Basically, this document covers how you’ll be compensated based on years of service and continuing education (graduate school, professional development, etc., again depending on the district).
Due to some very vague language in our contract, I am in the middle of a waiting period to get the full salary I’ve earned. Though I’ve completed all of the credit hours necessary to max out my salary schedule, my district interprets the language in my contract as stating that I have to make consecutive lane changes instead of a lane change. (Yes, I argued. No, they didn’t budget. But my union is working on it for the next contract!)
In addition to reviewing my salary on the salary schedule, I also check to see what my stipend pay should be. Sometimes, honest mistakes happen. Sometimes, your district nickel and dimes you. The best guard against any of this is to actually check the numbers yourself.
(Re)assess your investment options
If you’re a new teacher, this can be hard. If you’re not a new teacher, this can be hard.
Starting to invest in your 20s is better than starting in your 30s. More importantly, starting today is better than waiting until tomorrow.
Depending on your district, you could have a variety of retirement options and investment opportunities. These can shift from year to year, depending on district-approved vendors, changes in the law, and many other reasons. Taking a bit of time at the start of the school year to review your options and ask questions is key for both pensions (if available) and retirement vehicles.
For me, I review two different things: I look at my pension information stored in our retirement system, and I explore my 403b options. As of last year, my 403b with Fidelity provided the investment options I wanted (their version of VTSAX) and really low fees.
I’ll also inquire about a 457, but I’m fairly certainly I already know what I’m going to hear: for the last decade, our only option has been an annuity that is so bloated with fees and smarmy salespeople, I won’t even consider it.
RELATED POST: Terrible 403b Options: What Do I Do?
Know Where You Stand Financially
We don’t calculate our net worth to the penny, but we do make sure that we analyze our liabilities. Depending on the year, that meant looking at student loan debt (my husband’s), car loans (both), and/or our mortgage.
In education, it’s important to strategize ways to maximize your salary. I effectively doubled my income in a decade. It was hard work, but I’ll continue to benefit from this hugely from the rest of my career. If I didn’t know where I stood financially, it would have been much harder to come up with a plan to do this.
RELATED POST: Teacher Talk: I Doubled My Salary
Make a Point of Contact
There’s no doubt that you’re going to have questions about some or all of these money moves at some point during your employment. It’s worth your time to establish points of contact at the start of the school year, even if it’s just looking up names and emails on your school website.
These are all of the people that I’ve made it a point to reach out to with questions:
- Payroll specialist
- Maternity leave specialist
- Union president
- Building union reps
Of course, there are different titles and different roles in various districts. But finding a point of contact in your business office can go a long way. If you’re not sure where to start, ask your school administrative assistants. They honestly know every thing.
Safeguard Your Time
My contract says that I work 185 days a year. That means that technically, I work half the school year. I’ve always known that number but I’ve never really thought about the implications behind it.
The truth is that I couldn’t do my job hardly at all, let alone well, if I only worked 185 days. I work at least one day of each weekend during the school year. I’ve also let emails and other tasks erode my mornings, evenings, and nights. Plus, I do a lot of work over the summer.
Truthfully, sometimes it feels like I work a lot closer to 360 days.
And yet, a collective bargaining team including teachers, administrators, and school board members said that I work for 185 days. That’s it.
I know I’ll never work that little, but I am going to be firmer with boundaries this year. After all, what is money without time?
So Tell Me…What’s on your list of teacher money moves? Also, if you’re a teacher with a Donors Choose, drop the link below!