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Not your mother's bake sale: How to plan for school fundraising

A lot has changed since parents used bake sales as the primary way to raise money for schools. According to the non-partisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2015 most states cut school funding, with some providing less funding than before the Great Recession.

That partly explains why the National Association of Elementary School Principals estimates that 94 percent of all school districts rely on fundraisers to supplement local, state and federal funding. Fundraisers have become an essential model for supporting additional education programming , such as computer labs and field trips. In some cash-strapped districts, fundraisers support basic amenities and needs, like books for the library, or costly school building repairs.

At some schools, the Parent Teacher Association drives many of the fundraising campaigns. These campaigns are big business—raising thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars for a school's bottom line. The Association of Fundraising Distributors and Retailers estimates that candy and cookie sales contribute about $1.4 billion to schools, churches and other organizations each year. Elementary school parents, students and other volunteers drive the majority of school fundraising efforts.

Parents charged with sales and other fundraising efforts often feel the strain. But fundraisers don't have to bust the family budget.

Karen Stealy is the mother of two daughters, ages 8 and 12, who attend a well-resourced public school on Long Island, New York. Though the school doesn't have the deficits that other districts have, it uses fundraisers to support field trips and other activities. Stealy, who also volunteers as the editor of her PTA's newsletter, says she still struggles to keep up with the constant demands of school fundraisers.

"In addition to the $25 a school year PTA membership fee that our family pays," she says, "our PTA uses sales of coupon books, events and other activities to raise money."

But Stealy says they don't participate in every fundraiser.

"There are some things I always participate in—like book fairs, field days, and the flower and plant sale," Stealy says, noting she sets clear boundaries about when and how she can participate in school activities.

Deana Newman and her husband, David, are getting ready for the fundraising season at their daughter's private school in Lansing, Michigan. Their family has been involved since their daughter, Lola, who is headed to the second grade, entered preschool four years ago.

"In addition to tuition, we have a lot of other out-of-pocket expenses—including before and after school day care, field trips, and fulfilling classroom wish list items that add up," says Deana Newman, adding: "There are about three or four fundraisers a year."

Like Stealy, Newman limits her family's participation in fundraising and donations.

"Keeping our household budget sound is our primary focus, and we do the best that we can to assist," she says.

Beverly Blair Harzog, a consumer finance and credit card expert and author of the "Debt Escape Plan," suggests including a fundraising line item in your budget at the beginning of the school year.

Because so many parents don't want to have to go door-to-door or solicit at their places of employment, they often just pay the money.

"In an overall family budget over the course of a year, it can easily add up to hundreds of dollars," Blair Harzog says. "Look at other ways to work it into your budget, like using your cash back credit cards for everyday purchases, and use the money you get back to support paying for donations and fundraising at school." But she cautions, "don't carry a balance on the purchases, if you want to reap the benefits."

Here are a few more tips:

  • Start a fundraising reserve.
  • If you can't give money, volunteer your time, or find a balance between time and money.
  • Don't be afraid to say no when it's not in your budget.
  • Take advantage of the fundraising partnerships that your PTA has negotiated with local businesses. Many stores make donations based on parent spending. Buy school clothes and class supplies at stores that contribute to your school.

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