SCARBOROUGH — Karen Morgan pushed her cart through the school supply section of Wal-Mart last week, scrolling through a shopping list on her cellphone as her two youngest children picked out three-ring binders, protractors and pens.
Morgan has children in seventh, eighth and 10th grades in town of Cumberland public schools, and expects her school shopping bill to balloon this year as she buys a laptop for her oldest son. She plans to spend $2,000 on the computer, plus hundreds more on class supplies, clothing, sneakers and sports equipment.
“Each year it seems to get a little bigger,” Morgan said about the size of her list and the cost. “I always end up coming back again after the first day.”
Nationally, families are spending about 5 percent more than last year to outfit students with new clothing, footwear and school supplies. Industry analysts say that’s a sign of a recovering economy, but there are other reasons for the increase: Cash-strapped school districts are asking parents to donate supplies , and parents want to provide new technology for their children.
“Over the past eight years, we’ve seen more and more supplies and more paper products for classrooms being requested,” said Maureen Brown, a spokeswoman for Huntington National Bank, which tracks back-to-school spending in its annual “backpack index.”
“What we also hear is that parents feel they should buy a tablet (computer) for the home because their children are using them in the schools,” Brown said.
Parents in southern Maine said they are spending more this year because their children require more clothing and supplies as they get older. Many elementary schools ask students to bring in basic supplies such as crayons and rulers, but by middle and high school they also might need a notebook or binder for each class and technology like a $150 graphing calculator.
During the school year they may encounter additional costs, such as activity fees or insurance for school-provided laptops and tablets.
Nationally, the average family with children in kindergarten through grade 12 will spend $669 on apparel, footwear, supplies and electronics, up 5 percent from $635 last year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual back-to-school survey. The group does not track costs by region or state.
Families with children in elementary school spend an average of $581, and that number jumps for families with children in middle and high school. The survey found the average family with middle and high school students will spend $682.
The amount families will spend on classroom supplies is expected to increase 12 percent, to an average of $101, perhaps because school districts are increasingly asking for donations, according to the survey. But the bulk of back-to-school spending will be on clothes and footwear, with the average family spending $355.
“Slow improvements in the economy may have contributed to the growth in confidence among back-to-school shoppers, and while we are encouraged by the overall tone of the results and expect to see continued improvement in consumer spending through the year, we know Americans are still grappling with their purchase decisions every day,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation.
Jeremy Ray, superintendent of Biddeford schools, said teachers try to keep requests for classroom supplies to a minimum to avoid burdening parents who may not be able to afford extras.
“Anything parents send in certainly helps, but in the long run the students will be provided with the materials they need,” he said. “Going back to school should not be a stressful and costly thing for parents.”
Margaret Pitts, principal of Biddeford Primary School, said the school sends home lists with about seven suggested items, all around $1. Teachers try to keep their requests simple, she said.
“We recognize the economic times some people are in. We want to help control the costs,” she said.
Bil Moriarty, a Biddeford School Committee member with two daughters in school, said the lists can be daunting, but providing even a few boxes of crayons to a classroom helps when school budgets are tight.
“As a parent it can be frustrating when you get that list, but I believe if you can afford to donate supplies, go ahead,” he said.
Nicole Foster, a mother of four from Windham, isn’t fazed by the lists requesting supplies that will be used by the entire class. As a school volunteer, she’s aware there are shortages of supplies.
“You’d think that sharpened pencils with erasers are readily available, but they’re not,” she said. “People always assume that someone else will send it in or already has.”
Americans also are spending more this year on electronics, clothes and footwear, according to the back-to-school survey. Parents are expected to spend an average of $231 on clothes, the same as last year. They will spend an average of $124 on footwear, about $10 more than in 2013.
Americans will spend an average of $212 on electronics, an increase of 7 percent over last year. High school students and their families will spend the most, averaging $230.
Regina Lemire and her 10-year-old daughter, Saige, a fifth-grader at Westbrook Middle School, shopped for supplies at Wal-Mart last week. Saige already had picked out notebooks and pens and added extras like brightly colored erasers. Lemire also has a daughter in high school and expected to spend around $40 on school supplies – and a total of $400 to $500 once they finish shopping for clothes and footwear.
“As they get older, there’s more we need,” she said, adding that they were lucky to avoid costly electronics purchases this year.
Amy Gleason, the mother of three daughters in elementary school in Buxton, has noticed that clothing and shoe prices have been creeping up, so she expects to spend close to $350 per child on clothing and supplies.
“The biggest expense is clothing,” she said. “When school ends, I start saving up for clothes.”