AVOIDING THE TRAPS
You’ve committed to not spending. You’re doing a fantastic job. You’ve got your goals on your desktop, you’re making progress paying down your student loans, debt, getting an emergency fund built, and all of a sudden….
It happens. A cute little person comes around the corner. “Would you like to buy some popcorn for my fundraiser?” Or you get hit up for tickets to the prom.
Whether you’re an elementary, middle, or high school teacher this happens all the time. You’ve got to be prepared. Everyone’s got a good cause, and it can be tough to say no. I tracked the asks once. In just one week, I was asked for over $200. Prom tickets, sports, fundraisers, a student in need, baskets, more fundraisers, dress-down days…
It’s really hard to stick to the No-Spend Challenge. There are land mines everywhere. Here are some traps and how you can navigate them.
Trap 1: Student Fundraising
Because schools don’t pay for things, people have to fundraise. But, fundraising is nothing more than disguising the fact you’re paying for everything. It’s worse, because you end up with a bunch of junk food and clutter you don’t need. Saying no to students asking me to buy is hard. As a teacher, every single fundraiser passes by my door–literally.
“Miss, you want to buy my (insert thing I do not want to buy here).” It’s hard to say no to a student working hard to reach a goal. I have to remind myself, “That goal cannot be funded by me.”
Say this, “You’re working hard. Good job! I have a strict budget, and everyone’s selling this, so I’m going to say no.”
Trap 2: Adult Fundraisers
“Send the kids to…” “Girl scout cookies.” “Only if you want, but my (kid/granchild/niece)” is selling (everything under the sun constantly).”
These are worse than student fundraisers. Generally, the same people do them over and over. They’re most certainly a violation of every “using work email for personal use” policy in the universe multiplied by the bad karma of the twenty emails you get reminding you they’re “still selling (X)” or “Last day to give me money for (Y) is…” spam.
Schools abuse email to begin with–I had to get out into the tech world to see how much… NOBODY… wants to read my four-chapter email with 20-sentence block paragraphs. Even Tolstoy’ll tell you “Get the audiobook” these days.
Bottom line is this–unless there’s a fundraiser for something you really really want (the Girl Scout cookies get the best of us at times!) you must say no to buying, and if you’re on the selling end of this–perhaps one quick ask in an email if it’s something great, but that’s it. No more.
Trap 3: The Basket
“You didn’t give to the Department Basket.” In the beginning, I did, but over time, the call to contribute to baskets, raffles, and other indirect fundraising started to add up. I felt bad saying no, because one colleague who hadn’t yet learned to say no would always pick up the slack. She was working two jobs, just bought a house, and had a husband who was a teacher, too. I was hoping she’d learn to say no soon.
The less schools pay for, the more you’ll see raffles, events, and fundraising. These things should be funded by schools, not employees of schools. Donating for gifts and prizes all the time is no different than paying for clubs directly or buying things for your class. It’s you paying for your job.
When I went cold turkey on school spending, I told everyone. I don’t owe anyone a reason, but sometimes I gave one anyway. “I’m laser focused on paying off my credit cards and student loans.” Still, people would follow up with me for my donation, gift, basket, etc. I stuck to my no, politely.
Trap 4: Athletic Events.
I used to go to every athletic event the school had–every game. Two, three, four dollars at the door doesn’t seem like a lot. But when I was in crisis mode, it added up. Three to five bucks a game times a couple games a week–that’s two tanks of gas a month. There were many days I didn’t have cash because I didn’t have it to begin with or gave it to a kid who didn’t have lunch.
But, I wanted to be involved still. Some days I’d go in early through the back gym door. If I made it by the JV game, I didn’t have to pay. Some years, I gave a one-time donation to the team and counted that. But, even if you have a big program with serious ticket sales, a side convo with the coach or AD will get you in. They want your support, and kids want you there.
For the games, I’d go to all the free ones (baseball and soccer season) and for basketball season, I came early, snuck in the back door, or made a one-time donation to the team. In general, a side-convo with an athletic director will get you in, too. Also, the more you help the coach, the less you pay for events. And–unrelated to finances–you should be BFFs with every coach you can find. These are the people who can set your student-athletes straight in times of great need. “I’ll call Coach,” has more mileage than an angry mom. Guaranteed.
Trap 5: Tickets
Games are pocket change, though, next to senior events, proms, talent shows, and chaperoning overnight trips where teachers still paid for food, hotels, and admission to things. Proms can cost fifty or sixty bucks even with the “teacher discount” and chaperoning the trip to Disney (or any other trip) will be hundreds.
Trap 6: “Voluntary” (but not really voluntary) contributions
We had Dress Down Day which was supposed to be going to send our kids to Skills USA competitions after school stopped funding this, so it was a good cause. Then that shifted to another cause, probably equally good but I never knew what it was. But, paying $10/month to dress down is $100/year to wear jeans on Friday. We’d have to wear a button saying we paid, so basically you could pick out broke teachers and grumpy teachers because they didn’t have the badge or jeans.
There were also opportunities to round the contribution up for certain months–breast cancer month, the local food pantry. Again, all these things are great causes, except I wasn’t paying for my own groceries or bills without juggling, so the cause… it has to be me.
Trap 7: Emergencies
There will always be an emergency in a school. In an elementary school, you’ll find out about cute little kids in horrific circumstances. As a middle or high school teacher, you’re privy to stories you can’t unlearn. It’s part of the territory. You never get used to it but you learn to accept it. Often, a story or emergency will rise above the normal crisis level you’re used to–death, fires, homelessness. Everyone’ll pitch in some cash to provide relief or you’ll feel like an evil human being. This is somewhere above “Should I charge my groceries and buy a prom ticket?” So, decide wisely. You cannot save the world by spending yourself into an unrecoverable hole, but if, in times of great need, you want to respond, put aside a cash reserve for such things.
Perhaps you skip baskets and Dress Down Day and leave $50 in an envelope for big things like this. Or, maybe you work hard to build your bottom line iwth the goal of being in a position to help at times like these.
Trap 8: Retirement Parties
These are expensive. Often, you have to buy a ticket to a buffet or hall dinner you wouldn’t normally eat, and the contribution to the gift is giant. Let the deciding factor be this, “Do I really love this person, have some connection to this person and want to go?” If so, then plan ahead and make it happen. If no, send a polite decline to the RSVP. When the gift contribution collector comes along, say you’re going to pass on this and do something personal. 1. No one will check. 2. Eventually, they’ll forget.
Trap 9: Holiday Parties
There is no human on earth who is too poor to contribute to a hall pot luck or evening “bring a dish” party. Check this site and you’ll find hummus (literally–two bucks, and you can garnish it like a professional chef for an additional penny or two), breads, deviled eggs, and if I didn’t put enough budget recipes here, reach out and I’ll convert whatever you want to budget gourmet. Pot lucks are your opportunity to shine.
I’ve passed on other holiday parties that were top-dollar priced when I just couldn’t go. For me, this was fine. I don’t really drink or go out late in general. I didn’t mind missing. At those times, I had sub-gatherings with close people I wanted to go out with. If your work group is a close one and you want to go, go. But, if these things add up and put you at financial risk, consider taking the reins next year and planning a fantastic and affordable one for everyone.
Trap 10: “They need” and “Just this once”
This is the biggest of all, the easiest to recognize, and the one that gets us the most–the “They needs” and “Just this once.” Given the opportunity, you will fund your class. School will let you. You will be encouraged to do this your whole career, from the compliments on the decor, your beautiful bulletin boards, your displays of student works, your alternate seating areas.
If your classroom doesn’t look like it belongs on Pinterest and Instagram, your subconscious will try to make you put it there.
You will see curricula and resources you want online, you will come across THE BEST sales at back to school time, and some kid will ask you for things you’re running low on or don’t have. The needs are real. And “just this once” seems like a perfectly reasonable compromise.
They’re both gateway drugs to putting yourself last. The only answer–if you still have student loan debt, credit cards that aren’t paid off, and your emergency fund isn’t in order, is to say no.
So, what do I do?
Trap 11: Certifications, Fees, and Extras
This is unavoidable. My last certification renewal cost me almost $500. When I complained about it online I was (not so) kindly reminded that other professions have recert requirements. That’s true, but the difference between what some of those professions make (doctors, financial planners)… that’s a topic for another day.
Teacher certification, recertification, and professional development is mandatory, expensive, and the requirements are forever changing.
There have been cycles where I was required to take 3 college classes to show my expertise and renew ($1200 each, since I already have a master). Then someone decided degrees and education didn’t determine whether a teacher was good so that went away (I had two “wasted” courses). Next, we had a personalized plan to show (hundreds of) hours. Many “approved” things were costly. That went away after I finished it. We had a new system. Now, we have another new system that is back to tracking and showing hours.
In most states, you’ll have to take at least one costly standardized test when you begin teaching, too. And if you ever want to go for National Board Certification, that costs half a car.
Certification requirements and fees are non-negotiable. You have to plan for them. Yes, it does cost money to be a teacher. This is all the more reason to stop giving away the rest of your paycheck every day you go to work.
Bottom Line: You Don’t Have to Be Scrooge to Do No-Spend
When I started my no-spend, it wasn’t easy. I was addicted to classroom spending. It’s easier to buy something myself than fill out four forms in triplicate, hear “no” seven times, and wear people down until my class gets what it needs.
Find the right person
Sometimes, if you find the right person, they can find the funds you need. I met with one of my alum who works in a school. “I wish teachers would talk to me. I do the programming. It’s my job to find speakers and get these things funded. Teachers shouldn’t be paying for this stuff.” Not every school has a Jamie, but if you have one that does… take advantage of it.
Try budget shifting logic.
“I saved you $15K on textbooks–I don’t need them. Get me a class set of computers instead.” This is exactly what I said. I am a content expert. Every time the school looked at replacing textbooks, I’d say, “I don’t use them. Don’t buy this.” I wanted computers. Unfortunately, many schools feel they “need” books or have to fund things they way they’ve always funded them because they feel most teachers want this.
Ask to do an experiment or rally the troops when it’s time to make big purchases. If you don’t want those things (books, a certain proprietary curriculum) make the case for the savings if you skip that purchase, and ask for what you, individually or collectively, really want.
Set limits–and stick to them.
You can say “yes” once in a while if you do one of these three things: plan, save the money aside. or make extra money in order to spend on what you want. But for school spending you must pre-set a limit and stick to it. Once your “school money” is gone, it’s gone, whether you wanted to use it for the holiday party or donate it to a student in need.
Your “yes” budget should in no way harm your ability to pay your basic bills or make progress toward your goals. If you have a shortfall, stick to “no” with the goal of getting to “yes” soon.
By taking care of yourself first, focusing on the “whys” of getting out of debt and building up your own success, you’re not only helping yourself, you’re modeling exactly what you want your students to do. Don’t forget that. If you want them to be successful and get to their dreams, you must do the same!
- Take a look at your spending tracker. Are you improving, staying the same, or making progress toward your financial goals?
- Create categories for each of the lines you spend on. Is it food, events, tickets, treats, decorations, curriculum? Create categories that fit the ways you’ve historically spent. Assign each a color.
- Identify your largest areas of spending. Highlight them.
- Target the largest category first.
How to do this:
When targeting a spending category, ask yourself, “What would I do if I were not allowed to spend on this?”
- Brainstorm creative ways to either get the job done, or ask yourself, “Is this even necessary?” and eliminate that expense.
Often, I found, the act of pausing, asking that question, and evaluating the answer was enough to change my spending habits. It’ll still be challenging. When it is, refer to your pledge. Visit it, write it out if necessary, Instagram it if you need to. Stay strong.