In my house, back-to-school season feels a lot like the holiday season. There’s energy in the air! Our daughter and son are eager to reunite with their friends and meet their new teachers, and my husband and I look forward to a more consistent household routine.

Although we’re all excited, we feel a little anxious too. The thought of balancing new expectations, homework, and sports activities can feel overwhelming. Cue the checklist—it’s one of my favorite ways to stay calm amid the chaos.

The list I made this year (see below) offers practical tips on staying organized and planning for the future. I also hope it offers validation so you know you’re not the only one who feels intimidated by the back-to-school aisle at Target!

Even if your kids are too young for school this year, keep this list in mind. It’s never too early to establish positive habits, including saving for the future.

Now: Before school starts

These to-dos are focused on keeping our family organized. I want to establish good family habits now so we’ll be prepared to handle everyone’s busy schedules and various responsibilities in high school and beyond.

  • Figure out where everyone needs to be—and at what time. Work backward to figure out what time each family member needs to be awake and out the door.
  • Ensure the kids have everything they need for the school year, from lunch boxes to 3-ring binders.
  • Make sure the kids know their own schedules—from bus routines to rotating specials like music and art.
  • Establish a place to keep schoolwork, assignments, and supplies (to help homework run smoother).
  • Keep a family calendar in a central location. Track days off, holidays, vacations, extracurricular activities, work trips, and more. We dedicate an hour every weekend to review the upcoming week as a family.
  • Agree on some schoolwork “best practices” and family responsibilities. For example, my daughter agrees to have her homework and chores completed before she has any screen time.

Later: Throughout the year

Like most parents, we think about money—for better or worse—all year. But by late summer, when we’re surrounded by back-to-school chatter and ads for dorm room essentials, we really start evaluating how much we’re saving for education. Our top priority is investing for retirement, but it isn’t our only priority. We also want to build a solid emergency fund and be able to contribute to our kids’ college savings accounts.

Checklists help us plan our family’s financial goals too. (For expert help identifying your goals and making a plan to achieve them, consider financial advice.)

Save for retirement

Pay off debt

  • Pay off high-interest, short-term debt that’s not tax-deductible (credit cards or furniture or car loans).

Save for an emergency

  • Save $2,000 or more in a cash emergency fund.
  • Have enough liquid savings—money you can easily access—to cover 3 to 6 months of living expenses. This can be money that’s invested for long-term goals in your nonretirement accounts or Roth IRA contributions.
  • Save another month of living expenses in liquid savings as an extra buffer.

Save for education

  • Open a 529 account for each child.
  • Set a goal for contributions (Vanguard’s college savings planner can help). Keep in mind, most families don’t cover 100% of college costs.

Education savings—last but not least

As parents, we have many priorities to juggle, both financial and otherwise, and saving for education is certainly an important one. According to How America Pays for College 2021, 58% of families—the highest percentage in the last 14 years—have a plan to pay for college.*

Save in The Vanguard 529 Plan and get more.

When it comes to learning, our kids naturally play the long game: studying shapes today and geometry tomorrow. We take a similar approach with education savings. We save what we can, celebrate small wins (such as enrolling in automatic investing) along the way, and think long term.

While it’s hard for me to believe, my daughter will be ready for college in 7 years. If we save $60 a month for the next 7 years, we’ll have more than $5,000 saved—and that’s not even factoring in any investment returns. This money could cover half the cost of annual tuition at a public, 4-year in-state college or over 4 years’ worth of books and supplies.**

If the idea of saving is overwhelming or you’re afraid of losing your investing momentum throughout the course of the year, consider the following tips to boost your savings:

  • Invest automatically. Most 529 plans, including The Vanguard 529 Plan, offer this convenient feature.
  • If you invest in a 529 plan, use Ugift to invite friends and family to contribute to your child’s 529 account for holidays, birthdays, and special events.
  • Divide and conquer your savings goals: Take the amount you plan to spend on your child for the holidays or a birthday, and divide it by 3. Spend two-thirds of that amount on a gift now and invest one-third for their education.
  • Plan to invest a percentage of any bonuses or tax returns you receive for education.

You’ve got this

The back-to-school season can bring on feelings of excitement and enthusiasm—as well as stress and anxiety. Being organized and prepared can help you stay calm so you can navigate today’s challenges (finding that perfect first-day-of-school outfit) while preparing for tomorrow’s (paying the tuition bill).


*Source: Sallie Mae, How America Pays for College 2021.

**Source: College Board, Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020. Public 4-year school, in-state tuition and fees cost $10,560 per year. The average full-time, on-campus undergraduate at a 4-year school is estimated to have spent $1,240 on books and supplies during the 2019–2020 academic year.

All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.

"How to look forward as your kids head back to school", 4 out of 5 based on 23 ratings.