walmart-back-to-school1_web.jpgStephanie Peterson is the doting relative every school-age child wants.

After her mother died three years ago, 31-year-old Peterson took over the family matriarch’s fall tradition of divvying out fresh back-to-school supplies for all the children in the family.

But this school season, the spoiling has been replaced by hard decisions to make personal budget cuts, as the downturned economy continues to whittle away at people’s pocketbooks – and everything in them.

“I can only buy for my little sister and one cousin this year,” said Peterson, who usually spends more than $500 for shoes and other back to school must-haves for several small relatives this time of year.  “This year there will be no shoe shopping. Just the basics. I don’t see how people with babies make it. And if you make minimum wage – forget it.”

A snapshot of back-to-school shoppers on a weekend captures a familiar scene; shoppers edge by aisles they would usually peruse, not to be tempted by unnecessary items. With the start of the new school year two weeks away, parents, guardians, and aunties responsible for taking care of those back-to-school lists are feeling the squeeze.

Many are hoping the Gov. Charlie Crist will announce another tax-free period like last year’s. But many aren’t holding their breaths.

Peterson, who strolled the aisles of Wal-Mart Saturday in Lauderdale Lakes with her little sister Trenise Dixon, 11, said she will have to cut her budget in half, or maybe even more, to accommodate growing grocery bills. 

“I have watched foods that were a dollar, go up to $2.50 just in a couple weeks,” said Peterson. “I’m like ‘golly – I’m glad I don’t have kids right now.”

Michelle Davis said black single mothers often find themselves caught alone in the frenzy of back-to-school shopping.

“If you’re a single parent, it’s usually us women who are doing all the work,” said Davis, mother of two school-age children. “The fathers don’t do it. Most of them aren’t in the kids’ lives.”

Davis, a night stocker at Wal-Mart, said she will be more conscientious about buying supplies early this time. Shoppers who wait too long often miss out on the best deals and find themselves picking over leftovers like candy shoppers on Halloween night.

Even worse, the desperate ones who wait until the last minute may have to shop at a more expensive store that doesn’t necessarily specialize in school supplies, said Davis.

The Lauderdale Lakes mother of two said she will have to cut back at least $150 on her usual shopping madness. She doesn’t have to worry about gas prices because she either takes the bus or walks to work. But Davis said balancing her budget is still a dance.

“Everything is hurting,” said Davis, who pushed around four-year-old son Jamari Valez in a cart. “It hurt to spend $200 a month on groceries for the kids.”

Shopping these days is painful. But mother of two Marlene Taylor said she’s felt it all before. Taylor said there is an art to frugality this school season. In addition to keeping a gas price journal, Taylor makes note of sales throughout the year.

“I’m always budgeting because I’ve always been a single mom,” said Taylor, a hair salon manager from Deerfield Beach. “I shop for my kids year-round. You don’t wait until your back to school shopping. You see a deal and you grab it right there.”

Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Michelle Davis shops for back-to-school items with son, Jamari Valez.