You would think after the new clothes are bought and the fresh supplies crammed into the latest book bag, Lake Highlands parents would feel a sense of accomplishment in getting students off to a good start for the 1993-94 school year.

Instead, we know the real “back to school” bills won’t be tallied until June. And there’s no discount shopping when it comes to the costs of our kids activities. Or is there?

Fund-raising.

It’s a subtle cause of parent burnout and a slightly strained relationship with friends, relatives and neighbors. We may have the loftiest of goals for our kids, but the reality is one of grappling with subscription forms, delivery dates and sales tax on behalf of kids more likely to “earn” a plastic trinket than the snazzy boom box featured in the sales pitch.

There’s no one to blame. Whether it’s school, scouting, community groups, church choirs or sports teams, the familiar theme song is “We Need Money.” All good causes, but then so is saving for college.

Parents are torn. If they are less than enthusiastic boosters, will their child pay the price? A small but emerging group of families are taking a new approach. Their plan combines common sense and a closer look at activities. The end result is a realistic family budget and children who understand their activities are just one part of the pie.

Here’s their strategy:

One family with three kids figured out their fund-raising cost was $75-$150 per activity per child.

“We were spending $500 to $700 a year. We had to cut back. Now I look at what they’re really going to get out of it. Everything that touches your life these days involves raising funds. Even when you have already paid to be a participant, there is on-going fund-raising. Now, we limit our children to one project, and we’ve started making them pay for part of it.”

Suggestions to organizations:

  • Look at the big picture. Does the team really need matching sports bags and top-of-the-line jerseys? Heavy-handed fund-raising is not worth losing the goodwill of families.
  • Be up front with parents about what is expected in the course of a year.
  • If a product is sold, pick something useful. Parents genuinely prefer inanimate objects such as gift wrap and fertilizer. Also popular are quality foods such as Girl Scout cookies, pizzas and easily sold $1 candy bars. Tiny tins of stale peanuts priced more than $10 are a hard sell. High-risk items such as living plants receive low scores. (At least with the family that absorbed the cost of 18 droopy Easter lilies, and the one that had to deliver 50 poinsettias during a hectic holiday period.)

Some ideas for parents:

First, ask for a suggested amount if you prefer to make a direct donation. One family gave $60 instead of having their child sell $150 worth of pizza. Another donated $25 to a school choir.

Second, see if the team or club will set up individual accounts. The money your child raises will be credited to his or her account.

And, finally, a word to enthusiastic (and overworked) planning committees:

Big carnivals, spaghetti suppers and silent auctions that were successful 10 years ago may be too labor-intensive for today’s working parents. Conversely, the sale of gift wrap, with computerized inventory control, and scrip “money” purchased through schools for use at area stores are popular, painless and profitable moneymakers.

You never know. One local PTA president laughed about a particularly slow-moving spirit item; shoelaces in the school’s colors.

“They just sat there. Finally, one day out of frustration, I made them into hair bows. They sold like hot cakes.”

I think she’s onto something. New wave recycled fund-raising.