With the first day of school just around the corner, every parent has different concerns: How will Emily cope with the homework? Is Jacob going to have trouble fitting into his new school? Will that big kid still give Madison a hard time? But regardless of their individual situations, nearly all parents face one particular issue: What’s all this going to cost and how can I afford it?
When you add up the cost of school supplies, clothing, electronic gadgets and up-front fees for field trips and sports, this can be a very expensive time of year. (Not to mention the cost of college or university looming in the distance.) Can you save money while still equipping your kids with what they need?
In a word, yes. We asked a panel of three experienced parenting writers to share their best back-to-school budget advice. They don’t always agree, and their suggestions may not all work for you, but there are sure to be some tips you can use.
Tamara McPherson is the mother of four girls and the creator of WonderMoms.ca, an online community and information resource for mothers in the Greater Toronto area and points west.
“Back-to-school shopping is like competing in the Olympics,” she says. “Make sure to complete the list of required elements or the judges at school will be sending home a request form.”
Marci O’Connor is a Montreal mother of two boys who writes and comments for several online publications on topics ranging from parenting to fitness to style.
What creative ways do you use to stay on budget for back-to-school shopping?
Tamara: It seems like every year we end up buying the same things over and over again. With four children in school, it can cost a small fortune to get all the items that schools ask each student to provide. The list is definitely longer now than when I was in school, so proper planning and a little creativity can make for an easier transition from summer mode to school mode.
My family often scours the back-to-school flyers in the weeks leading up to D-Day.
I don’t mind heading out to different stores if the deals are worth the trip. When it comes to basic items such as pencil crayons, erasers, scissors, pens, rulers, pencils, calculators and the like, it doesn’t matter where you purchase them. They tend to be better priced at places like the local dollar stores.
Buying in bulk or in family packs can bring down the per-item cost somewhat. On the other hand, items such as binders, duo-tangs, lined paper and dividers seem to be more reasonably priced in the big-box stores or larger office supply outlets.
I set a budget for each child and try to stay within that budget. Make a list of “needs” versus “wants.” Show your children the list and tell them that only the items on the list will be purchased, and only within the budget limits. This will not only keep you within your budget, but also instill a sense of satisfaction when your child knows he or she has shopped wisely. You may even try to make it a competition to see who can get the most on the list for the least amount of money. An incentive or prize for the one who spends the least can make a fun game out of the shopping experience.
Loukia: That works for me, too. I like to challenge myself — and my boys — by making a budget for back-to-school shopping and sticking to it. It can actually be a lot of fun! We make a list of things we need to buy and start comparison shopping. There are brands I am used to and brands that I love, but the price of certain items does make a difference in my purchasing decisions. From new clothes and shoes, to school supplies like lunch boxes and pencil cases, it's a challenge every year to stay on budget — but we have fun with it and look for items that we absolutely need. Another great idea is to stock up on winter gear items early, since they can sometimes be cheaper off-season.
Marci: Buy sturdy knapsacks in boring, solid colours (no more TV show characters that they get tired of two weeks into school when they realize they actually prefer the other show). We bought them solid-colour packs and they choose a few keychains or pins to personalize them. The bags have each lasted three years so far and we just update the embellishments occasionally.
School supplies are tricky. When a teacher requests a name brand, we comply. (What happens to the ones buying the generic brand? Are they expelled?) The only time I go rogue is when they ask for paper folders.
I buy plastic ones instead, so I can reuse them each year. We’ve been doing this for three years and have only had to replace a handful so far.
I don’t purchase individually packaged snacks. I buy in bulk and send in reusable bags most of the time. The school appreciates the eco-friendly efforts and we save a few bucks!
What’s the number-one thing kids don’t need when going back to school (but that everyone seems to think they do)? What should you never skimp on?
Tamara: There are so many possible answers to that first question, including an iPod or MP3 player, a laptop computer or a whole new wardrobe! But truthfully, there are items that, if purchased right the first time, can be recycled and reused for more than one school year. Good examples of this are backpacks and lunch bags. My kids are always asking to get new ones and my reply is often, “You don’t need one, because I purchased a good one last year.” If you invest in a good-quality, high-grade nylon backpack, you won’t have to replace it mid-way through the second semester, or even next September. Buying the cheapest one you can find doesn’t always make sense. I was looking at my kids’ backpacks just the other day; they are all in great shape to be used for this year. Don’t skimp on backpacks or lunch bags, or be prepared to replace them half way through the school year.
Loukia: Most people seem to think their children need an entirely new wardrobe before the school year starts again. And as much as I love to shop, this is not an absolute necessity for children heading back to school. I'm all for buying my children some new clothes, especially for the first day of school — that is a tradition that we have. But besides a few new pieces, we don't have to go all-out for new clothes. I will always buy my boys new shoes right before the start of the school year, though — that's a must-have on my back-to-school shopping list! I also love to buy my boys new backpacks every year, and I always order new personalized labels to label all their belongings, from pencil cases to umbrellas.
Marci: Did you know that cheap plastic knapsacks only last 43 days and then they will conveniently rip beyond repair 52 minutes before the mall (which is 17 minutes away) closes? Yep, this is a stat. (I can find the study if you want.) It is also a very good example of getting what you pay for. I bought this “thrifty” knapsack because my son excitedly chose it as his very first school purchase when he started kindergarten years ago. I imagined him tucking a few little snacks in there and maybe the occasional birthday party invitation and gold star-studded paper from his teacher, telling me how cleverly he draws circles.
What I did not expect was the amount of food I’d need to stuff in there to get him through the school day. Or that the school would require him to have more costume changes than Lady Gaga (gym shorts and tee, art smock, mittens, extra mittens, hat, extra hat...).
Is long-term saving for your child’s post-secondary education on your mind? How do you keep that on the radar when day-to-day costs are piling up?
Tamara: For many years we have been concerned about the kids’ post-secondary education. How were we going to afford to put four children through university? We had to devise a plan early on so as not to add that worry to the other stresses of parenting. We came up with the idea of saving $50 each week. (It doesn’t have to be that much; the key is to establish a regular amount and stick to it.) A little each week amortized over 18 years adds up. If you calculate it, $50 a week times 52 weeks equals $2,600 a year. Multiply that by 18 years and you have a tidy little sum of $46,800 plus interest. It may not be enough, but it is a very good start. Start saving early, while you have time on your side. You can even go one step further and consult a financial professional for direction and guidance. You don’t need to go it alone.
Loukia: My children are both so young — one is entering Grade 2, one is starting kindergarten. But still, even though they have years of public school left, the thought of them going to college and/or university one day in the not-too-distant future is already on my mind. Both my children have their own bank accounts where we save money for them so that when the time comes to make that important life decision about where to attend post-secondary school, we know we'll have enough saved up for them. It's hard to stay on track with putting money away for them, but we try to. My older son actually loves saving money, too, and when family members ask him what he wants for occasions like his birthday or for the holidays, he asks for money, and I take him to the bank so he can understand the entire process.
Marci: When each of our boys was born, my mom opened up a small savings fund for him. But since we have no doubt our boys will end up at an Ivy League university (oh, don’t worry, yours will, too!), we need to start saving more aggressively now. We have been adding a portion of their birthday loot to the plan and this year (as my oldest enters Grade 7), we will map out a financial path. Ideally, they’ll contribute to their post-secondary education by working part-time, but I expect that my husband and I will carry most of the financial costs. We are more than happy to do it but I’d rather not take on debt to get them through university. After all, our plan is to have them supporting our retirement one day. That’s how it works, right? Right?
A great way to save for your child's post-secondary education is with a registered education savings plan (RESP), which combines tax advantages with free money from the government. This RESP calculator can help you estimate how much you'll need to save.