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Managing your money

August 01, 2019

How to budget for back-to-school

Bracing your budget for the impact of back-to-school shopping? These cost-saving tactics from a panel of experts can help make it a softer landing.

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 each child’s situation, many parents face on particular issue. What school supplies does my child need and can I afford them?

When you add up the cost of school supplies, clothing, electronics, and field trip fee and extra-curricular activities, September is an expensive time of year.

Expert advice for school budgeting

We asked three parenting writers to share their best back-to-school budget advice. They don’t always agree and not all tips work for everyone, but there are sure to be some helpful tips for you and your family.

Tamara McPherson is the mother of four girls and the creator of WonderMoms.ca, an online community and information resource for mothers.

Loukia Zigoumis is an Ottawa-based journalist and mother of two boys behind the award-winning  Loulou’s Views.

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.

How do you save money on back-to-school supplies?

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: 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 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 buy them solid-colour packs and they choose a few keychains or pins to personalize them. The bags last 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.

What back-to-school supplies might not be necessary? What should you never skimp on?

Tamara: There are so many possible answers to that first question, including a tablet, laptopor a whole new wardrobe. But truthfully, there are items that, if purchased right the first time, can be used 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.

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. 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.

When should you start thinking about saving for your child’s post-secondary education?

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. Start saving early, while you have time on your side. You can even consult a financial professional for direction and guidance. You don’t need to go it alone.

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. An RESP calculator can help you estimate how much you'll need to save.

Uncertain about where to start with saving and budgeting? An advisor can explain all your options and answer your questions.

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