August 25, 2023

How to budget for back-to-school

By Sylvie Tremblay and Sun Life Staff

Bracing your budget for back-to-school shopping? Get help with these cost-saving tips.

With the first day of school just around the corner, a lot of parents are wondering: 

  • How much am I going to have to spend? 
  • And how can I afford it?

Back-to-school can be an expensive time of year. School supplies, clothing, electronics, activities - the costs can add up fast. And that’s not even considering the cost of college or university looming in the future! 

Can you save money while still making sure your kids have everything they need? 

Yes, you can! Here’s some back-to-school budget advice from three experienced parenting writers.

Meet the experts:

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

Loukia Zigoumis is the mother of two boys. She writes about shopping for the Yummy Mummy Club website.

Marci O’Connor is the mother of two boys. Based in Montreal, she writes for several publications on topics ranging from parenting to fitness to style.

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

Tamara: I set a budget for each child. I recommend making a list of ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants.’ Show your children the list. Tell them you will buy only the items on the list, and only within the budget limits. This can help your children feel proud of themselves knowing they’ve shopped wisely. 

I also shop at different stores to get the best price. For example: 

  • Some basic items tend to be better priced at places like dollar stores. This is often the case for things like pencil crayons, erasers, scissors, pens, and rulers. 
  • Items such as binders, duo-tangs, lined paper, and dividers seem to be more reasonably priced in big-box stores. 

Loukia: I like to challenge myself – and my boys – by making a budget for back-to-school shopping. And sticking to it. It can be a lot of fun! We make a list of things we need to buy and start comparison shopping. There are brands that I love. But the price of certain items does make a difference in my purchasing decisions.

Marci: Here are my two top tips: 

  • Buy sturdy knapsacks in solid colours. No more TV show characters that the kids get tired of after a couple of weeks. We bought our kids solid-coloured backpacks and they chose a few keychains or pins to personalize them. Those bags have each lasted three years so far.
  • Avoid buying individually packaged snacks. I buy in bulk and use reusable bags most of the time. The school appreciates the eco-friendly effort, and it saves us a few bucks!

What are the back-to-school essentials?

Tamara: If purchased right the first time, there are items that kids can use for multiple school years. Some good examples of this are backpacks and lunch bags. If you invest in a quality backpack, you won’t have to replace it midway through the year, or even next September. 

Loukia: Many people seem to think their children need an entirely new wardrobe for back-to-school. To me, this is not an absolute necessity. However, I do buy my boys new shoes. And I always buy personalized labels to label all their belongings, from pencil cases to umbrellas.

Marci: A high-quality backpack is not a frill. Did you know that cheap plastic knapsacks last only 43 days? This is a great example of getting what you pay for! 

How can you save for your children’s education? 

Tamara: Our financial plan involves saving $50 each week for our kids’ post-secondary education. The key is to establish a regular amount and stick to it. A little each week compounded over 18 years adds up. 

Just do the math: $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.

A great way to save for your child's post-secondary education is with a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP). This savings plan combines tax advantages with free money from the government.

Loukia: My children are both young. But the thought of them going to college or university one day is already on my mind. They each have their own bank account where we deposit money for them. That way, we know we'll have enough saved up for them. 

It's hard sometimes to stay on track with putting money away for our kids. My older son actually loves saving money too. Whenever anyone asks him what he’d like for his birthday or for the holidays, his answer is money. I then take him to the bank so he can understand the entire process.

Marci: My mom opened a small savings fund for each of our boys when they were born. We often add a portion of their birthday loot to the fund. And last year, we started mapping 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. I’d rather not take on debt to get them through university. 

Need help budgeting or saving?

An advisor can help you come up with a roadmap and budget. Then, they can work with you to create a savings strategy. Find an advisor today.

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