Get money-saving tips in your inbox.

Stay on top of personal finance tips from our money experts!

News & Resources

Cheap Back To School Supplies: Tips and Tricks

Aug. 20, 2012
5 mins
A daughter kisses her mother on the nose while she is doing the laundry

Whether you’re excited about the thought of finally getting your kids out of your hair and back in school, or feeling melancholy about the fact that your babies are growing up (like I am – my youngest daughter starts JK this year), all parents will agree that the cost of getting your kids ready to hit the books can be expensive. From big-ticket items like new clothes and school supplies to the daily cost of packing a lunch, it all adds up. In fact, the results of a Visa Canada survey show that in the month of August alone, families will spend an average of $677 on back to school shopping. Here are some ways you can help reduce that amount.

Shop Out Of Season – And Stock Up

I used to tease my wife for going to Boxing Week sales to stock up on wrapping paper. The following Christmas, when I realized how much that stuff costs at full price, I saw the wisdom in buying stuff after the peak. After all, it’s not like it’s going to go bad.

The same goes for school supplies. Once classes start, retailers steeply discount all the pens, paper, notebooks, and other essentials still on their shelves so they can make room for the next seasonal sale (Halloween, generally, but some seem to leap right from Back to School to Christmas displays…).

But before hitting the stores, Leslie Garrett, author of The Virtuous Consumer (and mom to three kids aged 9 to 14), assesses what’s salvageable from last year’s supplies. “Geometry sets, pencil crayons (which often just need sharpening), pencil cases, binders, et cetera can usually survive more than a year or two,” she points out.

We don’t get as many hand-me-downs from friends as we used to, so my wife also buys many of our kids' clothes and shoes at end-of-season sales. Provided they don’t have a major growth spurt, buying the next size up is a pretty safe way to save on clothes, particularly for younger kids who aren’t as focused on the latest fashion. Garrett offers up another option: “There are great clothes to be had at consignment stores. I’ve picked up jeans with the original tags still on them for a fraction of the retail price.”

Expert Tip: If you're likely to pull out the plastic to pay for your back-to-school costs, pick a credit card that minimizes the financial hit. A good cash back credit card (The MBNA Smart Cash MasterCard credit card is a fave here) will help you claw back dollars on your everyday expenses. The Smart Cash, for example, will pay you up to 5% cash back on your gas and grocery points for the first six months, with no annual fee.

Lighten Up Lunch Spending

Anyone who regularly tracks their spending – and everyone should – knows that eating out is expensive. But it’s also fun. It can be a losing battle to try to convince your tweens and teens of how fiscally responsible it is to eat a lovingly packed sandwich and veggie sticks when their friends are heading to the school cafeteria or food court at the mall. Rather than fight, perhaps you can propose a compromise: eat the meal Mom or Dad pack four days a week, and you’ll get lunch money for a Friday feast.

Even if you do get them to go along, you have to be careful about what you pack in those lunches you send. Spending three or four dollars on a pre-packaged snack pack consisting of a few crackers, some slices of meat and cheese, and a miniature chocolate bar is not only a waste of money, it’s an environmental nightmare of over-packaging.

Another area to save money (and the planet) is with drinks. “Water comes out of the tap for pennies,” says Garrett. “Invest in a stainless-steel water bottle rather than buy bottled (which, incidentally, is usually filtered tap water)” or juice boxes.

Lessons To Be Learned

One potential upside to the stress of back to school shopping? You can use the experience to help your kids do some basic math and budgeting. As Visa Canada’s Alex Collins points out, “With 36 per cent of parents and kids teaming up to do the shopping, it’s a great opportunity to start a dialogue with your kids about budgeting and spending. Involve them in creating a budget and track purchases together to start budget lessons before the school bell rings.”

Garrett agrees. “Our 14-year-old has been getting a back-to-school budget ($150) since she was 12. She’s become good at discerning which stuff is so cheap it won’t last, which is cheap but nonetheless good quality (sale racks!), and what she’s willing to splurge on (and therefore make do with some of her old clothes).”

Allan Britnell

Toronto-based freelancer Allan Britnell is an award-winning writer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He covers a diverse range of topics, including DIY and professional home renovation projects, nature and the environment, small business, personal finance, and family and health issues. He is also the managing editor of Renovation Contractor, the publication written for small- and medium-sized contracting and custom home building companies. He lives in Toronto with his wife, two daughters, and their dog, Oscar.

Latest life insurance articles

10 Life insurance myths debunked
Life insurance is for someone older or has kids, right? Wrong. Let’s debunk life insurance myths and learn why everyone needs some form of coverage.
6 mins read
Do you need life insurance? A primer for Canadians
Life insurance isn’t a one-size-fits all solution. But if you have dependents, it can be an important financial safety net for those you love.
7 mins read
Why life insurance should be part of estate planning for new parents
Life insurance is one of the best ways new parents can protect their family and help loved ones in the event of your unexpected death.
5 mins read

Subscribe to our newsletter

Stay on top of our latest offers, relevant news and tips!

Thanks for joining!

You'll be hearing from us shortly - stay tuned.