Raising children is expensive. Between food, clothing, increased household costs and childcare costs, a family in Canada can easily spend more than $10,000 a year on just one child. And that’s before factoring in increased transportation costs, health care, personal care, recreational activities and the expense that hits your bank account hard every August—back-to-school shopping and fees.
More expensive than the holidays
An Angus Reid poll conducted in 2017 found that Canadians expected to spend $883 per family on back-to-school supplies and fashion that year, or $325 more than they spent on holiday gifts the previous year.
Over half of the parents surveyed said that shopping in preparation for the first day of school put a strain on household finances, with nearly 40 per cent reporting that it took months for them to pay off the bill. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to avoid going into debt for your kids’ school supplies and activities.
Here are our top four tips for money-savvy back-to-school shopping—no scientific calculator needed.
1 – Make a realistic budget and stick to it
As everyone with school-age children knows, expenses can add up quickly when you’re not paying attention. The same Angus Reid poll found that more than one-third of parents didn’t realize how much they were spending until they looked at their credit card statement.
If you haven’t budgeted for back-to-school costs in the past, you need to start now. Sit down with your children and go through the list of school supplies and fees provided by their school ahead of the first day of class. Decide what’s a must-have and what’s optional, and add up all of the non-negotiable expenses.
Creating a back-to-school budget that makes sense for your household income will make you less likely to succumb to impulse shopping and overspending when you hit the malls and online shopping sites. You’ll also be giving your kids a real-life lesson in responsible spending.
Remember that school supplies are not the only expenses you will need to cover. In Alberta, the recently introduced Act to Reduce School Fees saves families money on certain transportation and school fees (including fees for textbooks, photocopying and printing), but school boards and schools can still charge fees for miscellaneous items like the following:
- Textbook deposits
- Locker rentals
- Student ID cards
- School agendas and yearbooks
- Lunchtime supervision in elementary schools
- Athletic activities and clubs
- Field trips
- Bus fees
2 – Follow the three Rs
Embracing the three Rs of the environment—reduce, reuse and recycle—during the back-to-school season is one of the easiest ways to reduce spending. Before school starts, take inventory of what your kids already have and can reuse and compare it to the school supply list provided by the school.
For example, you can currently find graphing calculators at Staples for anywhere from $50 to $200. Does your teen really need a new one for math homework and exams, or can they reuse the expensive graphing calculator you bought for their older sibling a few years ago? If the older calculator still performs all the necessary functions, let yourself off the hook for that expense.
Savvy parents also know that school supply lists often aren’t the last word on what kids will need for the entire school year. Your child’s teachers may update their lesson plans and teaching strategies after the list has been published. Other things may change. The bottom line is that you don’t need to buy everything on the list before classes start, especially if money is tight. Buy the essentials and hold off on buying the items you’re unsure about until classes begin.
3 – Be smart about where and when you shop
Another reason to buy only the essentials on your kids’ school supply list before September is that you can take advantage of sales that happen after the back-to-school rush is over.
Check those back-to-school flyers that show up in your mailbox in August and September, and keep checking in October. Watch out for sales online. Sometimes a vendor will have the same item priced lower on its website than in its stores. If the vendor offers free shipping on top of the discounted price, buy the item online.
A few years ago, Global News Edmonton took an average Grade 4 supply list from a local school and compared prices at the three biggest back-to-school shopping destinations—Staples, Walmart and Dollarama—in a quest to find the best deals. When all the number crunching was done, they found that the best prices were at Dollarama. The popular dollar store chain had eight of the least expensive items on the list, while Walmart and Staples both had five.
What about buying new clothes for your kids’ return to school? Retailers push back-to-school fashion in August the same way they push chocolate and flowers for Valentine’s Day. It’s not a necessary expense, but they create a false need to get consumers to spend. Be the smart parent who doesn’t buy into the hype. Instead, watch for sales on kids’ clothing throughout the year and tuck away whatever you buy until late August. Your kids will have new clothes for the start of school, and you’ll save money because you didn’t pay full price. If you’re worried about certain items being too small by the time back to school rolls around, buy them a size bigger at the end of the previous season.
4 – Be selective about after-school activities
A new school year also means an array of old and new extracurricular activities for your children to dive into. Between program and equipment fees, these activities can take a big bite out of your budget. And to make matters worse, most–if not all–of the registration fees are due in September. An Ipsos poll conducted in 2017 found that Canadian parents spent an average of $1,120 to enrol their children in extracurricular, community and sports activities during the previous school year, and nearly one in 10 parents shelled out more than $2,000.
According to the survey, the most popular and affordable activity for kids in Canada is swimming, with an average annual cost of just under $200. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most expensive of all after-school activities according to the survey is Canada’s favourite sport—on average, families spend $755 a year on hockey.
There are many benefits to signing up your kids for extracurricular activities. It can teach them discipline, help them make friends, improve their health and wellness, and develop their self-confidence. But beware of overbooking your children.
Research conducted by neurologists and psychologists has shown that pushing kids to be constantly learning and practicing has its drawbacks. Overscheduling children with structured activities doesn’t allow them to be bored and use their creativity. Whether they want to shoot baskets in the backyard, listen to music or work on a creative project, children should be encouraged to enjoy unstructured leisure time.
Prioritize the activities your children like best, and don’t feel guilty about forgoing the rest. You don’t have to sign them up for everything. Their brains need the downtime, and your bank account will appreciate the break too.
If you’re having trouble paying off the credit card debt you’ve incurred shopping for back-to-school supplies and more over the past few years, talk to a professional before it becomes overwhelming. With the right direction, you can get back on track and avoid bigger financial problems down the road.