According to a 2007 Retail Council of Canada story, Canadians spend an average of $123 on supplies for classroom use. (Danny Johnston/Associated Press)
Bypassing big-ticket gadgets for basics
Last Updated August 21, 2007
Backpacks on wheels, children's cellphones, laptops for little ones — back-to-school shopping can be a challenging chore for parents who don't want to overspend while helping their little ones go to the head of the class.
Canadians spend an average of $353 on back-to-school items including clothes and books, according to a 2007 survey by the Retail Council of Canada.
Families surveyed said they planned to pick up new clothes, shoes, cellphones, digital cameras, MP3 players, locker gear, backpacks, calculators and computer equipment.
Men were more likely to create a larger budget averaging $360, while women said they planned to spend an average of $349 on their children.
Differentiating between what kids want and what will be useful can be a difficult task. Some marketers would have consumers believe the days of picking a protractor, a package of looseleaf paper and a box of pencil crayons are over, but teachers say that may not be the case. Bigger isn't necessarily better when it comes to back-to-school shopping, say some experts.
Matt Turner, who teaches Grades 7 and 8 at O.V. Jewitt Community School in Winnipeg, said that ultimately, students need only a positive attitude and the core basics.
"Let's be realistic," said Turner. "[Students need] pencils, paper, pens."
As simple as that sounds, Turner said many children fail to show up prepared with paper and pens.
"It can delay you anywhere from two to five minutes a day," he said. "It does waste time and it wastes the time of the kids that are ready to learn."
Parenting expert Ann Douglas said parents should use the ritual of back-to-school shopping to learn the differences between needing and wanting. Indulging children isn't always the right or healthy thing, she warned.
"Kids are feeling like they have to have it all at 13, and that's a very strange phenomenon," Douglas said.
The key to effective back-to-school shopping, Douglas said, is evaluating the need for the product. Parents should discuss how the product will be used, and ask if that stylish backpack is durable, if there's room in the classroom for a backpack on wheels, and if a fancy phone is needed if it's only going to be used for emergencies.
Buying big ticket items
The issue of giving children cellphones is a heated issue pitting safety against practicality. Most parents will assess need individually and consider if their children really need a cellphone. Parents should also determine who will pay the monthly phone fees.
"It's not just buying the thing for the first time; it's the ongoing carrying costs and the costs of mistakes like when you discover that those text messages at 10 or 15 cents a pop really add up — like maybe $20, $30, $50 a month, and suddenly you've not just lost your allowance, it's all your babysitting money, all your birthday money — kaboom," Douglas said.
Teachers note that bringing a cellphone to class can be a distraction and disruptive. Turner said he understands some parents give their children phones as a safety precaution, but said in some cases they've proved to be a distraction when students are caught text messaging each other or receiving calls in the middle of a lesson.
Consumers in Quebec and Alberta spend the most on back-to-school supplies, averaging $449 and $409, respectively. Shoppers in the Prairie provinces, at an average of $269, spend the lowest amount in the country. (Chantal Poirier/Canadian Press)
Another big-ticket item many parents will surely consider is the computer. Are there facilities at home or the local library? Should you upgrade to a newer version? Would a laptop be beneficial to bring to school? Again, parents should evaluate their children's needs. In the case of laptops, parents must ask if their children are responsible enough to take care of the computers. Even older students should consider whether it's safe to store something that valuable in their lockers.
"Having one becomes like an albatross; you have to babysit it at every moment at school so it doesn't get stolen," Douglas said. "As a laptop owner and an adult, I know what that feels like — you have to go to the bathroom with your laptop. It's like having a child."
University students should also consider if they are prone to e-mail and game distractions. In these cases, note taking may be a better alternative to laptops.
Stock up on supplies
In terms of basic supplies, Turner urged parents to account for items that will become misplaced and keep considerable stock of essential items such as pencils and notebooks on hand.
"You'd be surprised how fast in the middle years anyway they lose things," Turner said. "They could come prepared for the first week and then the next week they don't have a pen or a piece of paper."
Parents might also consider buying a year-round pass to a museum, an art gallery or a science centre to foster learning outside the classroom.
Overcoming peer pressure to get the newest gadget and gear can be a tough thing that children can overcome with a little parental guidance. Douglas urged parents to point out that the return to school, and life in a broader context, is not merely about buying new things.
"I would encourage parents not to feel guilty for not giving their kids the world on a platter," she said. "[Don't] be afraid to push back a bit and to set reasonable limits on spending because that's one of the best things you can do as a parent."
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