How to Save Money When Back-to-School Shopping

Aug 20, 2012

I used to get off easy with my daughter's back-to-school shopping. She was perfectly content if we bought one or two new outfits, which we then supplemented with items from Value Village and hand-me-downs from her cousins. Then she turned 11, and discovered labels. Suddenly, she was clamouring for $60 Converse running shoes, $40 Aeropostale capris and $25 Gap T-shirts. Puberty had hit, and she wanted to blend in with her peers by donning a hip preteen uniform. My frugal sensibilities, however, balked at shelling out for these high-priced duds.I made a deal with herI'd buy a few of the brand-name items that I thought were necessities, but she'd have to ante up for anything else by dipping into her allowance or birthday money. When she realized how long it would take to save for these clothes, she hit on a brilliant idea. "Mom, can I get a paper route?"

It was music to my ears. Getting a part-time job would teach my daughter about the value of earning, saving and spending money. I could feel my wallet breathing a sigh of relief.

Economy impacting spending
Canadian households spend an average of $350 on back-to-school items each fall, according to the Retail Council of Canada. That figure might dip this year as consumers take a more cautious approach to spending because of the economy. With parents putting a tighter grip on their wallets, kids may be faced with one of two choices: make do with what they already have or save up their own money if they want to buy those cool running shoes or a funky backpack."I'm a believer in giving kids an allowance and letting them manage some of their spending themselves," says Amanda Mills, a certified financial planner who runs a Toronto consulting company called Loose Change, which helps clients better manage their money. "Parents who don't give their kids an allowance end up being on the dole system - they're always handing out cash. If you add up what you pay out on the dole system versus giving them an allowance, you'll see that an allowance is way cheaper. Plus, it helps teach your kid how to handle money.

"Don't expect your kids to spring for essentials like snowsuits, but if they really want the $50 brand-name jeans and you're willing to pay $25, perhaps you can split the difference.

Mills also advises parents to sit down with their kids and, together, make a realistic list of what's needed heading into the new school year. Don't assume your child needs to be outfitted with an all-new wardrobe. See what still fits from last year and set a goal to spend less than you did last season. Can you squeeze another year out of the backpack? If the binders are still perfectly usable, there's no need to buy a new set. Can your child live with a few second-hand pieces if you spring for the new shoes? "Involve your children in the decision making and let them know there are limits on what you are able to spend," says Mills.

Not only are you faced with the expense of new clothes and school supplies, but there are also all those ongoing incidentals that can add up to a significant sum over the course of a school year. (And then there's the nuisance value when they leave you scrambling for exact change moments before the school bus arrives!)

Add it up: the monthly milk program, pizza day, hot dog day, the bake sale fundraiser and school trips. And that's just the beginning. Most parents feel they have no option but to pay for these extras. But Mills takes another view: if your child has an allowance, they can decide which "treat" days they are prepared to pay for. Or perhaps you can pay for one treat day a month while your child springs for any others.

School trips can cost $5, $10 or more, and that additional cost can be an obligation you might come to resent, especially if you have more than one child in school. In that case, Mills suggests you voice your concerns at a parent/teacher meeting or speak to the teacher or principal. "The school is probably understanding given the economy, and would be prepared to alter its plans," says Mills. Also, ask your child's teacher in September what the anticipated expenses will be for school trips throughout the year and then budget accordingly.Eight ways to save handling the hand-outs

  1. Wait it out. There's no rule that says you have to do all your back-to-school shopping by September. Wait an extra month and you're likely to find plenty of items marked down.
  2. Set a budget. This is the most important step in the process. Share the budget limit with your kids.
  3. Take inventory. Check around the house for what you already have.
  4. Make a list (and stick to it). This will ensure you buy all the necessities and avoid impulse purchases.
  5. Leave room to grow. Look for clothes that are a little loose to ensure they'll still fit if your child has a growth spurt. Pick up an extra pair of shoes in a larger size if you find a great sale.
  6. Organize a swap meet. Get together with neighbours, friends and family who have young children and swap clothing.
  7. Check out garage sales, thrift stores and consignment shops. You can often find designer name brands for impossibly cheap prices.
  8. Keep track of what you spend. By tracking, you can start budgeting for next year so you won't feel overwhelmed by the back-to-school shopping splurge.

Originally published in ParentsCanada, September 2009

For more articles on parenting, visit our partner ParentsCanada magazine at

Add New Comment

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.