Expert advice for back-to-school on a budget

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With the first day of school just around the corner, every parent has different concerns: How will Emily cope with the homework? Is Jacob going to have trouble fitting in at his new school? But regardless of their individual situations, nearly all parents face one particular issue: What’s all this going to cost and how can I afford it?

We asked a panel of three experienced parenting writers to share their best back-to-school budget advice. Tamara McPherson is the mother of four girls and the creator of www.wondermoms.ca, an online community and information resource. Loukia Zigoumis is a journalist and mother of two boys living in Ottawa. Marci O’Connor is a Montreal mother of two boys who writes and comments for several online publications.

What creative ways do you use to stay on budget for back-to-school shopping?

McPherson: It seems like every year we end up buying the same things over and over again. With four children in school, it can cost a small fortune to get all the items that schools ask each student to provide.

I don’t mind heading out to different stores if the deals are worth the trip. When it comes to basic items such as pencil crayons, erasers, pens, rulers, and the like, it doesn’t matter where you purchase them. They tend to be better priced at places like the local dollar stores.

Buying in bulk or in family packs can bring down the per-item cost somewhat. On the other hand, items such as binders, lined paper, and dividers seem to be more reasonably priced in the big-box stores or larger office supply outlets.

Zigoumis: That works for me, too. I like to challenge myself and my boys by making a budget for back-to-school shopping and sticking to it. We make a list of things we need to buy and start comparison shopping. Another great idea is to stock up on winter gear items early, since they can sometimes be cheaper off-season.

O’Connor: Buy sturdy knapsacks in boring, solid colours and they choose a few keychains or pins to personalize them. The bags have each lasted three years so far and we just update the embellishments occasionally.

School supplies are tricky. When a teacher requests a name brand, we comply (What happens to the ones buying the generic brand? Are they expelled?). The only time I go rogue is when they ask for paper folders. I buy plastic ones instead, so I can reuse them each year. We’ve been doing this for three years and have only had to replace a handful so far.

What’s the number-one thing kids don’t need when going back to school (but that everyone seems to think they do)? What should you never skimp on?

McPherson: There are so many possible answers to that first question, including an iPod or MP3 player or a whole new wardrobe. But truthfully, there are items that, if purchased right the first time, can be recycled and reused for more than one school year. Good examples of this are backpacks and lunch bags. If you invest in a good-quality, high-grade nylon backpack, you won’t have to replace it mid-way through the second semester, or even next September. Buying the cheapest one you can find doesn’t always make sense. Don’t skimp on backpacks or lunch bags.

Zigoumis: Most people seem to think their children need an entirely new wardrobe before the school year starts again. I’m all for buying my children some new clothes, especially for the first day of school but besides a few new pieces, we don’t have to go all-out for new clothes. I will always buy my boys new shoes right before the start of the school year, though — that’s a must-have on my back-to-school shopping list.

O’Connor: Did you know that cheap plastic knapsacks only last 43 days and then they will conveniently rip beyond repair 52 minutes before the mall closes? Yep, this is a statistic (I can find the study if you want). It is also a very good example of getting what you pay for. I imagined my son tucking a few little snacks in there and maybe the occasional birthday party invitation and gold star-studded paper from his teacher, telling me how cleverly he draws circles. What I did not expect was the amount of food I’d need to stuff in there to get him through the school day. Or that the school would require him to have more costume changes than Lady Gaga.

Is long-term saving for your child’s post-secondary education on your mind? How do you keep that on the radar when day-to-day costs are piling up?

McPherson: For many years we have been concerned about the kids’ post-secondary education. We had to devise a plan early on so as not to add that worry to the other stresses of parenting. We came up with the idea of saving $50 each week. It doesn’t have to be that much; the key is to establish a regular amount and stick to it. A little each week amortized over 18 years adds up. If you calculate it, $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. Start saving early, while you have time on your side.

Zigoumis: Both my children have their own bank accounts where we save money for them so that when the time comes to make that important life decision about where to attend post-secondary school, we know we’ll have enough saved up for them. It’s hard to stay on track with putting money away for them, but we try to. My older son actually loves saving money, too, and when family members ask him what he wants for occasions like his birthday or for the holidays, he asks for money, and I take him to the bank so he can understand the entire process.

O’Connor: When each of our boys was born, my mom opened up a small savings fund for him. But as they grow we need to start saving more aggressively. We have been adding a portion of their birthday loot to the plan and this year, as my oldest enters Grade 7, we will map 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.

A great way to save for your child’s post-secondary education is with a registered education savings plan, which combines tax advantages with free money from the government.

Sponsored by Shannon Hood Financial Services Inc.

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