Carla Miotto-Benedict, a mother of two teenagers and an eight-year-old in Hamilton, Ont, has been through the back-to-school drill many times. She understands the pressures that come with outfitting kids for school and knows that peer pressure is real.
“My friend has this, my friend has that,” is often the preamble she hears from her girls before discussing what is going to be bought for school. With kids closely following fashion and wanting to be seen wearing the latest trend, parents need to devise strategies about how they’ll balance their children’s desires for nice things with their financial reality.
A good shelf life for the item at hand is one of the deciding factors as to whether or not her children will receive the item they’re requesting. “It’s got to be something that’s going to last awhile,” says Carla. “It can’t be something that’s going to be out of style in a week or a month.” Although her children wear school uniforms, there are “dress-down” days where they get to exercise their own personal styles. For these times, Carla has had to be savvy about how she allocates her back-to-school funds. Working within a tight budget, she has mastered the art of getting the most bang for her buck.
She says that a parent’s best chance of maximizing their family dollar is by looking ahead. Keep an eye out for bargains and sales year-round, not just during the weeks around school’s start.
“Keep an open mind,” she says. “Off-season shopping is a great money-saver. If you know your child’s size, pick it up on clearance. If it’s too big at the time of purchase, keep it until your child grows into it.”
Another tip is to mix and match, buying at retail stores for some things, thrift shops for others. “You can get some great items at Value Village or consignment stores,” says Carla. She also loves to visit dollar stores with her kids throughout the year to buy school supplies, as well as teacher’s gifts.
“Go to Dollarama and get a plain binder, and then decorate it with stickers,” she says. “Now you’ve got your own one-of-a-kind binder”—customized and inexpensive, to boot.
Janet Ries, founder and CEO of The Money Counsellor, knows how the pressure to spend hits an all-time high in the weeks preceding the first day of school. Janet is a mother of two —Jacey and Kayla. When she was an outreach worker working with the homeless, she took her children with her to help at food banks and other events supporting the homeless. As a result, they have an appreciation and gratitude for what they are given. Though she focuses on “building them up on the inside,” they aren’t immune to the external pressures of the season, so she has a plan of action for back-to-school shopping that she follows every year, starting in mid-August: “The first thing I do is to take inventory, going through what the kids already have, what fits, sorting what they will wear and what they won’t,” she says. To stay focused, she puts items into three groups: clothes, shoes and school supplies. This also allows her to take stock of what is really needed, and what can wait.
One key question is, “What do we have already that we can utilize to start filling in the blanks?” Sometimes, once sorting is done, it becomes apparent that a large shop is not needed.
“Often there will be school supplies left over from the previous year, so I split them up between the girls. We use what we have.” In addition, she’s sometimes given items of gently used clothing from friends and family. The hand-me-downs arrive less frequently at this age but they used to be sorted by bins according to age and season, says Janet.
Janet and her girls are also big fans of second-hand stores, and they often trek to the nearest thrift shop to buy some of their school clothing. “It’s a great way to get unique items while keeping costs down.”
Lifestyle expert Vicky Sanderson is the mother of two grown children. By the end of their kids’ back-to-school years, she had the process down to an art form. “One of the biggest challenges was that so much back-to-school shopping was expected to be done before we actually went back to school,” she says. “The fact is, you don’t really know beyond a few basics what’s needed until your child is back in the classroom, because every year and every teacher is different.”
Her solution? “If you know in June who your child’s teacher is going to be in September, you can pay them a quick visit and ask if there are things he or she particularly wants the kids to have, and if so, you can keep your eye out for sales during the summer.” This makes for a more focused back-to-school shopping experience, saving you time and money.
But there’s no need to spend all summer planning, says Vicky. “Planning ahead can help save money and alleviate stress to some degree, but I never liked to start too early because I wanted the kids to have a carefree summer experience for as long as possible.”
When planning did happen, however, Vicky involved her kids. “Closer to the end of summer, I got the kids to make a list of things they think they will need. This gives them a sense of control and participation, but it also gives you time to look around the house to see how many of those items you may already have,” she says. “It also helps you manage the child’s expectations before you go on the shopping trip, so that there’s no meltdown in aisle five when your child realizes that he or she is not going to get that 1,000 pencil set, glow-in-the-dark binder or musical pen.”
Finally, ending the whole back-to-school planning experience on a positive note did wonders for Vicky’s kids—and her own sanity.
“I always like to end a school shopping trip with a visit to their favourite place to get a snack. It ends the excursion on a high note, and it’s a chance to talk to your kids about the coming year. You can find out what they are excited about, what may be worrying them about a new grade and to find out what they want to accomplish that year. It may give you the ammo you need to ward off a problem before it starts.”
Tips from our parent experts
Mix and match at thrift stores
Most people like a bargain, and that includes your kids. If you have tweens or teens, this is even more the case. Take your kids to thrift shops and allow them to pick out a few items that can be added to the new clothes and shoes that you’re buying them for school. By doing so, they’ll appreciate the uniqueness of their fashionably retro or budget find as well as feel satisfied that they also scored some new clothes. Some dollar stores have also raised the bar in terms of the amount and quality of school supplies that are now available, making back-to-school shopping both inexpensive and fun.
Just because it’s almost time for school doesn’t mean that you have to rush out and get a whole new wardrobe, shoes and supplies for your kids. Like anything, there are ebbs and flows to the retail cycle, and knowing when certain items are discounted is key to your ability to save money. August and September are not necessarily the best times to stock up on your kids’ school items. Look for snow pants in the summer and swimsuits in the winter. You’ll save a whole lot of money and avoid the crowds that come with shopping in season.
Tap your community
If your child has grown out of last year’s jeans, it’s likely that your friend or neighbour’s kid has done the same. Start or join a Facebook group that is close to your neighbourhood or community and sell, swap, give and receive some of the items your child may need for school. On the same note, look to other online or social media channels where other parents are looking to buy and sell and get ready to make a deal!
Make a budget and stick to it
Know how much you’re going to spend before you go shopping. Impulse buying, pressure from kids and the ever-pervasive parental guilt all contribute to parents breaking the bank each back-to-school season. Assess your finances and have a finite line for spending that won’t be crossed. Let your kids in on the amount and give them the opportunity to share the responsibility of staying on budget.
Samantha Kemp-Jackson is a parenting writer, blogger, public speaker and frequent media spokesperson. Read more of her triumphs and trials of parenting on her blog, multiplemayhemmamma.com.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2016.