Seven ways to save money on back-to-school expenses

Guess what? It’s already mid-January and it’s almost time for kids to go back to school. That’s assuming they will actually be able to go back to school soon; given COVID uncertainty, the start date is unclear for many. But when they do go back, they will need school supplies.

Unlike in the northern hemisphere, in Australia everything happens around December/January: Christmas, New Year’s Eve, summer holidays, shut down – then the new school year. Some people may budget for Christmas, but few budget for back-to-school. And while Santa may wish to splurge on fun Christmas presents, he doesn’t hang around to gift magic largess for kids as they go back to school.

While some school expenses are unavoidable, you can save. Here are seven of my tips to save on going back to school:

  1. Get in early. Many of us have experienced empty supermarket shelves caused due to supply chain issues plus panic buying. The same is true of certain back to school products. If you kids need school uniforms in a particular style or colour (e.g. navy shorts or trousers), don’t wait until the day before you go back to school to find them; they will probably be all gone and there is no guarantee a new shipment from overseas would come quickly. We snaffled some navy shorts for my eldest son in early January. He starts high school this year and needed new items as his new school has differnet coloured shorts and trousers to his primary school. The best part: buy buying early, we got items that were on sale at 33% off. And also, they had stock in his size. Yah and yah for getting in early.
  2. Order online. Rather than trouping around a shopping centre during COVID , order online and then either select the delivery option or click and collect. An advantage to this is that if the preferred colour or size of an item is not available in store, they will find it from another store and send it to you. If all the local schools in your area have navy as their school uniform colour, they might go out quickly. But in anohter area, they might instead have green with lots of untouched navy stock. If you order online, they will find those navy items in the right size and send it to you. (I once had school clothing sent from Perth to Canberra to fulfill an order). Another advantage is that you can utilize cash back products such as Cashrewards.
  3. Investigate DIY book packs. Most schools will have a list of stationary or text book requirements, which is often referred to as a book pack. Often, schools will have a preferred online supplier so all you have to do is signup and pay by a certain date and the pack will go straight to the school. This is super quick and easy – and will only take 5 to 10 minutes (once you find the form hidden at the bottom of a school bag or in your email spam folder – and assuming you remember to order before the cutoff date). And ordering what the school wants ensures that your kids don’t end up feeling like the poor kid who has different exercise books and folders to everyone else.

    But you can opt to DIY. A big advantage of DIY is that you can reuse things that your kids still have from the year before that are still functionable like pencils, rulers, scissors, maths sets, pencil cases and unused text books. Reusing these items makes sense from a sustainability and a savings point of view. You can take the school book pack list, work out what you already have, and then boost it with items found online or instore (while on sale). You can even add a few special bits like sparkly notepads or pencils. I did this one year and saved around $20 for two book packs.

    The big disadvantage is that it takes time and consideration. The return on effort isn’t huge, but the gains can be worth it if you have a large family and money is tight. For working parents, putting together a book pack from scratch can be another energy-draining chore at a time of year when work is also busy.

    In our household, this year, one child will have a book pack that I ordered in December (yah to me for remembering). While it was quick and easy, I was upset that I couldn’t de-select some items that he already has. The second child is starting high school and, other than art supplies, there isn’t an option for online book packs, so I will be doing the DIY option. We are going to select items together as a school holiday activity. (Something tells that that perhaps they won’t find this super fun, but here’s hoping).
  4. Embrace secondhand school uniforms. My kids have proudly worn second-hand school uniforms for years. I buy them from the school for $2 per item. I suspect I’m one of only a few parents who actually dresses their kids in second-hand clothing because when I’ve tried to give away (good quality) school uniforms in the past, there haven’t been any takers. As a parent, I want my kids to look clean and tidy when they go to school. But I also want them to feel that they can run around and play without worrying about getting their uniforms dirty. Think Maria in The Sound of Music making play clothing from curtains for the von Trapp kids; they had much more fun when they were wearing something they didn’t have to keep clean. If your school doens’t sell second-hand uniforms, start a Facebook group to swap and sell, or suggest a second-hand shop to as a school fundraiser. Or make friends with families who have kids who are older than yours and politely ask for their old uniforms. This isn’t just about savings but also (again) about sustainability.
  5. Reuse school bags. Unless it is broken, your kids do not need a new school bag just because it’s the start of a new year. Big tip: make sure your kids remove all of their stuff – including uneaten bananas and sandwiches – on their last day of school. Yep, we’ve discovered rotten bananas before and don’t want to do so again. Clean out their school bags at the end of term and make sure they are in a good condition for the next year.
  6. Say no to cute school lunch boxes. It’s the time of year when you get inundated with options for cute lunch boxes. Although I predominately work from home, I find myself longing for a new insulated lunch bag with cute designs on it. Like the lady bird one I say the other day (My surname is Bird, so obviously I need an insulated lunch box with lady birds on it even though my lunch is a few metres away in the fridge). If the lunch box from the year before is still working, don’t replace it just because you see something cute. But if you are in the market for a new lunch box, make sure you buy something sturdy with containers you will actually use. A gel cooling bag to keep food cool summer is also a great option.
  7. Educational supplies. Like most parents, I want my kids to do well at school. And it’s tempting to invest in lots of additional educatonal materials to help them ace NAPLAN or other tests. But your kids don’t need most of this stuff. They will just think of it as pressure and most of the material will go unused. A key exception is a times tables chart that is best hung somewhere visible – like where they can see it from their beds. But other than the chart, focus instead on the school curriculum. Help make learning fun to encourage your child to develop a life-love of learning, work with your teachers and take an interest in your child’s work. And if you model a respect for leaerning, your kids will develop this as well. For instance, if you like reading and reguarly go to the library, your kids are more likely to take an interest in reading rather than you forcing them to read.

This year is likely to be (another) bumpy back to school year for many. How is your family preparing for back to school?

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