How to send your kids back to school without going broke

Preparing your kids to go back to school doesn't have to be outrageously expensive. Use these tips to shop wisely without sacrificing anything you need.

Author: Sarita Harbour

If you're getting ready to send your kids back to school, you know how quickly school shopping can put a dent in your wallet. You're not alone. In fact, some reports say that back-to-school season is the second most expensive time of year for parents, behind only Christmas.

Between clothes, supplies, and other gear, it can be tough to reach the start of the school year without feeling totally cleaned out. Here are some tips to help you stay on budget when your kids return to the classroom.

What school supplies should you buy?

Don't treat your school supplies list like a shopping list. Instead, think about what's worth buying and what's worth holding off on.

Know what gets the most wear and tear

When you're trying to decide whether to buy a more or less expensive version of a school item, consider how much wear and tear it will get. Your child will probably use their backpack and lunch container five days a week, and they're likely to wear a sturdy pair of shoes or boots even more often. Paying a bit more for a better knapsack or lunchbox today could mean you'll have less to replace as time goes on.

Avoid unnecessary school purchases

Does your fourth grader really need a laptop? Everyone wants to be prepared for the first day of school, but err on the side of simplicity. Instead of going overboard now, check the school's website for a supply list, wait until school starts, or ask parents whose kids have already gone through the same classes. Many teachers will send home a class supply list during the first week of school — that's the time to check to see if that laptop is really required.

Buy refurbished items

If your child's schoolwork does require a laptop, look into purchasing a refurbished (and discounted!) model from a retailer you recognize and trust. Other expensive items, like high-powered calculators and sporting equipment, are readily available secondhand as well. Check out local thrift stores to find affordable clothing.

Where should you buy your school supplies?

Doing all your back-to-school shopping at one store might save you time, but it probably won't save you money. It pays to know where to buy the items that make it onto your must-have list.

Stop and check your closet

Before investing in a costly new backpack, binder, or sports gear, see what you can unearth from your closet or your child's bedroom. If the items you bought last year are still in good shape — as many probably are — you won't need to spend money on new ones.

Shop the warehouse and dollar stores

The good news about school supplies is that most of them are not big-ticket items. The bad news is that you're generally responsible for buying a lot of them. Pencils, pens, lined paper, markers — if you know where to look, you can save big on these small but necessary items. Head to a wholesale store like Costco or a local dollar store to save on the little stuff that adds up to a lot.

Look online for school supply and clothing deals

Then there's online shopping. This option could save you time and money, especially if there's a sale or you get free shipping. Almost 70% of Canadian parents say they'll do at least some of their shopping for school items online. Start by checking prices at popular online retailers such as Amazon and Chapters/Indigo.

Look for local Facebook groups selling gently used children's clothing and check your local online classifieds such as Kijiji or Craigslist for more expensive items like winter coats, boots, and athletic equipment.

How should you buy your supplies?

All savvy shoppers know there are ways to stretch a dollar. This holds true for school shopping, too.

Redeem your rewards for back-to-school buys

Look into how you can use your credit card points or rewards card to make expensive back-to-school purchases. For pricy electronics, look to see whether your credit card's purchase protection or extended warranty insurance is a better bet than what you can buy through the store.

Ask for a price match

If you prefer to shop at a traditional retailer you already know like Walmart, Best Buy, or Staples, take note of their competitor match programs. They might match the lowest prices at a competing seller if you can show them the online or print flyer.

Mark your calendars for local and nation-wide back-to-school sales

Most children across Canada will return to school during the first week of September. However, check with your local school board to confirm. Local retailers tend to time their school supplies and clothing sales accordingly. Watch out for annual back-to-school sale events for clothes and school supplies starting in mid-July across Canada. This is when retailers start advertising their back-to-school sale items.