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For most families, back to school signals a return to regularly scheduled programming and the comfortable rhythm of meal prep, weeknight activities and consistent bedtimes. But it also means back-to-school shopping, which can put a major dent in a household’s budget. This year especially, many Canadian families are dealing with a loss of income, so saving on school supplies is more important than ever. With this in mind, we’ve rounded up 10 smart back-to-school shopping tips to help you save money (or get more value out of the items you already have on hand!) to make this time of year easier on your wallet.

1Have a back-to-school shopping plan.

It’s tempting to want to get all of the shopping out of the way well in advance of the first day of school, but you run the risk of buying items your kids don’t really need. Kira Vermond, a financial journalist and author of The Secret Life of Money: A Kid’s Guide to Cash, says there’s value in waiting for the back-to-school supplies checklist from your child’s teacher. “Know what you need to buy before you hit the store,” says Vermond. “Study after study shows that when you have a plan, you’re going to spend a lot less money.”

In this time of social distancing, Vermond also suggests trying to get everything you need in one place. If you want to shop around, do all of your research online first. Kids love selecting their own backpacks, pencil cases and more, but then if you head to the store alone, you’ll be more likely to avoid impulse buys and stick to our smart back-to-school shopping tips.

2Stock up on everything to get free shipping.

If you prefer online shopping to avoid the store altogether, take inventory of your household needs and add those items to your cart with your back-to-school shopping to qualify for free shipping. And if you can’t meet the free shipping threshold, ask friends or family to combine orders to meet the required checkout value.

3Ask around before buying new.

If you have families in your social circle with children a little older than yours, check in to see if they have good quality hand-me-downs they’d be willing to share. Pants, shirts, gym clothing and coats are great items to get second-hand.

4Take a look at what you already own.

Sometimes all a piece of clothing needs is a quick wash or repair. And even technology can often be given an easy upgrade, rather than having to be fully replaced. “Lots of households have tablets but not a full computer, for example,” says Vermond. “Families can look at buying a computer keyboard that is compatible with the tablet to have another device option for kids to do schoolwork.”

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5Consider careful splurging in the name of longevity.

Sure, you may need to make a slightly bigger investment upfront, but the back-to-school savings can be worth it in the long run. One example of this is a sewing machine. It’s a higher one-time cost, but it will allow you to tailor and mend clothing for years. (For smaller repair jobs, a sewing kit will also do the trick.)

Vermond also suggests spending a few extra dollars for high-quality laundry detergent: “Using something that’s formulated to keep colours and fabrics in good shape will translate to more use out of those items. Plus, you can wash more than clothes. Some knapsacks and shoes can absolutely be thrown into the wash.”

6Buy a size too big.

When you’re purchasing new clothing, consider sizing up. “Shirts can be cuffed and pants can be hemmed,” says Vermond, “which means you can potentially get an extra season out of them.” The same applies to coats. Sleeves can be folded under and tacked, then let down the following year.

7Go with generic back-to-school supplies over name brands.

Many stores have in-house brands full of fantastic items without the price tag of the brand-name equivalent—and that’s true for everything from clothing and school supplies to grocery and pharmacy purchases.

8Save on school lunches.

Paying for lunch in the cafeteria every day, or even a couple of times a week, can add up big time. Instead, purchase high quality lunch bags that will keep food fresh until lunchtime. (Let the kids pick their own patterns and colours so you don’t get any resistance!) You can also buy shelf-stable items—things like granola bars, crackers, nuts and dried fruit—in bulk for added savings. 

“Another option is to consider fall planting,” says Vermond. Certain vegetables don’t take long to grow—lettuce, peas and beans, for example—and having your own small harvest will help to cut the grocery bill. Meal planning for lunches and dinners can also help you cut back on spending as you’re less likely to buy things you don’t need.

9Shop early for back-to-school must-haves.

Moms know the non-negotiable items. If your kiddo has outgrown their shoes, or there’s just no helping last year’s backpack, those things simply have to be replaced. For these purchases, shop early so you have choices that work within your back-to-school budget. 

10Sign up for newsletters and discount programs.

There are great back-to-school sales to be found in store newsletters and digital flyers, as well as discount programs for both students and teachers. These can come in very handy when looking to buy new cell phones, computer software, tablets, back-to-school phone plans and more. So keep an eye out whenever you can or have your kids do a scan while you’re making their breakfast.

Back-to-School Essentials

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