woman on laptop with kid beside her and school supplies on table
woman with brown hair and striped long-sleeve shirt wearing COVID-19 mask reaching for a notebook

With the fun (and frenzy!) of back-to-school shopping comes decisions about new bento lunch boxes, trendy sneakers, and nifty notebooks. While figuring out what your kids really need can be confusing,  the list of school supplies can add up quickly if you’re not careful.

And with the price of, well, everything on the rise these days, it’s more important than ever to make savvy shopping decisions that will maximize your budget.

Luckily, with some smart planning ­­and a few tips from a financial expert, you can get your kids everything they need for back to school (and probably a few fun frills, too!).

1Assess your needs before you start shopping.

“Start by sorting everything you have from last year and seeing what can be reused and recycled,” says Robin Taub, author of The Wisest Investment: Teaching Your Kids to be Responsible, Independent and Money-Smart for Life. Chances are that you already have a lot of the essentials your kids will need, whether it’s that a gently used backpack that still has some miles to go, a stockpile of pens or even reusable lunch containers.

Taub says to then use the list sent out by your school (or your own school supplies list) to eliminate the items you already have and only buy what you need.

2Stay in-the-know about upcoming deals.

You can find great back-to-school sales by signing up for store newsletters, digital flyers and rewards programs. With rising prices, it’s a good idea to start scanning for deals on big ticket items early in the summer, to be sure you get the best deal on the tablet, phone, headphones or laptop your student might need for the fall.

3Know when to go with name brands—and when not to.

“You can stretch your budget by purchasing no-name products when the quality is good,” says Taub. Think coloured pencils, paper, and lunch boxes.

Invest in name brands for items that get a lot of use, and need to last, like a backpack, for example. If your kids want a name brand because everyone else has one, and you don’t feel the value is there, then consider giving them the option to use their own money from their allowance, gifts, or a job, to buy it. “They will think longer and harder about spending their own money,” says Taub.

4Buy school supplies in bulk online.

While it’s wise to shop around for the best prices, it can also make sense to buy everything from one online retailer, since a larger order usually means free or reduced shipping costs. You can always divvy up a large order between kids, or even friends and family to save on the cost.

Plus, you can sometimes score a two-for-one discount on reems of printer paper or multi-packs of glue sticks, for example.

5Revisit the idea of refurbished.

Instead of defaulting to a brand-new device, shopping for refurbished items can help you save money on big ticket electronics. Best of all, this helps avoid sending a gadget to the landfill, which is good for the environment, too.

Check out Walmart’s trusted refurbished program for a wide selection of handpicked earphones, tablets, laptops and computers, cell phones and accessories.

6Batch cook to save on lunch prep.

Skip the prepackaged food––and the often-pricey cafeteria line. Instead, try cooking and baking with your kids to save time and money, says Taub.

“When preparing dinners, make extra and use the leftovers for school lunches,” says Taub. You can reheat spaghetti and pack it in a thermos, or use cold cooked chicken in wraps or sandwiches, for example.

When it comes to snacks, it’s much more economical to bake a double-batch of muffins on the weekend, freeze half, and then dole them out in lunchboxes as needed than to buy boxes of granola bars or little prepackaged bags of cookies. To master school lunches, all you need is a selection of reusable cutlery, containers in a variety of sizes and an insulated lunch box or bag.

7Scour the discount sections in the grocery aisles.

With a little know-how you can use marked-down meat, produce and bakery items to your advantage. If you’re flexible with menu planning, you can save several dollars on quick-sale items you can use to make delicious school night dinners and packed lunches. Think almost-off apples that can be used in muffins (try our Apple Oatmeal Muffins recipe!) near-date chicken you can whip into kid-friendly fajitas or a day old baguette that can be repurposed as croutons for a hearty salad.

8Know the return policy, especially on big ticket items.

“No refund or exchange-only policies are more common than you think,” warns Taub. Check the store’s rules and do your research before you buy, to ensure the item will meet your needs––and that you have the option to take it back if necessary. When it comes to pricey purchases, especially on electronics like computers or phones, opt for email receipts, which are often easier to keep track of than paper ones.

9Splurge when it makes sense to.

Buying pricier items that are of a higher quality, and made to last, will often be less expensive in the long run. Watch for sales on something like a well-made fall jacket, then buy it a size up, so that your kid can wear it for two years.

If it’s a neutral colour, or a style that a younger child will like, too, you can pack it away and pull it out again for their sibling. Sometimes items like well-fitting sneakers, or good quality water bottles, are also worth the investment, since they will get daily use.

10Consider second-hand options.

Warm coats, rainboots, backpacks and jeans are great items to pick up used, since they tend to stand the test of time. “Check places like Facebook Marketplace, Kijiji and your local community parent groups for listings,” suggests Taub. “Often people will be selling for cheap, or even be giving items away for free that could be of use to you.”

You can also source hand-me-down items from neighbours and friends with children in similar age groups, and if you’re lucky, even trade back and forth.

Similarly, you could sell some of your family’s gently used items and use the proceeds to beef up your back-to-school budget! “You may just help someone else with their shopping, too,” says Taub.

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