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Back-To-School On A Budget: 5 Tips For Saving On School Supplies

Pencils, scissors, and pens in cups

When you’re a child, there’s only one other time of year that comes close to the excitement of the holiday season: back-to-school. While many people associate back-to-school with sadness over the end summer, for most kids returning to class not only means getting to hang out with their friends, but it means they get to strut the halls with new clothes, new shoes and new school supplies.

While the amount of school supplies provided by each school varies, as a parent or guardian you can almost guarantee that there will be some sort of cost associated with the new school year. The amount spent will depend on necessity, grade level and resources available, however, according to a survey by Statista the average Canadian parent plans to spend $480 on school shopping (not including parents of post-secondary students). 

If money is already tight or you forgot to budget for the return of classes, back-to-school expenses can add up and potentially add to the already high amount of credit card debt that you carry. While some expenses will be unavoidable, we’ve compiled a few tips to help you tackle back-to-school on a budget.


You don’t need to head to your local office supply store as soon as back-to-school promotions hit, but it’s a good idea to start planning for your shopping trips in advance. As soon as you can, get a copy of the required supplies for your child’s class. Take note of everything that’s needed and then think about any additional purchases like clothing, sneakers or backpacks that might need to be made.

Next, you want to take a look at your current budget and savings to figure out how much you can spend on back-to-school items. Once you have a number in mind of what you can afford, make yourself a budget and stick to it. Even if you have planned or can afford the added expense, it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy. Creating a budget regardless of your financial situation is a great way to avoid overspending during this expensive time of year.


After you’ve made your budget and have noted what’s needed for the new school year, take a look at what supplies are left over from last year. Typically we buy more than we need, especially when it comes to things like loose-leaf, pens and pencils. If you have some leftover from last year, don’t be wasteful and take into account the amount you have already before going shopping. Other supplies, such as pencil cases, pencil sharpeners, markers, backpacks and zipper binders tend to last more than one year. Before going to buy new versions of these items, see if any of last years are still in useable condition.

When it comes to new back-to-school outfits, go through your children’s closets before heading to the mall. Have they grown and now need a new size, or will their clothes from last year fit? Are their gym shoes still in good condition? How much of each basic item like jeans, plain t-shirts, socks and sweaters do they already own? Clothing tends to be the largest back-to-school expense, so having a good idea of what’s already in your child’s closest will allow you to plan out what they actually need for the school year and will deter you from over purchasing.


While signing up for promotional emails from stores can be somewhat annoying, they can be beneficial during busy shopping times like back-to-school. If you don’t receive flyers at your home and prefer to shop online, subscribing to store email lists will help keep you up-to-date on sales and discounts on school supplies, clothing and more. Stores like Staples and Walmart tend to offer “weekly deals” on specific school supply items and you can likely guarantee that most stores will be having deals on for Labour Day Weekend. Keeping an ear to the ground, or an eye on your emails can help you save big.

Sometimes, stores even offer special discount deals to their subscription members which can be a large savings depending on your purchase. If you’re a frequent online shopper, also check out sites like Ebates or RetailMeNot. While Ebates provides cashback on purchases from hundreds of stores, both sites list all promo codes and sales that are happening at an online store at any given time.


If you prefer buying in-store, try going cash-only when shopping for back-to-school. If you’ve budgeted to spend only $80 on school supplies, take that amount out at an ATM and leave your credit cards at home. Having this added restriction will make you think about your purchases and help you choose practicality over what might be trendy or cute. Whatever cash is left over, if any, can be used towards upgrading an item, purchasing something else or you can save it for another time.

While there is nothing wrong with using credit to purchase these items, you must have a plan in place to pay it off and are not only adding to an already large amount of debt. Credit cards have high-interest rates, and the longer you wait to pay off your balance, the more you’re going to end up paying for your purchases.


When shopping with your child, it is easy for them to gravitate towards the flashiest and most exciting looking thing in the store. Many school supply companies partner with television shows, video games, celebrities and even fashion brands to create trendy versions of binders, notebooks and backpacks. While these are often cute, they come at a higher price and aren’t always practical.

To avoid spending extra bucks on branded school supplies, try personalizing basic school supplies instead. Using stickers, pins, patches and funky tape, kids can easily add personality and flair to their school supplies. From buying more basic or hardy items that can be used year after year, you’ll save in the long run and will be able to afford to buy fun and removable accessories. It’s also a great activity for a rainy summer day and allows your kids to unleash their creativity.

Even though there are still a few weeks left of summer, the first day of school will come quicker than you think. While everyone’s back-to-school list will be different, it’s important to avoid last-minute shopping by planning ahead so you can work around your budget and not settle for more expensive school supplies. If you’re having trouble finding the money for school supplies this year, reach out to a local community centre or food bank. Many host school supplies drives that help to donate essential items to children whose families are struggling to afford them.

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