The best back-to-school shopping tips for saving money

Daneille Mattis

For Canadian parents who have experienced sporadic school closures or had to keep kids home during the pandemic, the past year has been a balancing act between keeping our employers happy, our kids occupied, and our sanity intact. And while we’re all optimistic about embracing a new kind of normal when fall arrives, there’s still the familiar financial stress of back-to-school shopping to deal with this summer. 

A 2020 survey by the Retail Council of Canada found that Canadians who are back-to-school shopping anticipated spending $727 on average, including $162 on school supplies and $159 on electronics. That’s serious money if you’re on a tight budget

To help you save money on back-to-school shopping—and to make sure you get the essentials you really need without breaking the bank—here are some of our best tips for making the most of your back-to-school budget this fall.


Start with a list

With a deadline looming and the flyers promising endless deals, it’s easy to get carried away and overshop. To stay within your budget, make a list and stick to it

To start, take inventory of what supplies and clothing items the kids already have; there might be lots of almost-new items that never got used during virtual school, or supplies that can be passed on to younger siblings or relatives. Then make a list of must-have and nice-to-have items for each child, taking into account your monthly budget.  


Time the sales

Big-box stores compete ferociously for your back-to-school dollars, so take advantage of their price wars for some big savings. Compare your shopping list against the weekly flyers, and place your order when big-ticket items like electronics get marked down. Keep in mind, too, that some clothing and department stores will offer a one-time price adjustment if you buy something that is marked down shortly after.

Finally, some retailers also offer student discounts, and many will do price matching upon request, so you don’t always need to run around town in order to take advantage of the best deals on what you need. 


Skip the dollar store

Your local dollar store is a great source for cheap goodie-bag candy and low-budget wrapping paper, but it’s probably not your best bet for school supplies. 

There aren’t normally any seasonal sales or promotions, and often the product quality won’t compete with name-brand items found elsewhere—it’s not worth the additional savings if the supplies don’t last as long, or if they’re more likely to stop working or break during use.


Shop refurbished and open-box

For preteens and teenagers, back-to-school wish lists can often include pricey electronics and tech accessories. If you decide to get them that new smartphone or those wireless earbuds, do some research to see if refurbished or open-box options are available for sale—many are online returns that have never been used. You can save hundreds of dollars compared to buying new, and the devices will often come with a manufacturer’s warranty for one year or more. 


Splurge where it counts

Kids can be notoriously rough on items like backpacks and shoes, so it makes sense to spend a little more on those categories. In the long run, it’s better to spend more on a durable backpack that comes with a warranty than to buy a flimsy bag that will need to be replaced halfway through the school year.

Well-made, high-quality clothing and supplies can also be passed on to siblings and friends, or even sold to a consignment shop or online to another parent if they’re still in good condition at year-end. 


Play “wait and see”

If marketers had their way, you’d send your kids back to school with enough supplies and gear to last a lifetime. But you can save time and money, especially with younger kids, by waiting to see what their school and teachers—not big brands and retailers—tell them they need for the year.

The “wait and see” approach can also pay off when it comes to back-to-school clothes shopping. You won’t have to worry about last-minute growth spurts for children, and teens may want to see what fashions classmates are wearing before spending their clothing budget.


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