October 7, 2022

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The end of summer is a tricky time of year financially for Toronto parent Monica Belyea. That is when she faces the double whammy of back-to-school shopping for her kids coupled with imminent up front school-related costs — opting into the pizza lunch program her son enjoys, for instance. 

This year, things are harder than normal. She’s finding her weekly food budget “does not take me to the end of the week anymore,” and after months of paying higher prices for things like gas, “I just don’t have as much money to go around,” said the single mom of two.

For Belyea, back-to-school shopping this time around means “just looking at what is feasible within this new world of things being more expensive.”

She’s not alone; many parents across Canada are concerned about how to navigate their kids’ back-to-school needs this time around. Though Statistics Canada reported the country’s inflation rate saw its first decrease in a year this week, many prices — including for groceries — are still rising. 

CBC News talked to personal finance specialists and a deal-finding expert for tips on cutting costs during back-to-school season.

Set budgets; shop your home

Toronto-based money expert Melissa Leong has heard from others about higher prices and “shrinkflation” — when companies reduce packaging or product sizes but keep the same price — and noticed it herself while shopping.

“There are fewer pencils in the box, but they cost the same amount of money as they usually did,” she said. 

The author of personal finance guide Happy Go Money: Spend Smart, Save Right and Enjoy Life, said families need to be “extra, extra organized” when back-to-school shopping this year, since multiple factors are “putting a strain on all Canadians’ wallets.”

“My friends have been talking a lot about being worried about lunches — and making proper, healthy lunches for their kids, since their grocery bills are ballooning.”

WATCH | Melissa Leong’s financial tips for saving on back-to-school shopping:

Tips for saving on back-to-school

Money expert Melissa Leong shares a host of strategies and tips for cutting costs when back-to-school shopping.

Cost-cutting strategies that you can try, she said, include “shopping at home” to see what supplies you already have, carefully comparing prices between stores, waiting to buy certain items when deals are more abundant, and using coupon-code apps when online shopping.

If your family has an extremely strained budget, Leong noted that some community programs and agencies provide free backpacks and school supplies, so you could try reaching out to groups in your neighbourhood for more info. 

Combine sales, coupons, store offers

Pat Hollett is seeing lots of new names and faces in Canadian Savings Group, the volunteer-run website and social media initiative she founded, where she and fellow deal-seeking experts share grocery specials and coupons. About 6,000 people have joined in the past two months alone, pushing the group’s Facebook follower count past 100,000. 

“Everything has gone up in price and Canadians are struggling to make ends meet — that’s what I hear every day,” said Hollett, who is based in Barrie, Ont., and serves as the group’s CEO. 

“There are only so many things that you can control — you can’t control the gas prices, you can’t control the housing market — but you can control how much you pay for grocery bills. So our mission is to help Canadians save money on their grocery costs.” 

Like Leong, Hollett recommends starting simply. 

“Don’t don’t grab the first thing you see. Shop around and pay the lowest price you can for the same item,” she said. “Price match where you can … Try other brands, if they’re cheaper.”

Overhead signage noting school supplies is seen above boxes containing binders, duotangs and other items.
When shopping for back-to-school items, comparison shop and price match. Coupons, point cards, and sales can help reduce costs. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Her next-level strategy, however, is to employ multiple techniques at once: using coupons, cash-back offers and apps, and tapping points-card deals to reduce prices as much as possible.

Here’s how it could work: say a store has your child’s favourite cereal on sale for $4.77 this week. There might also be a manufacturer’s coupon (printable from a website or a hard copy found inside a physical store) that offers additional savings per box. 

On top of the sale and the coupon, a particular grocer might also have a deal for points cardholders who buy five boxes of cereal. Layering these three discount techniques could amount to, for instance, paying just 77 cents per box, explained Hollett.

She outlined how shopping this way can save families up to several hundred dollars a month and could be applied this very week, for instance, on items like kids’ lunch kits in Atlantic Canada, a popular brand of cheese crackers in Quebec and a six-pack of facial tissues boxes in Ontario.

It may require a shift in mentality and habit for some, as well as additional time commitments, but “it’s all about how much work you put in,” Hollett said. “Saving money for families is really difficult, so every dollar you save will help you buy other things.”

Seek deals. Teach kids to budget.

The questions Enoch Omololu has been receiving from readers of his personal finance website reflect the growing economic pressures Canadians are grappling with, whether it’s queries about halting auto-payments, to savings vehicles, to people asking about tapping into RESPs to cover their children’s expenses (the answer to that last question, he pointed out, is you cannot). 

“Disposable income has been stretched to the limits, physically, and people are finding it difficult to pay for things that they would normally just brush off and pay for without thinking about,” said the Winnipeg-based founder of SavvyNewCanadians.com. 

Shoppers strolling in a mall turn to look into a shoe store displaying red sale signs.
It’s not uncommon for kids to need multiple pairs of shoes. Talking to his children about budgeting, saving money, and choice is one of money expert Enoch Omololu’s tactics. ‘It’s getting them involved in the process and making them realize that funds are not — money is not — an unlimited resource.’ (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Among the cost-cutting tips he’s using with his own family this season: 

  • Comparison shopping for major purchases, such as electronics, coupled with finding manufacturer’s discounts.

  • Shopping major sales (kids’ retailers have up to 75 per cent off on summer clothes, he says, which could be layered for fall or purchased for next year). 

  • Seeking gently used items from thrift stores. 

  • Weighing which items to spend more on, and opting for generic or discount versions for others.

Omololu also advises involving kids in some financial conversations and decision-making. 

WATCH | How Enoch Omololu turns back-to-school shopping into a lesson on budgets:

Teaching kids to budget for back-to-school

Enoch Omololu, founder of personal finance website Savvy New Canadians, shares a back-to-school shopping strategy he’s using this year: teaching his eight-year-old about choice and budgets.

His eight-year-old, for instance, needs three pairs of shoes this fall: an indoor pair for school, another for after-school care and a third for wearing outside generally. 

As a lesson, Omololu made a deal with his son: the youngster can choose a new, name-brand pair (for which Omololu will find the lowest price possible). The remaining two pairs will be ones his mom and dad choose — perhaps new, perhaps from a thrift store. If he destroys the fancy sneakers kicking rocks, the replacements will also be an affordable pair of his parents’ choosing.

“It’s getting them involved in the process and making them realize that funds are not — money is not — an unlimited resource for [their] parents,” Omololu said.

A pre-school aged boy in a colourful shirt holds up pencil crayons he's using on a Spider-Man colouring page.
Lots of items are be perfectly fine for another school year, noted Winnipeg dad Bamidele Sanusi, like reusable water bottles, lunch bags, backpacks and the pencil crayons his pre-schooler Elliott enjoys colouring with. (Travis Goldby/CBC)

For some parents, how to afford back-to-school items was a concern even before school ended. Reusing pencil crayons, water bottles, lunch bags and other supplies for another school term, carefully weighing new versus thrift store purchases, and talking to his kids about cutting costs are the tactics Winnipeg parent Bamidele Sanusi is employing this year.

With his wife currently on maternity leave with their youngest, the father of three says saving for back-to-school and trimming down discretionary spending is important “to be able to manage the recurring costs, which is rent, for gas, for phone bills and the rest. It’s a time to be judicious in spending.”

WATCH | Rising prices have made back-to-school shopping challenging for many:

Back-to-school costs concern parents amid inflation

The rising cost of living is leading some parents to change their spending habits around back-to-school shopping ahead of the upcoming school year.

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