With Christmas over and bank accounts still reeling, back to school costs are the last thing we need as the 2023 school year draws nearer. Yet, starting (or returning) to school, comes at a price.
The question is:
“How can we keep back to school costs as low as possible whilst providing our children with everything they need?”
Between my kids, I have prepared for 26 back-to-school’s and it wasn’t all easy. I made lots of mistakes along the way that were both pricey and frustrating. But, as my youngest prepares for her final year, I have finally perfected it!
Whether your child is starting school for the first time, or is in primary or secondary school, here are some practical ideas to ensure your kids are prepared for school without pulling too hard at the purse strings.
KEEP DOWN THE COST OF SCHOOL UNIFORM
BUY SECOND HAND UNIFORM
School uniform is possibly the largest back to school cost.
Note to those with a child attending a private school: You might want to sit down before you see the price list.
Yet, since kids grow so damn fast there’s a good chance you can use hand-me-downs from your own family or get hold of second-hand items elsewhere. I got my girls used to wearing second-hand clothes nice and early so they never had quarms about it.
Your school uniform shop may have a second-hand section which is worth checking out. Our school has schools uniform exchange days which are brilliant. You can often find used school uniform on local community Facebook groups and in op shops located near the school.
Further reading: Where to buy cheap school uniform online in Australia.
GET THE SIZING RIGHT
This might sound like a really obvious point when purchasing school uniform, but there are a few factors to consider here which will save you money. You want the uniform to last as long as possible, right?
Having said that, school tops get so messy that if you get a year out of them you’re lucky. However, shorts, skirts and pants, tend to withstand the rigours of school life better. You may be lucky to get a couple of years out of them. I buy a couple of sizes too big and hem them up. You can let down the down the hems as they grow.
CHECK THE UNIFORM GUIDELINES BEFORE YOU BUY
Here is another expensive lesson I have learnt regarding back to school costs and am only too happy to share …
Make sure you are all over school uniform regulations, most specifically skirt lengths. The last thing you want is your teen girl outwitting you in the uniform shop with “all the girls have skirts this short” only to have them sent home with orders to buy another in a regulation length (been there, done that!).
CHECK OUT THE SALES (ONLINE)
As with all shopping, sales are the way to go. Once Christmas is over, back-to-school sales are EVERYWHERE.
It can be overwhelming, so start with an online browse to check-out the best back to school deals for you. Great starting points for cheap but reasonable quality school uniform are Kmart, Big W and Best & Less.
For more guidance in this area see this article: Find the best back to school deals in Australia 2023.
GET THE RIGHT SCHOOL BAG
If your child’s school doesn’t have a standard school bag, think carefully about what to purchase. Practicality and street-cred are a tricky balance here.
If you know people with children at the school, ask what their children use. Or even call the school and ask what size bag they need.
It is definitely worth spending a little more to get a bag which is sturdy and will last several years. And avoid favourite characters that may not remain favourites and render the bag useless too soon.
SAVE ON SHOES
School shoes range massively in price and quality.
A good pair of shoes will give your child’s feet the support they need which can prevent health issues like sore knees, back pain and flat feet. However, if you’re struggling with back to school costs, you can get away with a cheap pair for as little as $20 at Big W. We have found these to be comfortable but not hard-wearing, so good for a short-term solution.
Another couple of tips for buying school shoes …
As your child’s feet grow so fast, try to get shoes with several insoles that can be removed and give them more room in the shoe as their feet get bigger. We have found these will get us through a whole school year. And if the shoes have buckles encourage your child to use them when putting on and removing their shoes. Squeezing little feet in without undoing the buckles puts pressure on them, causing them to break.
BUY FOR THE SEASON ONLY
Spread the cost of buying school uniform by only getting what your child needs for the upcoming term. Jumpers, jackets and long pants can all wait until at least Term 2. Plus, you’ll be more likely to get the sizing right. The exception being if you find a nice second-hand item … in which case grab it while everyone else is thinking about summer clothes.
It goes without saying that if there are 1,000 kids at one school all of whom are wearing identical hats, if you don’t label it, you’ve lost it. Younger kids love the cute labels from Stuck On You and Bright Star Kids. And they are iron-on, yay. But a simple sharpie will suffice too.
HOW TO SAVE MONEY ON BACK TO SCHOOL STATIONERY
STATIONERY PACK MONEY SAVERS
If your school has a stationery pack system, act with care!
For years, I diligently purchased everything on the list. From headphones to USB’s, through to boxes of tissues, whiteboard markers and five glue sticks!? It took me years to see the light and realise they don’t use half this stuff. Use common sense instead.
And remember, if you they need something you didn’t buy, you can pop out and get it for them. You will save heaps when it comes to back to school costs.
KEEP A STASH
If you do decide to buy everything on the stationery list, don’t send it all into school straight-away. 24 pencils required on Day One, really? Only to find your little one needs another supply by mid-term two.
The same with exercise books. If, at the end of the school year, you take time to look through your children’s many carefully covered and labelled exercise books, you may find many are completely untouched or hardly-used. Instead, hold a few back. If they need them, they can use them. If not, use them for next year.
SHOP FROM YOUR STASH
Talking of keeping some stationery items at home, always check what you already have before purchasing for a new school year.
We have large box full of unused stationery items from previous years. It is the first point of call before reaching for my already-stressed credit card.
BUY GENERIC TO KEEP DOWN BACK TO SCHOOL COSTS
There is a big price difference between brand name and generic stationery. And this adds up when you are buying a lot. Swap requests for Faber Castell and Crayola to generic brands from larger stores or dollar shops.
And if you feel bad doing it, remember that you child will have way too many other things going on at school to worry about whether their biros are Bic or Big W.
SCHOOL BOOK COVERS
I have teens and it makes me feel very old when I think back to the days when wrapping paper and contact was the only option for covering exercise books. Although it did take hours and involved a few choice swear words, it was way cheaper than the oh-so-easy book covers of our modern day. If you can bring yourself to DIY the covers, it will save you money.
However, if you succumb to book covers, make sure you get a few years out of them.
EXERCISE BOOKS FOR OLDER KIDS
As my children have got older they have requested one large exercise book with sections, rather than the 20 odd separate exercise books they have previously used. I’ve obliged, they are happy and no complaints from the school. It might be something for you to consider, or to allow if your child requests it also.
FORGET KIKKI K
Look, I love a bit of Kikki K, but it’s just not right for school. It’s too smart, too expensive and completely unnecessary. Kids don’t need designer stationery for school. And if one starts, everyone wants it, so please don’t be that mum who kick-starts the obsession!
Instead, offer for your child to choose a pencil case of their choice (as long as it’s the right size) to add their own individuality to the occasion … everything else though … home brand.
LABEL IT (AGAIN)
Same pens, same books, same glues-sticks. Need I say more.
Label everything however long it takes.
Further reading: How to name your kids school stuff.
KEEP DOWN THE COST OF SCHOOL LUNCHES
Oh goodness, where do I start? The world has gone lunchbox accessory mad, and yes, I am guilty of being lured in.
However, I will tell you from experience, that the simpler, the better. The last few years we have sufficed with plain, practical plastic containers with an ice block.
If they’d like a fancy Bento box, get one to use for days out, so you can ensure it makes it home.
Similar to lunch boxes, the drink bottle industry is having its day as we all scramble for the coolest, healthiest, most environmentally friendly drink bottles on the planet.
And yes, I’m a sucker for a nice drink bottle, but I also know I won’t leave mine in the school playground while I take my turn on the monkey bars.
I would always suggest earth-friendly where possible, but go as cheap as you can … you will lose count of how many you buy throughout the school year.
KEEPING BACK TO SCHOOL FOOD COSTS DOWN
Making lunch box food five times a week for one or more child can add up. There is a simple rule here: The more packaged, the more pricey.
So, get into the habit of preparing pre-made sandwiches, wraps, frittatas, cakes and biscuits. All of which can be batch frozen and popped into lunchboxes on a school morning.
LABEL IT (AGAIN)
Did I mention this already? Label every single non-food item your child takes into school for their lunch. Including the ice-pack and lids to all containers.
OTHER IDEAS FOR REDUCING SCHOOL COSTS
SHOP WITHOUT KIDS
When you’re shopping for the standard stationery items, go alone.
Not only will you be able to concentrate and get your shopping done faster, you won’t come home with a Star Wars Smiggle pen holder, which although is fantastic, has no place at school.
Make a separate shopping trip with your child for school uniform and their choice of pencil case.
BUDGET FOR BACK TO SCHOOL
Back to school costs are not a surprise, which means they should be accounted for throughout the year.
If you have a budget, make sure you include these costs in your overall bills. Or even take it a step further, and put aside a little each month so you are all over back to school costs when the time comes.
YOU LOSE IT, YOU PAY FOR IT
Hat’s and lunchboxes come to mind when I think of “most lost items”.
Our children need to have accountability and an understanding that these things cost money and there are consequences if lost. For younger children, this could mean missing a treat, but older children with jobs can certainly be made to pay for lost items.
You’ll be amazed how everything starts coming home as it should.
If you are buying online don’t miss out on free money by shopping through a cashback website, such as CashRewards.
Not enough people know about these and they can save you heaps. You’re basically buying what you would elsewhere and receiving cashback for it.
CONCESSION FOR SCHOOL BUSES
Depending on the age of your child and where you live in relation to school, you may be considering transport options.
Unless you drive near the school on your way to work, a school bus could be a cheaper and more environmentally-friendly alternative. I wouldn’t recommend this for very young students travelling without a sibling.
However, if the bus is an option and you have a valid concession card, your child will be eligible for cheaper fares.
GETTING A LAPTOP
You may be required to provide your child with a laptop or tablet.
Don’t panic if this is out of your range.
Speak to the school. They will likely have a program where your child can borrow one. If you are planning to buy, new is not necessary. Perhaps you have an old laptop at home that you can get upgraded? Or alternatively, grab something second-hand, ideally from a reputable store which provides a 12-month guarantee.
And get them a good case to protect it.
Further reading: Buying a student laptop: Your complete guide for 2023.
SAVERPLUS SCHEME TO HELP WITH SCHOOL COSTS
If you are still struggling with the cost of back to school, or would like to get more prepared for the future, you might be eligible for the SaverPlus program.
It is a brilliant resource to educate you (either in person or online) on how to save. Then, the amount saved over a 10-month period is matched and can be used for any education-related expenses. You can get more details from their website or my chat with them in this podcast.
This is school and we want our children to have every opportunity to do their best, but it doesn’t mean you have to say yes to everything. Saying “no” is ok.
Just because other students have an iPhone or a certain type of extortionately priced runners, doesn’t mean your child has too. Explain the situation and perhaps offer they do some chores and you can work towards a money goal together.
Saying “no” and helping them find solutions is one of the best lessons they can learn.