Buy school supplies and stay in budget

Sep 14, 2021

The calendar flips, we rush out and enjoy the last long weekend that the summer has to offer. We spend the September long weekend torn between enjoying the carefree and sweetness of summer and the inevitable new routines that families with school aged children see looming on the horizon.

It’s the Tuesday after Labour Day and you open your inbox to find emails of what each of your kids require for that year at school. Come on, we all love the smell a fresh pack of crayons, and flipping through that brand new stack of paper. There is goodness in new supplies.

But they are expensive!

School supplies; along with all the other expenses a new school year brings like school photos, year book preorder, fees for extra curricular classes, and lock rental; can wreck havoc on a families household budget. But they don’t have to. Here is how I kept our families’ back to school expenses on track.

Plan ahead for school supplies acquisition

Sending a student to a new school year with adequate supplies is common in Canada. This isn’t an unexpected expense, so plan for it. Ask a lot of questions, especially if you have multiple children.

Planning tip #1

Does the school’s Parent Advisory Board put together a bundle? If so, set the price of this bundle as your upper limit. If you expect that you can acquire the contents for less, pass on the bundle. If school supplies are going to be $80 / child, include that in your overall household financial plan so that come September, the money is there to be spent.

Planning tip #2

During a slow day in the summer – pull out last year’s supplies and take inventory. Assess. Does everything need to be replaced? What can be reused or passed down to the next kid?

In the upper grades significant expenses are becoming a trend graphing and scientific calculators can be required for grade 11 and grade 12 depending on the student’s math and science choices. These are a very popular item to buy second hand on Facebook marketplace. Consider putting an ask out to your school community if there are any families selling a calculator that is no longer required. I am certain that many parents will be thrilled to resell theirs and since they are from the same school you can be confident that the calculator will meet the requirements.

Planning tip #3

My boys each required their own laptop for high school. We had our boys contribute financially to their laptop. In addition to sharing the financial burden, have a financial interest in the laptop increased their care and concern for it. To ask a child to contribute to a laptop is going to require lead time so give them notice. Start talking about this at least a year in advance and help them put together their own financial plan for how they are going to earn their contribution they can consider a portion of earnings from a summer job or an accumulation of birthday and Christmas money.

Involve the kids in the acquiring of the supplies

This is one of my personal favourite “mom wins” that I started rolling out in grade 3 or 4. Once I had determined what our household budget was for school supplies, I brought each child in on the conversation of what their supplies were going to be for the year ahead. Being taught personal financial management is a life skill that can start a young age.

On the counter I laid out 3 piles:
  1. list that the school had supplied
  2. supplies from the previous year and around the house that were still in great condition, and
  3. cash allocated for new supplies.

I let my son make the choices on how he was going to go school equipped. He didn’t want to use any of last year’s supplies of course, because he wanted everything new.  I then told him whatever cash was left over after he had his full school supply list, was his money to keep. He was then very motivated and all of a sudden using last year’s pencil crayons that were barely used wasn’t a bad idea.

We headed to Staples and cruised the aisles and compared prices. I let him decide what he needed (within the boundary of the teacher’s list). In addition to learning money is a limited resource, he also felt empowered and proud of being able to make decisions for himself…..

……Until it came to the binder required for the year. Binders have an excessive range of price and fanciness. We are talking from $5 for a basic store brand 3 ring to $30 for the padded cover / pockets galore / fancy graphics / zipper close model. This was the hardest decision one year my son put up quite the fuss wanting to buy a binder that was out of his budget. He wrestled with the idea of using more of last year’s items or down grading the quality of the new items he was acquiring. We checked online which (after a price match guarantee) brought the binder down $5, but not enough to be within budget. It was a parenting / growing up lesson playing out in public for everyone at the store to witness. I held my ground. He fussed and complained and contemplated. Parenting is not for the faint of heart, people!

That day we were shopping with my sweet Nana Carmen so she was watching this unfold too. She saw my boy’s huge crocodile tears. They were too much for her. Nana pulled a $20 from her purse and slipped it to my son, now he hand enough to buy the binder. Welp, there went that part of the budget, but the underlining sentiment of spending within our means was rooted… and each time my son used that binder he remembered Nana Carmen fondly and how she had his back.


Back to school can be a stressful time, with managing anxieties and “friends that aren’t in my class” and the hard AP course content. Tackling the school supply list doesn’t have to be if you can plan ahead and involve your student in the process.

You got this;


Shanalisa Keller is a CPA, CGA and Coactive Trained Coach who founded and leads the team at Canadian Finance Gal. She has a desire to make personal and business finances less daunting and confusing. ⁣⁣She loves accounting and tax and wears the respective geek label with pride. When Shanalisa is not counting beans you can find her mixing a fun new cocktail or building a tasty charcuterie board.⁣⁣ You can read her other blogs here,  book a chat or coffee or wine with her here, or you can find her on LinkedIn (her favourite social platform).

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