Five ways you can save money on back-to-school expenses


It's that time of year when many families are posting photos of their kids in uniforms as kids start school for the year. But behind the brag photos, there's a lot of concern about finances, with many families doing it tough.

This year is particularly difficult, as cost-of-living pressures build. Higher prices at the checkout are not your imagination, with recent figures showing inflation rose to 7.8% over the past year - the highest since 1990.

Here are some handy tips and insights to help you reduce back-to-school costs.

how to save money on school uniforms and back to school shopping

1. Claim your vouchers

Did you know that some States and Territories are providing families with financial relief to help with back-to-school costs? The best publicised is in New South Wales, with the Premier's Back to School vouchers of $50 per child (up to three) for children from kindergarten to Year 12.

In addition, families with primary school-aged children can receive a $500 voucher to help pay for before and after school care. While many families paying for care know how expensive care can be, this at least will help make the transition easier.

Schemes vary in every jurisdiction, with some being means-tested. Queensland offers high school students a textbook and resource allowance of up to $317, with the scheme administered through eligible schools.

2. Look for generic or second-hand uniforms

Need uniforms in a particular size for your children? For generic uniforms (e.g., black shorts, skirts or trousers), book online through discount department stores.

Often, discount department stores will stock a bulk lot of uniforms at the beginning of the year, and due to supply chain and other issues, rarely have the same amount and diversity of stock return during the year.

Certain sizes tend to sell out quickly. But if you book and pay online, they will find you items in the right size, even if they are not currently in stock. (One year we had items shipped from a store in Perth, as that was the only place that had the items we needed. I could have spent hours and hours searching for elusive boys' size 10 pants.)

Hot tip: make sure to check for any cashback offers to maximise your savings.

If you are lucky enough to have a school that runs a second-hand store, make sure to pay it a visit. Often kids have more uniforms than they need, and as they grow quickly, they may hardly use some items.

If your school doesn't have a second-hand store, suggest they start one - in the name of sustainability and community. Alternatively, you could put a call out on the school's Facebook or social media groups for parents asking for second-hand clothes to buy.

Another option is to get items for free. Yes, free without paying a cent. If you live in the same area as your kid's school, you can ask for school uniforms in your local Buy Nothing, Pay it Forward or Buy, Swap and Sell group.

Or you can make friends with families who have children older than yours. They will probably be delighted to be able to reduce textile waste.

3. Compare prices on book packs

I collated school backpacks around three years ago after buying stationery supplies super cheap after the back-to-school rush. It took a bit of time to go to the shops and find the right items, and I worried about my sons having stationery that was exactly right.

I did save money, but not as much as I thought I might. Since then, I've opted for the school book pack option - including for 2023. But in 2024 I'm going to go back to the DIY school book pack option, despite the time it involves.

My key concern with following the school's list - despite the convenience - is sustainability. Many items marked mandatory by my sons' school, such as maths kits, are required every year for several years.

We end up buying many of the same items over and over again. How many rulers, pencil cases and maths kits do we need, especially when much of their work is being done online anyway? And over time, this equates to additional costs.

I've also noted more and more stores offering competitively priced back-to-school items. I didn't think the school book pack was a rort; the prices were it was easy to order. But there are some great bargains online and in discount department stores if you are prepared to shop around.

4. Think twice before you buy educational aids

Whether you are in the supermarket or at a discount department store, this time of year you will see educational aids everywhere. Choices include everything from multiplication timetable posters to NAPLAN prepping textbooks, marketed at parents who want their kids to succeed in school and at life.

I'm a real sucker for educational aids. One of my sons has an interest in maths, so last year I bought him several NAPLAN prep style books. As yet, he's hardly used them.

And that's the thing: after a full day of school, sport and maybe homework, kids don't want to sit down and go through these textbooks. I've learned it's better is to work with your teacher and to become involved in the school curriculum.

They might have some good ideas for frugal family learning, such as using pizzas to demonstrate fractions or free online games. Or you could find free or reasonably priced resources online.

5. Ask yourself: Is it about your kids - or you?

When you see those cute backpacks and lunchboxes with themed animations, is it really what your kids want? Or is it about you? Are you buying them because they have the bling factor, and you are addicted to shopping?

Or maybe you are spending more than you need in the quest to be the best parent ever. Often, we spend money on our kids going back to school out of a sense of guilt. We want our kids to have the best in life.

We want them to succeed. What better than them having designer items to go back to school with? Won't that make them more motivated to learn?

The problem is that by spending big on brand-name pencil cases, new insulated lunch boxes or fad items that kids don't need, you are not prioritising your own financial wellbeing. And if you are putting yourself in financial stress buying these things, just don't.

When you are happy, your kids will be happy. Kids learn so much from their parents, and one of the best things you can teach them is good money skills, including fiscal restraint. They will remember and use good money skills long after they've lost interest in their latest animated idol.

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Serina Bird is a proud frugalista who has amassed more than a million dollars through frugal living. She is the author of several books including The Joyful Frugalista and The Joyful Startup Guide. Serina blogs at The Joyful Frugalista, and her podcast is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. She is also the founder of The Joyful Business Club. Her new book, How To Pay Your Mortgage Off in 10 Years is out now!