How to save on the back-to-school expenses

Portrait of Rebecca Maher and her two children Olivia 4 and Isabelle 1 at their Woollahra home. 18th January 2018, Photo: Wolter Peeters, The Sydney Morning Herald.
Portrait of Rebecca Maher and her two children Olivia 4 and Isabelle 1 at their Woollahra home. 18th January 2018, Photo: Wolter Peeters, The Sydney Morning Herald.

With term one just around the corner, many parents are looking at ways to cut the costs of sending their children to school.

Uniforms, school shoes, stationery, school lunches, and extracurricular activities ... it all adds up and for many parents it's not easy. That's especially true since the Schoolkids Bonus, a means-tested payment worth a maximum of $856 a year, was axed in 2016.

Charlie Nelson, the managing director of Foreseenchange, a forecasting and insights company, says households are in the midst of a double whammy, with wages growth at less than 2 per cent, while electricity and petrol costs are rising.

The art is in finding small savings across each of the back-to-school essentials that adds up to big savings.

It may be easier said than it is done, but plan ahead, says Barbara Bryan, the manager of Single Mum Australia, who also writes a travel blog at letsgomum.com.au.

Even though Bryan, 50, has been home schooling her two daughters, aged 12 and 10, for the past four years, using distance education, as they travel the world, she remembers how much can be saved by doing simple things.

Parents who have saved will be in a better position in the long run, even if it means putting away a little bit each week, she says.

"Put away a little bit of money each week for next year," she says.

Stationery

When it comes to stationery, check out the discount outlets first.

"Give the newsagents and fashionable stationery stores a big miss - and whatever you do, don't take the kids with you if you can possibly avoid it. Otherwise, they will talk you into the expensive brands," Bryan says.

The cheapest prices tend to be with the big chains, particularly the supermarkets at this time of year, she says.

"Look for seasonal display aisles and large feature display bins," Bryan says.

For Rebecca Maher, 30, mother to Olivia, 4, and Isabelle,1, it is important to start early to buy the things that Olivia needs before returning to preschool.

Maher, who is a financial planner with her own business The Fiscal Mum, which helps women and their families with their finances, says starting back-to-school shopping early and getting it done as soon as possible is the key.

"You don't want to leave it to the last minute as you don't want to feel stressed," Maher says.

"You don't want to make rushed purchases and pay too much or buy things that are not quite right for your child."

School shoes

Maher looks for shoes for Olivia that are durable - but there is no point in overpaying for shoes that Olivia will soon outgrow.

"Podiatrists say that after about the age of three, a child's feet grow by about half a size each six months," Maher says.

Maher follows the stores who stock the shoe brands she likes on Facebook and signs-up to their mailing lists as well, as there are almost always back-to-school specials. She sometimes takes advantage of two-for-one offers where there is a discount on the second pair.

Backpacks

Despite more school work being done on laptops, it is surprising how much children still carry to school.

Getting a sturdy backpack is important, particularly as the children become older and have more to carry.

"I don't think you have to spend a lot to get a backpack that is comfortable and big enough to fit everything in," Maher says.

Uniforms

Bryan says when outfitting your child for school, probably the best place to start is your child's school - almost every public school has a uniform pool or shop where parents can buy second-hand uniforms cheaply.

Uniform basics such as tracksuits, polo shirts and school shirts are inexpensive at the big chains.

Maher has noticed the big chains like Kmart and Big W will stock extensive ranges of generic-looking polo shirts and shorts that are suitable for many state schools, if not for private schools.

They are also a lot of uniform buying and selling groups on Facebook, Bryan says. "You don't want to spend too much as kids quickly grow out of their uniforms," she says.

Lunch

A lot of day-care centres provide lunch. But traditional preschools, like those attended by Maher's daughter, Olivia, do not and lunch and morning tea needs to be packed.

Many primary, infants and preschools ban or discourage snack foods.

Fresh food is cheaper than packaged snacks. But it means that parents have to really think about what their children are going to have for lunch and morning tea and add that to the weekly grocery shopping, Maher says.

It is a good idea to purchase all of the week's groceries at once so there is no need to do top-up shops during the week and pay more at a convenience store, she says.

Maher shops online for groceries as she finds it easier to keep an eye on spending and stick to the budget.

Financial assistance

Parents may be eligible for some financial assistance, depending on the state or territory. They are often either means tested or require the recipient to hold a concession card.

In NSW from January 31, 2018, children in kindergarten through to year 12 (including those home-schooled) are eligible for an Active Kids Voucher. It provides parents and guardians with $100 to pay for sport and fitness activities.

Also in NSW, if you drive the children to school because there's no public transport where you live, you may be eligible for the School Drive Subsidy.

There are also two financial support programs for eligible NSW families who have children boarding away from home to complete their secondary education. There is the Living Away from Home Allowance and Boarding Scholarships for Isolated Students.

In Victoria, depending on your situation, your family may be eligible to receive free or discounted uniforms, shoes, textbooks, stationery and more through the not-for-profit organisation State Schools' Relief.

Schools apply to State Schools' Relief for this support, rather than families. You are encouraged to talk to your school principal, assistant principal or student welfare co-ordinator about your situation and they will assess what you can receive.

The Camps, Sports and Excursions Fund may also provide payments so eligible students in Victoria can take part in school trips and various sporting activities. Families holding a means-tested concession card or temporary foster parents are eligible to apply.

This story How to save on the back-to-school expenses first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.