Reducing the cost of education

These smart shopping tips can help parents keep the back-to-school bill under control

By Katie Ingram

Making a list and checking it twice isn’t just something to keep in mind during the holidays; it’s also relevant when shopping for school supplies.

Supplies can often be costly, with prices differing on similar products and even from store-to-store. For example, a backpack from can be upwards of $24.97, before tax. In comparison, lists their most expensive for kids at $60.00, while those available at can cost $45.99. A package of 12 Crayola coloured pencils is $4.59 at Walmart and $3.49 at Staples.

Despite varying prices, Jennifer Rideout, mom and financial advisor with Assante Wealth Management, says planning will help curb overspending.

“Writing down the items you need will help keep you on track and you won’t get to too distracted by the colours around you,” Rideout says.

Rideout’s oldest daughter is starting Grade Primary this year. Not knowing how much supplies would cost, she made sure to put some money aside whenever possible.

“I was tucking a bit of money away from each pay cheque, so it will lessen the burden,” she says. A plan is something Kayla Burgess also considered, but she took a slightly different approach. She made sure to look for discounts and compared prices, which included buying one or two items at a dollar store. Although, sometimes, she says this isn’t the cheapest solution.

“They are just as good as any other supplies, but due to sales [at other stores] they [can be] more expensive,” says Burgess, who has one child in Grade 1 and another in Grade 2. “If the sales are over, then Dollarama would be a cheaper alternative versus regular pricing.”

Burgess also compared bulk prices with single items. An example she noted was instead of paying $2.97 for a four pack of exercise books, which would be about $.75 per book, she bought them individually for $0.10. Rideout is keeping costs low by looking through what her daughter already owns.

“If there’s something that doesn’t need to be replaced, I’m not replacing it just so it’s new,” she says. In the earlier grades, teachers will sometimes offer to buy classroom supplies for a small fee, which also helps with back-to-school budgets.

Jennifer Amirault says her children’s’ primary teachers gave parents this option, which she prefers to buying supplies herself.

“They all get the same supplies; it keeps it all equal,” says Amirault, whose children are now in Grades 5 and 7.

Burgess also had this option available to her at her children’s school. While she took part both years, she prefers buying supplies herself.

“I think I actually spent less this year due to sales then I would have [if I] had to send in money,” she says, adding she spent about $25 on each child, compared to the $35 she paid for Grade Primary. When asked about this policy, the Halifax Regional Centre for Education’s Corporate Secretary, Selena Henderson, said in an emailed statement that teachers offering to buy supplies isn’t an official practise.

“I can confirm there isn’t a policy at the HRCE, but I’m unsure about what direction, if any, schools receive from school administration or the [Education and Early Childhood Development department],” she said. “I do think it is school based but again, our school administration department could confirm this is accurate.” Amirault finds as her children move through the grades they need sturdier and more technology-based supplies, which can impact budgets.

“I know $35 would never cover the amount of supplies we need now,” she says. “I just printed off the list yesterday and one needs a scientific calculator… things like hardcover journals are $10 each. I have found some at dollar stores for $4 each, but those are more expensive than scribblers and Duo-Tangs and things like that.”

Unexpected expenses can also come in the form of items not on the official lists but seem to be a necessity. “I know many parents and others that in junior high find (teachers) will say, ‘Pull out your phones to look up information’,” Amirault says. “So, I think a lot of kids who don’t have a phone will be at a disadvantage.”

Amirault often finds teachers don’t want generic or cheaper products; they want certain brands and types. “What costs a lot are dry erase markers and every year my kids have to get a full pack,” Amirault says. “And Sharpie pens are expensive. They are very specific on the brand name they want and that can get costly.” Still, not everyone can afford supplies, which is where supply donation programs come in handy, like the one offered by the Parker Street Food and Furniture Bank.

“We have had our program running at least seven years, if not longer, and it’s very popular you might say,” says Kevin McKay, operations manager with Parker Street. “It grows every year. It’s something we feel is helping students put a good foot forward because it supplies the majority of necessities for students to start the year.”

As of Aug. 3, Parker Street had about 500 students registered, including those in English as a Second Language programs, to receive supplies. McKay says this number will only increase. On average, he says a backpack filled with products for high school students can cost from $100 to $125, while younger students can cost about $60 to $80 per bag.

While buying the cheaper item or more generic backpack might be better financially, Rideout says children should understand the reason behind a buying decision.

“If you’re just going out and buying something because you think it’s flashy or cool, it might not resonate with them,” Rideout says. She finds involving children in the process can help. “You want them to be creative and have their own style but lay it out in black and white and tell them, ‘If you want this item that’s more expensive, you might not be getting this other thing.’ Don’t sugar coat things,” she says.

Rideout would like to see schools involved in the back-to-school process more. If they do buy products, she suggests having students go with their parents to pick out items.

“They could make it more of a community event… have the kids go around with their parents, pick up the supplies they need, have them go through a checkout, get involved in the process so they can see how things cost money,” she says. “They will appreciate them more and take care of those items.” Amirault also likes the idea of schools being more involved. She suggests a sponsoring method for those in need of extra help. In her children’s schools, this method is commonly used on class traps, where parents can sponsor other students who may not be able to afford the activity.

“Some people can do that, pay for another person. Some people can pay for 10 probably and others struggle to pay for their own,” she says.

No matter what plan a parent has for school shopping, Rideout says it comes back to being mindful and aware of what a child needs for a successful year. “When it comes down to it, they don’t need all the bells and whistles; they just need love and attention,” she says.

Quick tips for buying school supplies

  • Compare prices at brick and mortar stores and online.
  • Don’t just shop at stores that stereotypically have supplies, like Staples and Walmart. Look at other places like grocery and hardware stores. They often have small office supply sections.
  • Don’t buy a larger or more expensive item, when the smaller or cheaper one will do.
  • Compare the generic brands and brand names by looking at online reviews and prices.
  • Compare bulk prices with single items.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute. Buy early or spread buying out over a few weeks to catch all the sales.
  • In September, buy a few supplies you know your child will need the following year, such as pens, paper, and pencils. Stores sometimes discount these items after school starts to get rid of old stock.
  • Try to stick to what’s on your child’s list and avoid extras, unless the teacher asks for an additional item later in the year.


There are several programs in HRM designed to help those who can’t afford school supplies. Each program has its own criteria and application process. Here are a few of those programs:

Parker Street Furniture and Food Bank School Supplies Program

Income Assistance from the Nova Scotia Government: Instead of supplies, the government will provide a monetary supplement to parents in the program whose children attend regular school.

The Salvation Army’s Back to School Program

Backpacks for Kids by Bell Aliant

Alice House School Supplies: The Dartmouth-based organization accepts monetary donations, up to $32, for its supply programs.

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