Back-to-school budgeting: Do your homework before school closes
Going back to school after the long summer holiday can be stressful for everyone, especially parents.
Image: Getty

It’s not just getting everyone up, fed, dressed and out of the door on time. Preparing to go back to school can be costly and for many families, January is the worst time for additional expenses.

Marlies Kappers, DirectAxis Financial Services head of marketing, says that although there’s no way of avoiding some back-to-school expenses, a little planning and preparation will help to limit some of the financial stress.

We spoke to some parents and teachers who had the following suggestions to help manage back-to-school finances and avoid unnecessary expenditure.

1. Do an inventory check before schools close

Before the school shoes get kicked under the bed for the holidays, check to see if there's another term in them. It’s probably a good idea to do this with the entire uniform, school bag, stationery and any other essentials.

This will also allow you to check whether any essential part of the uniform has been left at school and collect it before it disappears during the holidays.

Knowing what needs to be replaced allows you to plan for it, rather than having to find the money for a new blazer the day before school starts. Try to buy as much as you can as early as possible. Many schools run second-hand shops where you may be able to pick up a blazer that fits or replace a lost jersey, but it’s better to do this before school ends and there’s still plenty of stock to choose from.

2. Gather (reliable) information

Find out what your child actually needs for the next year in terms of stationery, maths sets, book covers and the like. Ask if there is a list of requirements for that grade. If not, speak to the school, parents with children in the next grade or teachers. Try to get as much specific details as possible so you don’t waste money buying the wrong things. While it might be tempting to rely on your child to get this information, this could also mean you get a list of wants rather than essentials.

3. Don’t be tricked into expensive tech

Today many schools require that children have some sort of device, such as a tablet or a laptop. Just as most children will have a preference about the brand of shoes they want – often the most expensive – so they’ll probably want top-end technology.

While the cheapest isn’t always the best, even the most expensive technology soon dates. Rather than relying on your children’s recommendations, it’s better to get the specifications of what is required from the school and what the equipment is being used for. Ask teachers and other parents, rather than the salesperson in the computer shop, about what provides best value for money. A laptop that could launch the next Mars mission is probably overkill for Grade 10 maths.

4. Eliminate the element of surprise

Unless your child is just starting school or moving from primary to high school, you should have a reasonable idea of what it costs to equip them for the following year. Consider this your basic budget, then add the cost of anything that needs replacing such as shirts or shoes. It’s probably a good idea to add a bit for unexpected expenses such as a white shirt for a choir tour or a new gum guard for rugby.

5. Save up for school fees

Many schools offer a discount if the school fees are paid annually rather than monthly. It’s worth asking about any discounts before school starts. You can then work out whether you can afford to pay the lump sum and make a saving or if it’ll put too much pressure on your cash flow.

6. Ring-fence some savings

Remember to plan for unexpected expenses or costs such as bus fares, which can only be paid once the new term starts, and ring-fence the money so you’re not tempted to spend it over December. That way you’ll have a much happier start to the New Year.

For most people, spreading the cost from end of term to the inevitable additional expenses once it re-starts, is generally easier than having to pay for everything at once.

“Most of the people we spoke to agreed that planning ahead, putting some money aside for unexpected expenses, spreading the costs where possible and getting children what they need for school, rather than what they want, are the best ways of limiting back-to-school financial stress,” concludes Kappers.

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