As the sun sets on the lazy days of summer, so too rings the bell on the start of a new school year. And with students heading out the door sporting backpacks full of binders, pencil cases, and notebooks, parents also once again wave goodbye to a sizable amount of money from their bank accounts.
The good news is the cyclical nature of school expenses means that creating an “A”-worthy plan to manage them isn’t rocket science. So, where to begin? Getting started often comes down to pushing past those first-day jitters about getting your finances organized, explains Jody Villeneuve, a Personal Banking Account Manager based in Edmonton’s West Point Banking Centre.
“Good planning is such an important part of financial success and that includes how you budget and save for the costs of going to school. That said, a lot of people find financial literacy intimidating and that makes them less likely to do it – they’d rather put it off and just sort of wing it,” says Villeneuve. “But it doesn’t need to be scary, especially when you come to see us. I love educating people on how things work and giving them practical steps they can take to feel more confident in managing their money.”
What school spending and saving tips get top marks on Villeneuve’s list? Here she shares 10 best-in-class practices for making the grade with your money management not just in the Fall, but all year round.
- Have a savings strategy
It’s never too early to start saving for your child’s education. Villeneuve recommends all new parents start a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), which is a tax-sheltered investment plan that provides access to government grants. If your child decides not to attend post-secondary school your contributions and gains are returned to you (minus any government grants received and the interest earned on them).
For shorter or more medium-term needs, Villeneuve says today’s rising interest rates make GICs a solid investment vehicle to consider. “Short-term GICs with floating rates can be attractive for supporting cash needs throughout the year, while five-year GICs can be a great way to grow your cash until you’re ready to gift it to your child,” she says, adding it’s also good practice to set up a savings account dedicated specifically for school-related costs. “Aside from that big back-to-school crunch there are always field trips that come up, hot lunches, and other things throughout the year. Designating an account for this helps you track your school spending year-round – and keep your spending on track.”
- Make a budget – and expect it to change over time
This is where tracking your spending can help you rise to the top of the class. Use what you’ve spent in previous years as a baseline to create a budget for the current year, adjusting for any new or increased costs you expect to come up. “Year-over-year tracking gives you a good idea of how much you should be prepared to spend,” says Villeneuve. “And those costs will evolve as your child gets older, so you also need to plan for that. Expenses in the younger grades look different than in older ones….and of course post secondary is a whole other ball game.”
- Resist the urge to buy everything at once
Between school supplies, bussing, school fees, and clothes, the back-to-school list can get quite daunting – and pricey. That said, you can reduce the budget hit in the Fall by prioritizing what your child needs right now versus what can wait until later. As Villeneuve points out, there’s an added bonus to doing this: “While you should be price shopping anyways to get the best deal, spreading out your purchases can prevent you from succumbing to the convenience of buying everything at the same store and potentially missing out on valuable savings.”
- Buy in bulk and re-use items from the previous year
Have you noticed that many of the standard items on your school list (like writing tools, notebooks, glue sticks) are repeats from the year before? This makes it ideal to buy those items in large quantities if you can so you’ll not only have extras on hand, but are also likely to get a better price overall. Villeneuve says she keeps a space at her house for this kind of extra stock and goes “shopping” in that surplus throughout the year to replenish items as needed. “We’ve actually bought a case of 100 pencils that we can pull from,” she says, admitting with a laugh that they’re already all gone. “I have four kids!”
- Invest in good quality gear and avoid the trendy stuff
School items go through lots of wear and tear so look for those backpacks and pencils cases that will withstand the whole year – and ideally last into the next one. And while your child might insist on sporting gear with the latest superhero or popular cartoon character, Villeneuve suggests buying items in a colour or style that your child likes rather than in a theme that they’re likely to soon lose interest in. “If your child is into My Little Pony in Grade 1, maybe avoid buying everything in My Little Pony because by the next year – or month even! – they’re probably going to want something different.”
- Learn about school supply programs and other support resources
To help ease the burden of school costs it pays to do a bit of homework on the programs, grants, or scholarships you or your child might be eligible for. “The supports are out there – from backpack programs and snowsuits to laptops to gift cards to bursaries – but often people don’t know they exist or that they can apply for them,” says Villeneuve. “Doing a bit of research helps identify how, where, and when you can get support. You’ll also want to keep track of any application deadlines and other important timelines so you don’t miss out.”
- Add your child as a secondary cardholder to your credit card
Supporting your child with their school expenses can also be an opportune time to get them learning and practicing good money habits. Credit cards like the CWB personal Mastercard® let you add your child as a cardholder, giving them a bit more independence while you maintain a watchful eye on their spending. You can control their limits, get alerted to what and where they spend, and lock or unlock foreign and online spending – all while collecting rewards points that you can put towards future expenses (school or otherwise). “It can be really handy for someone who’s just learning how to be responsible with money, as well as for college kids who are traveling and need a credit card to book a rental car or hotel, while you keep that close oversight on their spending activity,” says Villeneuve.
- Consider your child’s post-secondary plans in your homeownership decisions
Rising mortgage rates as well as the increasing cost and limited availability of rental properties are top of mind for many these days, so anticipating what your child’s living situation might look like when they graduate high school is a good way to help determine your future space needs. For example, if you think they’ll remain at home, you may want to consider a finished basement or renovating an area into separate living quarters – and perhaps even asking your child for rent to teach them about living expenses while also helping contributing to the household.
- Pay it forward by helping your child transition their financial mindset after high school
Not only could your child be moving into the realm of higher learning after high school, but they should also be shifting into a more adult way of thinking about their money. When they turn 18 it’s a great time to encourage them to open a Tax-Free Savings Account, which can be an effective way to both grow and draw from any grant or scholarship money they’ve received. And if your child has a youth bank account, these typically expire at 19, so you’ll want to remind them to let their bank know if they’re attending a post secondary school. Upon proof of enrollment (which the bank will request each year) their youth account can be changed to a student account so they can continue enjoying perks like no fees.
- Regularly review your portfolio with your financial partner
Invest in your child’s education – as well as your own financial literacy – by meeting regularly with your bank to keep your finances in honour roll standing. Villeneuve recommends doing this twice a year, as well as quickly alerting your financial partner to any significant changes in your life.
“Things can – and will – change, like the markets, jobs, and school plans,” she says. “Having ongoing conversations with your bank helps ensure your financial plans, goals, and savings are all aligned. Because the interest rate environment was so low during the pandemic, these days we see a lot of people with things just sitting in cash because they didn’t want to reinvest at a low rate – and they’ve just kind of forgotten about it. So now with interest rates increasing, it’s a good time to take another look and reorganize. That’s what we’re here for. Whether it’s managing and preparing for school costs, saving for a house, planning for retirement, or any other major life milestone, we’re your partner in helping you understand your money management, create strong plans, and achieve financial success.”