Keep that shopping list in check

Keep that shopping list in check
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Does your child really need a laptop for school? What about a smartphone? Just how many pencil crayons can one household handle before its walls become a Jackson Pollock parody?

The annual shopping spree for school supplies doesn’t need to be frenzied. As September looms, here’s what to buy students – and what to avoid:



Don’t quit those Kumon classes yet, but apps can also offer helpful exercises. Arithmetic and language development apps including Math Drills ($2.79 on iTunes) and Duolingo (free) help younger children develop their skills. For middle school and high school kids, planner apps such as iStudiez Pro ($3.99 on iTunes) and inClass (free) track courses, homework and project deadlines.

Laptop, tablet

Some schools require them, others say they’re distractions. While laptops can be “a huge advantage” that put work mobility and a world of information at their fingertips, many children are “not making good decisions with them,” says Calgary blogger, author and mother Lianne Shirtliffe. “Know your child. What makes them more productive?” she says.

Toronto blogger Nathalie Foy’s eldest son, who is heading into Grade 10, has a laptop, partly because it’s mandatory at his private school. His younger siblings, who are going into Grades 3 and 6, content themselves with an iPad apiece. Respondents to a 2016 Deloitte “back-to-school” survey in the U.S., who were shopping for technology, said they planned to spend an average of $456 (U.S.) on computers and $286 (U.S.) on gadgets such as tablets and smartphones.


An inevitable part of the back-to-school buying spree. “I dropped about $140 on clothes for him, since he’s outgrown everything,” Shirtliffe says of her 12-year-old son, who’s shot up five inches in the past year. Foy, mother of three boys aged 8, 11 and 15, encourages “mostly hand-me-downs” come September. “I buy each kid two pairs of gloves, and if they lose them they have to replace them out of their own allowance,” she adds. In 2013, families spent a total of $1.6 billion on back-to-school clothes, according to Statistics Canada. About 51 per cent of that went to girls’ items and 49 per cent to boys’ clothes.

Scientific calculators

Most academic high schools in Ontario require graphing calculators, particularly for upper-level math courses. Unless you want your child charting sine functions in her head, this purchase is probably worth it. The price of digital trigonometry is as hefty as ever, with graphing calculators now costing between $120 and $160 at Best Buy and Staples. “In the past, back to school was all about supplies and maybe clothing. But now electronics have really increased to become a substantial portion of back to school,” says Alex Arifuzzaman, a partner at InterStratics Consultants.


It may be a digital world, but the focus and physicality demanded by a fresh textbook can trump more intangible formats. Foy takes it to the next level, ordering textbooks online for her son despite the fact the family already owns some of the titles on his Grade 10 history syllabus. “I treasure my copy (of A History of the World in 100 Objects) and I don’t want it banged up,” Foy says. Arifuzzaman stresses the used-books deals available online, with one copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth costing just over one-third the price of a $4.04 Indigo paperback version (neither available in store).


The pencil crayon forest

Many elementary schools provide nearly all the school supplies students use in a year. And really, “how many boxes of markers can you buy?” Foy asks. But there are exceptions. Shirtliffe, a high school English teacher, says she’s seen at least one Alberta classroom list requiring 50 pencils from each student. Writing implements, art tools and other supplies can stack up quickly. “Pens, pencils, stationery supplies … they’re colourful and they’re eye-catching and they appeal to children,” she said. So beware, “If you’re doing the shopping with the kids, that might be something they’re drawn to.”


Ah, the great phone debate, waged between middle-schoolers and parents since the late 1990s. Are they essential as salt, or frivolous gizmos? Neither of Foy’s preteens own one, while her 15-year-old does. Shirtliffe, “lying awake at 4 a.m. this morning thinking about this issue,” seems to have found a compromise: Allow the smartphone as early as Grade 6, but make it a hand-me-down – one iPhone 5 each from Shirtliffe and her husband – and monitor the data usage and retain veto power over apps. For children making longer commutes via public transit, smartphones provide a means of contact in an emergency.


Sometimes it’s the parents who have to rein themselves in. “For me, the back-to-school season is more about fighting an impulse to get new scissors and more stationary supplies than anything else,” said Foy. Once supplies are bought, there’s little need to stock up. “The graphing paper and the protractor from last year still work,” she says. Big-box stores such as Walmart, Best Buy, Staples and Costco employ classic marketing tactics like discounted pricing on items such as lined paper and Post-its to drive traffic onto the property, Arifuzzaman notes. “I have enough Post-it notes to open my own store,” Foy says.


Yes, students need backpacks – just not one a year. “I’m a big fan of shopping at places like MEC, because there’s a lifetime guarantee,” says Shirtliffe, whose son has had the same pack for four years. Lunch kits can last at least as long, with her 12-year-old twins’ neoprene lunch bags now in their seventh year. “You just put them in the washing machine once a week,” she says.


“The approach that I take to back-to-school is to limit our footprint as much as we can,” says Foy. For Shirtliffe, September marks the New Year, not January. And it comes with an onslaught of extracurricular costs, from piano lessons to taekwondo. However, the digital age offers consumer empowerment, yielding savings for those who look, says Arifuzzaman. “Because of online price comparison and ordering, the consumer’s knowledge means that the retailers have to adapt and deliver pricing and products more carefully than they have in the past.”

This article was from The Toronto Star and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

Edited on 25 October 2017

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