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How to save money on back-to-school costs

CHOICE parents share their cost-saving tips for the start of the school year.

three students in an australian school classroom
Last updated: 19 January 2023

Somewhere in the twilight zone mush of the post-Christmas back-to-work period, the start of the school year always seems to sneak up faster than you'd expect – and with it, all the costs associated with preparing your offspring for another year of schooling. (And right after all the expense of Christmas too!)

With the cost of living biting harder than usual, many of us will likely feel those expenses more keenly than ever – and somehow the costs of exercise books, lunchboxes and shoes seem to add up quickly. 

CHOICE parents are an especially savvy bunch of consumers (or at least we like to think so!), so we asked them for their best back-to-school money saving tips to help you ease the burden in the lead-up to Term One. Here's what they said.

students lunchbox at australian school

Invest in a long-lasting lunchbox, if your kid isn't likely to lose it.

How to save money on school lunches

Preparation, organisation and DIY: these are the three tenets that CHOICE parents live by to manage the dreaded school lunch carousel. 

Shop smart

  • If you've got the storage space, buy various school snacks, juice boxes etc in bulk. It'll help to save money, give your kids variety, and avoid running out and having to pay for food from the canteen instead. – Rachel
  • Unit pricing is your friend! Make sure you look at the price per item or per 100g, as well as the total costs. Forget about the bright sales dockets shouting at you from the shelves – they're often more about what the supermarket wants to sell that week, rather than what's best for your budget. – Alice
  • Be a supermarket agnostic – shop around for the best price rather than always buying everything from the same supermarket. Check what's on special each week so you're ready to snap up a bargain when you see it. – Liam (not a parent but knows a thing or two about saving money)
  • Consider switching to supermarket own-brand products – they often perform just as well as, or even better than, their brand-name counterparts and cost far less. – Alice

Cook and prep smart

  • DIY snacks are cheaper than buying things in packets – and you have control over what goes into them. I make a batch of muffins every couple of weeks and freeze them fresh – you just put them in the lunch bag in the morning and they've defrosted by recess time. Other things that freeze and defrost well are muesli slice, brownies, bliss balls and banana bread. – Pru
  • Buy quality fruit and veg that lasts longer, and learn how to store it properly. For instance, soak strawberries in diluted vinegar, then strain and pat dry and pop into a glass jar. I find they keep for two weeks. You can store other fruit and vegetables like this. – Emily

DIY snacks are cheaper than buying things in packets – and you have control over what goes into them

  • Freezing yoghurt portions with fresh berries when they're in season (or frozen or stewed fruit in winter) is cheaper than buying yoghurt pouches (which have increased by about 30–50 cents each in the last year). If you pop them in a lunchbox in the morning, they'll be defrosted by recess time. – Pru
  • Re-think what constitutes lunchbox food – it doesn't always have to be sandwiches and apples. My kiddo likes to graze all day so I basically pack a tasting plate for her, filled with (cheap) ingredients like basic stuffed olives, hommus and carrot sticks (Aldi's gigantic tub of hommus is a great buy), edamame, tinned corn spears, cherry tomatoes, baby bocconcini and the like. Dinner leftovers are great, too – throw in bolognese or black bean chilli with a fork and that's lunch sorted. – Alice

Be a legend in your own lunchbox (or schoolbag)

  • Buy well, buy once – I splashed out on a bento-style lunchbox (Yumbox) but after a couple of years of use, it's still in perfect condition and hasn't broken at all. Same situation for my daughter's water bottle. She's pretty good at not losing things so this is a good option for us. – Pru
  • Ditch the single-use plastic to help your wallet and the environment. By buying reusable wraps and food pouches, you're only spending once instead of having to buy a new roll of cling film every few weeks. And single-use yoghurt pouches are expensive and create lots of waste. Here are the best reusable yoghurt pouches. – Alice
  • Expect to rehome all the primary school lunchboxes once the kids go to high school – they won't be seen dead with them. We use small metal lunchboxes and containers that we picked up cheaply at Aldi and they seem to pass muster. – Rachel
  • Buying refurbished devices such as laptops and iPads, rather than new, can save you loads of money. – Emily
  • In my experience, after Year 7 your kids will have a clearer idea of what they want for a school bag as these things are subject to trends, so perhaps don't spend too much on a bag upfront if you think you might be replacing it later. You can also make a new bag (or anything subject to trends that isn't a necessity) a Christmas or birthday present. – Rachel
closeup of several australian students school shoes

Factory outlet stores can be a good place to pick up cheaper school shoes.

How to save money on school uniforms

Shop secondhand and shop generic: these are two of the top tips from CHOICE parents. 

  • Keep an eye on local Pay It Forward Facebook groups for people giving away school and sports shoes with plenty of wear left in them. – Rachel
  • It's always a good idea to ask the school office if they sell secondhand uniforms at a discounted price. You can return the favour when your child grows out of them and pass them on to other kids. – Uta. 
  • If your local Lowes sells your school's uniforms, sign up for their emails as they have sales throughout the year. – Rachel
  • Join your school's Facebook group – people often give away or sell uniforms their kids have grown out of. – Emily
  • If you go to a school that isn't strict about school uniform, you can pick up cheaper generic alternatives from places like Kmart, Big W, Next and so on. It's great for things like polo shirts, sport shorts, tracksuit pants and the like. – Pru
  • If you find a pair of school shoes they love and the store is offering a discount on a second pair, buy the next size up as well. You'll thank yourself later in the year when their toes have broken through and there are no school shoes for sale in the stores. – Rachel
  • Factory outlets are great for cheaper footwear. – Vincent
multicoloured school stationery

Your kids probably don't need new textas and pencils at the start of every school year.

How to save money on stationery

Who knew that paper and pencils could be so expensive? CHOICE parent Rachel knows this all too well. Here are her tips for reducing your spend. 

  • Every year my girls say they need new textas and pencils. They don't – there are old pencils and textas all over the house! We pull them together, test the textas and throw out the ones that don't work, and put together a set from what's left. Likewise, we sharpen all the pencils and there's always plenty.
  • In NSW, the Creative Kids vouchers can often be used at online art supply stores where you can order art supplies and stationery (including markers, pencils and textas) – handy if you need to use your Back to School vouchers for other items instead of stationery. 
  • We have plenty of half or barely used exercise books at the end of every year. Rip out used pages and reuse for the new year. 

How to get financial support for school expenses

Kids are expensive – it's okay to ask for help! Some state governments offer support for back-to-school and other education costs, such as the NSW Premier's Back to School Vouchers program, which provides three $50 vouchers for each eligible student. 

  • If you're struggling financially, definitely let the school know. The P&C may have funds set aside to give you a discount for uniforms or excursions (or cover the cost entirely) so your child doesn't have to miss out. – Uta
  • Make sure you're across all of the vouchers that are available in your state or territory. First-time primary school parents like me are newly eligible for some of these vouchers and may not know about them. – Antoinette
  • Depending on how far you live from the school (and available funding in your region), your child can get a free or subsidised bus pass. – Uta

If you're really struggling financially, you may be eligible for things like subsidised or discounted options for school costs. You can also access free, confidential financial advice though the National Debt Helpline (180 007 007). 

To help ease the financial burden, check what you're entitled to: Government cost-of-living payments worth knowing about

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.