Lists are absolutely essential when getting ready to send your children back to school, says Claire, a mother of two in Crumlin, Dublin, “because otherwise you go to the shop and you buy 47 copies and 20 pencils and forget you need a pencil parer”.
Edel in Drogheda is similarly emphatic, stressing that she draws up a ‘back to school’ list early in the summer, where she has the eldest of her five children try on each item of school clothing with a view to gauging – allowing for some growth over the holidays – what is likely to be usable in September.
“So then I know what I need to consign to the recycle pile and what I need to buy,” she says, continuing, “then I make a list of what I need to buy out of that, and then it’s basically just going out and getting them.”
Despite using a list that details what she needs to buy, Veronica in Chapelizod, Dublin, says that in practical terms parents will often ‘overbuy’ and bring stuff back to shops, especially ones with extended returns policies.
“Because you’re buying generic stuff,” she says, “you’re bringing them home, you’re checking them out at home to see what works.”
The fact that her daughter’s school doesn’t require every item of the school uniform to come from a specific shop makes a big difference when budgeting, says Veronica. “You can buy generic clothing from all the other stores, and chop and change – you’re not stuck with one shop as a lot of parents would be,” she says, explaining how separate crests can be bought from the school to attach to the school’s regular uniform or tracksuit uniform.
Paul in Longford has had a similar experience with his daughters: “It always puzzles me when people talk about the cost of the uniform – kids grow so quickly that there’s no point buying high quality stuff that’s going to last 10 years, since they’re only going to get a year out of it.”
He maintains that cheap uniforms can be bought in a range of shops, to which school badges can be attached.
While uniforms can – up to a point – be reused, this doesn’t necessarily work for schoolbooks, says Veronica, who says most of her daughter’s books are workbooks into which children write, making them unsuitable for passing on.
“I just got her schoolbooks the other day,” she says, explaining, “I thought it’s too confusing to walk around town, shopping online is where the deals are, so I got all her schoolbooks in the other day – 10% off and free delivery through Eason’s.”
The cost in time can be as onerous as the cost in money, Claire suggests, glad that her sons’ school, like many DEIS schools, has a book rental scheme.
“There’s a certain amount of stigma attached to it, but it saves a fortune,” she says, adding, “You still have to buy your workbooks but you don’t have to buy all the reading books.”
Describing the book rental scheme as “the best thing”, she says, “It’s not just about saving money, it’s about saving time – you go to the school and they provide everything, so there’s no need to traipse around bookshops. That’s what I love about it more than anything, you just pay the money to the school – in instalments if you have to – and it’s much better.”
Paul’s daughters’ school likewise avails of the scheme, which he thinks could be more widely used, and Edel says that her two eldest both go to DEIS schools that use rental schemes, with her daughter’s school having recently embraced the system.
“You had to pay €40 pounds for materials, and then you were given a list of books you had to go out and buy and that would easily cost another €40-50, and then you would also have to buy stationery,” she says, “But this year they’ve changed and they’re now doing a book rental scheme, so I had to pay for that so I think that was maybe €60-70.”
Buying in bulk can be a useful way of keeping costs down, says Claire, thought it can also be a false economy: “One year I bought a box of 20 pencils and thought ‘this will do me for the year’,” she says, “but they all kept breaking and I had to spend as much money on four pencils as I did on 20, and they were better.”
With just one child in school, buying in bulk is not really an issue, according to Veronica: “I bought loads of pencils when she started two years ago and I still have them – I have a stockpile of those,” she says.
Travel can be a big expense during the school year, but Claire says sending children to a local school keeps that cost down effectively.
“We can see the school from our bedroom window, so we walk to school,” she says, explaining, It’s one of the reasons we picked the school. We’re lucky that our local school turned out to be a brilliant school, with loads of great projects, but a big factor for us was we wanted to be able to walk to school and we wanted our kids to be able to go to school with kids on the road – we wanted them to have friends.”
While Veronica’s daughter is sometimes dropped off to school, “if I am bringing her in, she walks,” she maintains, adding, “we have walked down many times in the lashing rain”.
Paul’s children live just 10 minutes’ walk from their home, but as it’s on his way to work he drops them off, and Edel is able to do likewise: “I drop them to school,” she says, continuing, “I’m in a lucky position in that I collect them from school. When I was working somebody else did the collection for me – most parents will share collections.”
Lunch can be a big expense without planning, but as Paul says, “They eat pretty much the same thing every day, kids aren’t very fussy – ham sandwiches and cheese sandwiches. You include that in your weekly shop.
“The school discourages you giving them sweets or chocolate or fizzy drinks, so you’re only giving them water mostly,” he continues, advising, “Just plan to include that in the weekly shopping and make it day to day.”
Veronica makes a point of arranging lunch in advance. “When I do my shopping on the weekend, I get a loaf of bread and make up a week’s worth of sandwiches and freeze them individually,” she says, adding that ham and cheese, for example, would freeze well in a way that, for instance, jam or salads certainly would not.
“It saves so much time not having to stress about it in the morning,” she says, continuing, “I put it in her lunchbox with some fruit and a drink, perhaps a yoghurt. There’s never any goodies. It’s good for time management and financially, so I survive.”
The school has a scheme where sandwiches and fruit can be supplied for children who might have forgotten their lunches, she says, but other schools go rather further.
“Because it’s a DEIS school we get a free lunch every day – a sandwich, a snack, and a piece of fruit and a bottle of water and a carton of milk,” says Claire, while Edel explains how her eldest daughter’s school provides fruit which children are encouraged to eat on their breaks. Her eldest son’s school has a breakfast club, she adds, praising how while “not many schools in the country have a breakfast club but for 60c a day he can get a meal”.
Besides that, she says, sandwiches and a mixture of fruit, yoghurt, cheese tend to feed her children during the schoolday. “Feeding a child during the week is not an expensive thing,” she maintains, though it’s clear that intelligent shopping is key.
As long as you don’t give in to pressure to get children the most fashionable and trendy clothes, bags, and equipment, she says, “Back to school is not as horrendously expensive as people make it out to be.”