Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops on September 3, 2018. 

There was a time when back to school shopping meant purchasing a fair number of notebooks – one for each subject ideally, pencils, pens (a fountain pen too, but that was back then!) and, if the kids grew an inch or two over the summer, which they tend to do, new clothes and shoes. A backpack too, if last year’s was not holding up anymore.

Learning, after all, does not require much: something to read from, something to write on and with, something to transport them in, and a whole lot of good old ambition to make it happen, plus curiosity, the last two priceless. Yet according to various publications, both in print and online, back to school means an extensive must-have list of items, some of which are anything but essentials. Take the new gadget, the mini Google home assistant. The old debate about needs and wants rears its head out of the pile of information.

When the reality of being tracked surfaced a few years ago, we all shuddered. Since then, more of the same was revealed. The latest is the tracking by Google, even when you opt to turn tracking apps off. The volume of emails, texts and internet searches coming from general population seems so immense it’s mind-boggling that anyone would bother. It’s so that the bad apples will be plucked from the crowd when need be, you might say. One can hope. Regardless, Google has your info. In an age when our kids’ presence online is almost unavoidable, and they often and innocently so overshare, the least we want for them is to have a know-it-all assistant that keeps them connected to the uber-present Big Brother.

Then comes stuff like mermaid-shaped pencil holders and special brand-name sweaters and shoes. Do kids really need that? Again, in a world filled with ads, our job as parents and educators should be to show them that their worth is not bestowed upon them by brand names. Plus, a little bit of research on ethics and the reality of modern-day slavery that often hides behind the posh clothing.

It comes as no surprise that for many parents, back-to-school shopping surpasses even Christmas shopping, according to a 2017 survey. An estimated budget of approximately $800/child sounds outlandish, much like the fact that 40 percent of the interviewed parents need a few months to recover from the newly incurred debt.

Call it absurd, but the pressure is huge on parents. Keeping up with the Joneses should be out of fashion by now, we know that much; unfortunately, many a parent’s good intention collapses in the face of pressure from media, online and paper ads and the young ones’ nagging. Raising our children to be able to see through the billows of ad smoke and, as they grow, to make choices that honour their individual taste, while also considering the ethics of the manufacturing process, that is what we should worry about come September and beyond.

Back to school shopping is a great together activity, pen and paper in hand to start with, deciding how the needs and wants stand side by side, and once that’s decided, finding ways to shop economically, while also considering any leftover school supplies from last year. Budgeting is an important skill we want our children to get acquainted with by the time they start earning money and/or going to university.

Distinguishing between needs and wants and opting to pay for the first but offering to help out or guide on work on a plan to save money for expensive items from the ‘wants’ list, that is good exposure to the realities of real life where temptation reigns supreme and often ends up trumping common sense.

With many retail stores now offering payment plans even on lower-priced items, the mirage of the ‘affordable’ creates a slippery slope for many Canadians. Oh, and the super sales you hear about… just don’t buy too much into it (pun intended.) Less is more in this case too. Plus, thrift stores are awash in children’s items. Shopping used means you support good causes (think local charities!) and that alone is another worthy conversation we ought to have with our children.

When it comes to back-to-school shopping, no family should sink into deeper debt. Life is tough enough as it is, even with careful planning, so simplifying and budgeting to avoid extra stress might just be the solution to a seemingly perpetually growing back-to-school bill.

Giving our children the opportunity to learn about financial literacy will prove a bigger and more important gift than any of the items they really insist on having now, more so when purchasing that would become a burden for the family. Here’s to a great school year!