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Calgary on the Cheap: Ten Money-Saving Tips for Back to School

Welcome to the back-to-school edition of Calgary on the Cheap, where you’ll find helpful advice for budget-friendly family fun and tips on keeping your costs down for back-to-school shopping. Here are 10 tips for sticking to the budget at this costly time of year.


1. Get organized. It’s an overwhelming time of year; you’ve got supply lists from your child’s school, flyers on your doorstep from all the stores telling you what you should buy and your child saying, “I want this!” every time you go shopping. What you probably don’t have is a list of your own. Write down everything that your child needs, and then take inventory of the supplies you’ve got around the house. Chances are you’ve got more than a few extra pens, pencils, erasers and other supplies lying around (hello - junk drawers!) so why not make use of them?

2. Pair up. Believe me, you’re not the only one who wants to save some cash. Getting together with another mom (or a few!), buying supplies in bulk and then splitting up the bill can really reduce the cost. If you end up with extras, put them away for the next time your child needs something for school, or even for next year!

3. Don’t cheap out. Going to discount stores to grab everything on your list may seem like an appealing, money-saving option, but don’t mistake quantity for quality. Though you might save some cash, poorer quality items will need replacing sooner than higher quality ones, leading to higher costs in the long run.

A few items that are okay to spend less on...

•    HB pencils: unless you need artist quality pencils, any HB pencil will be appropriate.
•    Lined paper: paper is basically all the same, so don’t worry about buying a lower quality variety. If you’re willing to spend a little more on it, go green and buy paper made from recycled materials.
•    Rulers: Rulers are all standard and definitely vary in price depending on where you get them, so shop around.
•    Pencil sharpeners: any sharpener should do the trick.

Items to spend more on...

•    Binders: the rings on the lower quality ones tend to warp over time - spend the extra money on the zip-up binders, as they’ll encourage organization and will last the entire school year.
•    Highlighters/felt pens: non-name brand highlighters and felt pens are often dried out before you even take them out of the package, so spend a little extra money and get good quality ones.
•    Erasers: get the good, white rubber erasers - they’re much gentler than the pink ones, and won’t rip the paper or leave messy marks.
•    Backpacks: kids seem to carry an awful lot in their backpacks, don’t they? Get your child a good quality one with comfortable straps, many different compartments and a good zipper. Let your fashion-conscious child have a say in which one you buy, and have them try it on to make sure the pack fits well. Don’t forget that the pack can be used to hit the slopes in the winter, and the trails in the summer - a good quality bag will be handy
•    Ball-point pens: pens are in the same boat as the felts - sometimes they dry up and aren’t of much use after a short while. Spend the extra money and get good pens.

4. Reuse to save money. Not only will using reusable containers save you money, it’ll help out the environment, too. Get your child an insulated lunch bag (instead of paper or plastic disposable bags), and use washable containers (instead of sandwich bags and plastic wrap). This will save both on waste and increase the variety of food you can include in their lunches. Replace the classic PB&J with tasty salads, wraps and if your child has access to a microwave, hot lunches! If there isn’t a microwave in your child’s lunchroom, get them a thermos and fill it with hearty soups and stews.

5. Keep hydrated. Many schools ask for kids to bring a bottle of water with them, which is wonderful, but it can also be quite costly. Forego the plastic bottles, which are expensive and not so great for the environment, and opt for a stainless steel reusable water bottle. We’ve got some of the cleanest, freshest tap water out there - take advantage of it!

6. Tasty mix. Trail mix isn’t only great for a quick snack while hiking; it is also a fantastic bite for recess or after school. The only problem is that the store-bought variety can be costly and unhealthy with plenty of added sugar, oil and preservatives. The answer: make your own! For a couple weeks’ worth of trail mix, combine equal parts (about 1/3 cup) raw unsalted almonds, raw unsalted sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and dried, unsweetened fruit (cranberries and blueberries are great!). Throw in a handful of mini chocolate chips and store in an airtight container for up to two weeks. Keep in mind that some schools are peanut- (or other nut-) free, so be sure to exclude those from the trail mix, if applicable.

7. Get spooky! Halloween is just around the corner, and a little prep work can save you a lot of money. Talk to your child about what they would like to dress up as for Halloween. Once their mind is made up, get working. Making a costume yourself (with some help from the little ones!) can save a lot of time, money and stress in comparison to leaving it until the last minute. Not sure what to make? Martha Stewart’s website ( - search for ‘Halloween costumes’) has several great costume ideas and instructions for all ages.

8. Story time at the zoo.
For the little ones who aren’t in school just yet (ages three to five), the Calgary Zoo has story time every Thursday from 11 to 11:30am. Donations of $2 are accepted, but optional, and the event is free with admission. Zoo volunteers read children’s stories and provide lots of cool stuff for the kids to look at and touch. It’s a fantastic way to get your kids interested in reading, conservation and animals. For more information, check out the ‘Calendar of Events’ on the Calgary Zoo’s website,

9. Royal treatment. Saturday, September 25th, 2010, is Princess Day at the Calgary Zoo, and it’s the perfect opportunity to give your little Princes and Princesses the royal treatment. From 10am to 3pm, there will be games, entertainment and contests for your kids to take part in; dress them up in royal garb, and their admission is reduced. If your child is wearing a tiara or crown, they’ll have a chance to win fantastic prizes (parents are eligible, too, if wearing a crown!). For more information, check out the ‘Annual Special Events’ page on the Calgary Zoo website at

10. Get lost. For a quick break from school and work, take the whole family over to the Calgary Corn Maze, Petting Zoo and Pumpkin Patch. Let your kids take a shot at the corn mazes, playground, pig races, petting zoo and more! Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for kids (two and under are free), but if you want access to the jumping pillows and cow trail, $13 for adults and $11 for kids. Bring along a picnic and you’ve got a pretty cheap day out for the whole family! The corn maze is located about 20 minutes from downtown Calgary; for directions and more information, check out the website at


Stephanie is a freelance writer specializing in travel and food writing. For more information, visit

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