Do your homework: How to manage back-to-school costs
From shoes and uniforms, to school bags and stationary, back-to-school costs are mounting.
It is an expensive time of year for those with children in both primary and secondary school, with many of the expenses unavoidable.
A recent study carried out by children’s charity Barnardos revealed that many parents are concerned about meeting the costs this year.
The research found that the average cost for a returning fourth class pupil is €320, while the cost for a pupil going into first year of secondary school is €972.
But there are a number of things you can do to keep the costs under control, and to minimise the stress.
Have you made a back to school budget?
The Money Advice and Budgeting Service, known as MABS, provides free support for those looking for advice on money, budgeting and debt.
It said their helpline often gets busier towards the end of August as parents come under financial pressure ahead of the new school term.
Karl Cronin, Regional Manager at MABS for North Connacht and Ulster, said the organisation can help families to prepare a realistic and sustainable household budget.
Mr Cronin said he would recommend every to make a list of all their back-to-school expenses.
He said it is important to think about costs for each child, and costs to be paid to the school, such as photocopying costs, arts and crafts and voluntary contributions.
Once you have a list, Mr Cronin said it is time to prioritise.
“If you have a limited amount of money to spend, work your way through, numbering items in order of importance,” he suggested.
Then, he said to get the calculator out and add up the total cost.
“Look at each individual item again to see if you can reduce any costs and check if you can get any help towards the costs.”
The MABS Helpline is open from 9am-8pm Monday-Friday and can be contacted on 0818 07 2000.
MABS advisers can check if you are eligible for various financial supports available for back to school costs, and will help identify other supports depending on your financial situation.
Are you eligible for any Government supports?
There are a number of supports you may be eligible for to help with back-to-school costs.
These include a clothing and footwear allowance, an exemption from exam fees for secondary school students and assistance with school transport costs.
1 Back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance
The back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance helps meet the costs of uniforms and footwear for students going to school.
According to figures from Barnardos, 21% of families received this allowance last year.
To get this allowance, you must be receiving certain social welfare payments or taking part in certain education and training or employment schemes.
Your total household income must also be below a certain amount.
This allowance is available until 30 September.
2 Exemption from exam fees
Secondary school students whose parent or guardian have a medical card do not have to pay the examination fees for Junior or Leaving Certificate.
Details of the medical card are put on the fee payment form and the parent then sends the form back to the school.
3 School transport
The school transport scheme provides transport for children who live 3.2km or more from their local school.
School transport may be free to medical card holders, if the school transport scheme is operating in your area and your child is eligible.
Free transport is available to children with special needs to and from special schools and classes. If transport is not available a Special Transport Grant may be an option.
What is the story with school books this year?
For the first time ever, parents with children in primary school and special school will not have to worry about the cost of books.
Under the Government’s free schoolbooks scheme, primary school students will get free schoolbooks, workbooks and copy books.
The €50m scheme, which was announced as part of Budget 2023, is set to benefit more than 558,000 children and their families.
Unfortunately, the scheme has not been extended to secondary schools.
This means parents will still have to fork out sometimes triple the amount paid for books at primary level.
Speaking earlier this month, Minister for Education Norma Foley said implementing the free schoolbook policy at a post-primary level was an “absolute aspiration”.
She said there would be a consideration for this policy in the coming budget.
Some secondary schools offer book rental schemes, which are definitely worth checking out.
Is there good value in the back-to-school sales?
The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is warning parents to beware of bogus back to school sales.
It wants to remind parents that retailers must calculate their discounts based on the lowest price an item was on sale for in the last 30 days.
Muriel Dolan, Deputy Director of Communications at the CCPC, said retailers must also show the previous lowest price of an item to shoppers, and make sure their labels are clear and easy to read.
“For example, if a pair of school shoes are usually for sale for €75, the shop cannot raise the price to €100 for a couple of days and then drop the price to €50 and claim that it is now half price.
“If €75 is the lowest price applied to the shoes in the previous 30 days, then that is what the discount must be based on,” she explained.
How do people pay for back-to-school costs?
The research from Barnardos found that most people pay for these costs out of their normal budget or savings.
But 24% of parents of secondary school children had to take out a loan or borrow from friends to meet back-to-school costs.
Those costs relate to uniforms, voluntary contributions, digital tools, and for secondary school students the cost of books.
If you have to borrow money Muriel Dolan from the CCPC said to shop around for the cheapest form of credit.
To compare the cost of a loan, you can check out the CCPC’s personal loan Money Tool.
Ms Dolan said to also consider looking at your local credit union loan rates, or if you are in receipt of social welfare, check if your local credit union provides ‘It Makes Sense’ loans.
“Don’t miss any loan repayments as this may incur late fees,” she warned.
The CCPC is also warning parents who are considering entering into a Buy Now Pay Later agreement when shopping online or in store.
Ms Dolan said it may look like an attractive payment option for more expensive items like school shoes or coats, but that may not be the case.
“Many businesses have started to offer this to pay for smaller goods such as clothing and footwear using BNPL credit,” she said.
“Some BNPL providers will charge late fees if you miss a payment, but charges vary from one provider to another, so it is very important to read the T&Cs of the agreement.
“If you get into difficulty and your debt remains unpaid under a BNPL credit agreement, then it can be passed to a debt collection agency who will pursue you for the debt,” she added.
Do you really need to buy new uniforms every year?
Buying a new uniform every year is a costly affair, so why not consider an alternative that is good for your pocket and is more sustainable.
Many schools and communities offer uniform swap shops.
Last month, for example, a uniform swap was organised in Castlefinn, Co Donegal.
People were invited to go along and take whatever school uniform items they needed – free of charge.
Organisers said they received a huge amount of items for more than 20 schools in the wider area, including some items that were never worn.
Are voluntary contributions really voluntary?
Every year schools ask parents to make a ‘voluntary’ contribution to help fund the running costs of the school, due to insufficient funding from the Department of Education.
According to the survey by Barnardos, 74% of primary and 78% of secondary school parents said their schools requested a voluntary contribution.
The average amount asked for by primary schools was €101, up from €81 last year.
While the average amount for secondary schools was €143, up from €124 last year.
The research by Barnardos found that this fee can add significant pressure for parents.
Many parents said they feel compelled to pay it, despite not having the financial means to do so and that they are chased up by schools when they do not pay the contribution.
“I will go without essentials to make sure my school financial contribution will be met. Some children are made to feel inferior when they are – very publicly – not given a journal or locker key,” one secondary school parent told Barnardos.
The survey found 67% of parents said the payment did not feel voluntary, while 80% of secondary school parents and 68% of primary school parents said think they should not have to pay it.
Some parents were concerned that their child would go without essential elements of school life, such as journals and lockers if they didn’t make the payment.
“It’s not voluntary it’s madness. If we don’t pay they don’t get journals or lockers and they are a must,” another secondary school parent told Barnardos.
Recently, Minister for Education Norma Foley said that under the Education Act no parent could be compelled to make voluntary contribution payments.
She made the comments after figures revealed that parents are paying around €30m a year in voluntary contributions to schools.
Among a number of key recommendations, Barnardos is calling for an end to these payments.
The charity said it believes that parents should not be required to cover the daily cost of running a school.
“The Department of Education should appropriately fund schools, so that they do not require additional income from parents,” Barnardos said.
With the Government set to run a surplus of €10bn this year, charities like Barnardos and parents will be paying close attention to the upcoming budget, hoping for additional supports to help lower the cost of education.