Subscriber OnlyPricewatch

Back-to-school money-saving tips from A to Z

Pricewatch: From books to uniforms, and food to schoolbags, here are a few ideas for keeping costs down this coming school year

The new school year is just around the corner and with it will come a huge level of expense for many already financially stressed-out parents.

Audit: Work out what you have when it comes to uniforms, lunch boxes, schoolbags, sports gear, bottles and all the other paraphernalia that your little – and sometimes not so little – darlings will need over the months ahead. Sort them into piles: perfectly fine, potentially usable and beyond saving. The very act of working out what you have and what you need can be somewhat therapeutic and might save you a few bob.

Books: The good news – at least for parents with children in primary school – is that this year marks the dawn of a new era and for the first time a Government-backed scheme will provide free schoolbooks, workbooks and copy books to children up to the age of 12 or 13. The move, announced in last year’s budget, will save many thousands of parents in excess of €100 in the weeks ahead. For reasons that are beyond us, the Government stopped short of rolling out a similar scheme to secondary schools which is where the serious financial burden is. Few parents will have much change out of €300 when all the books and learning aids for their older children are paid for.

Some secondary schools do operate book rental schemes – and that is to their credit – but many don’t. If your school is one of the laggards maybe they could be encouraged to do so – if not this year then maybe for next. Maybe you could even help the school do it. Outside of that it can be hard to make savings although, in the first instance, parents should shop around and make comparisons between bricks and mortar retailers and online operators. And when buying books, see if free book coverings are on the table as this will extend the life of the books and save you time and money (although it will deprive you of the chance to cover your children’s books with leftover wallpaper – if such a thing still happens). And if you have old books, and they are in good nick, you should definitely sell them on.


Cars: With the cost of fuel on the way up again, the cost of ferrying children to and from school is also set to climb. More than half of all primary school students are driven to school, with slightly less than half of all secondary school-going children getting lifts. If you live within a 2km radius of your younger child’s school, consider walking, and if you live within 5km of the school gates then cycling should be an option. Both these forms of active transport are better for the children and for you and for the planet. And they are considerably cheaper too. Car pooling is another option to consider if your neighbours happen to have children attending the same school. And investigate public transport options, particularly the free schoolbus scheme – although it is very late in the day for the term just coming.

Disappearing act: Children are terrible for leaving things behind. That is why it is so important to properly label their stuff so you at least have some hope of finding it at the end of the week or month. You can buy a decent label-maker for less than €20 and it might save you a whole lot more than that in the long run.

Equipment: Keeping children interested in sport for as long as possible is one of the best things a parent can do but it can be pricey – not least because gear can be expensive and children have the habit of growing. They might also give some activities a whirl before changing their minds. Instead of investing in the stuff needed for extracurricular activities straight off the bat, hold off for a few weeks to see if they like it and then, if possible, borrow what you need for the next few months. And take advantage of online channels such as DoneDeal and Facebook Marketplace to buy the things you need second-hand from parents who did not follow this advice and have ended up stuck with a whole lot of gear no one is using.

Food: The cost of food has been a big drain on almost all Irish households over the last 18 months as the cost-of-living crisis has dragged on. The school lunch has not been immune to the crisis. Packed lunches are still comparatively cheap – certainly a lot cheaper than anything bought in a shop or deli. They are also better for your children. Put a bit of time into planning at the weekend and you will be glad you did. Invest in a decent flask as well, which will allow you to send your offspring off to school on a winter’s morning with the hearty leftovers from dinner the night before.

Good people: Generally speaking, teachers deserve so much respect for doing a tough and essential job and doing it well on salaries that could do with being increased. Non-teachers might point to the long Christmas, summer and Easter holidays as well as the midterm breaks, but as anyone who tried their hand at home schooling in the early days of the pandemic will recall, teaching children in a way that is effective is hard work.

Homework: Not a money-saving issue, possibly, but still something that is questionable and we feel compelled to give out about. Kids are given a lot of homework every day – even some very young ones – and it eats into the time they could be spending outside playing, or inside playing, or reading books. Some international models suggest that the educational merits of loads of homework are not as great as we might think they are and, let’s face it, children will have plenty of time to be chained to a desk and a laptop when they get older.

ILCU: More than a third of Irish parents will not be able to buy their children new shoes when they go back to school in the autumn as the cost-of-living crisis continues, a survey from the Irish League of Credit Unions published earlier this summer suggested. The number of Irish parents describing back-to-school costs as a financial burden has also climbed. The average spend for parents of primary school children is €1,152 per child compared with €1,195 in 2022 while the costs for parents of secondary school children is €1,288 compared with €1,518 last year. Extracurricular activities was the top expense for primary schools, with parents expecting to pay €191 while, at €187, schoolbooks were the top expense for parents of secondary school children. All told, 62 per cent said they would be forced to deny their children extracurricular activities because they could not afford them, with 37 per cent saying they would be forced to deny their children new shoes before the new term.

Jumpers: Many schools have uniforms and many insist those uniforms are bought in specific shops and include school crests that have been embroidered on to the jumpers, and the coats, and the tracksuits. An alternate – and cheaper – approach would see all schools with uniforms and crests making them available via a patch that could be sewn or ironed on to a jumper or coat or tracksuit. The impact would be exactly the same yet the cost to parents would fall dramatically. A jumper with a bespoke crest can cost as much as €50. A generic one can be bought for less than a tenner. If just 30,000 children – fewer than one-third – of school age have to buy such a jumper, the collective savings of a switch to generic jumpers each year would be just under €1 million.

Kids: Sure aren’t they what it is all about, really.

Leaving Certificate results: Spare a thought for the tens of thousands of teenagers who are waiting for their results to arrive on August 25th. There will be good news for many and not such good news for some. But they will all have to put up with unwanted advice from old people like Pricewatch who will be taking to social media to remind them that the results will not define them and the nightmares will eventually pass. Such proclamations, while true, are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Mondays: You might have moaned about the endless days of the summer holidays in June and July and August, but you will miss them when they are gone and each week starts with a frantic morning dash involving feedings, dressing and transporting children while making sure they have their tin whistles, hurls, packed lunches and gear. The stress of it all would break most of us.

Nature: Far too many children spend far too much time inside over the course of the school day. While we are acutely aware of the weather in Ireland in the dead of winter, we still believe young people should spend more time outside on nature walks collecting things for nature tables in schools and at home. Apart from anything else it is very cheap. And wholesome too.

Obesity: Childhood obesity is a depressing reality in Ireland, as in many developed countries. Irish five- to nine-year-olds rank ninth in Europe for overweight and obesity while 10- to 19-year-olds rank 10th in Europe, according to the WHO’s European regional obesity report 2022. Some 20.9 per cent of girls and 17.4 per cent of boys are living with overweight and obesity, according to the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) study, which was published in 2020. The problem is not just related to the type, quality and volume of what our children eat. Skipping breakfast and irregular sleep patterns are also key reasons children may become dangerously overweight, and many of those things are particularly challenging for parents in the winter months.

Planning: While it is no doubt infuriating to hear anyone talking about planning at this late stage in the game, it is worth considering for next year (and Pricewatch is talking to itself as much as anyone else when we say this). Back-to-school time is costly but it is predictable. If you were in a position to put a tenner in a jar each week between now and this time next year you would have the back broken on the costs for the 24/25 school year without it causing that much financial heartache.

Quality: While the temptation to buy the cheapest schoolbag or uniform is entirely understandable – and in many cases unavoidable – it can too often prove to be a false economy. A bag that costs a tenner but falls apart by Christmas and needs to be replaced is not good value.

Rental schemes: While the tab for primary schoolbooks has now been taken care of, there are still secondary schoolbooks to pay for. Government sources suggest a free scheme for older children would cost about €70 million, which means in the absence of one, parents are covering the cost. Schoolbook rental schemes are in place in about half of all secondary schools but should be more widespread. At the beginning of the school year parents pay a rental fee to the school and the child gets their textbooks for free. At the end of the year, if the books are returned unblemished, much of the fee can be returned. It is cheap and simple and could save Irish parents hundreds of millions of euro over the next few years. And the savings would just keep coming forever...

Schoolbags: Do they really have to be as heavy as they are? There are thousands of children out there who are struggling under the weight of their bags.

Tablets: These are the future, right? They are interactive and light – but they come at a cost. Parents won’t have much change out of €700, in some instances. There are some schools falling over themselves to make tablets mandatory but there hasn’t been much consideration of their educational merit. They do make the bags lighter, though.

Uniform: Some schools have them, some don’t. We can see the merit of both approaches. If you are buying uniforms make sure to buy them slightly bigger than they need to be and remember that the very cheapest options on offer sometimes do not last as long as you might want them to last. Keep your eyes peeled for promotions such as three-for-two offers and, if you can afford it now, consider buying a couple of sizes up and then setting them aside for next year. It is also worth keeping an eye on the racks in October as shops will be looking to get rid of the stock they didn’t sell when demand was at its highest.

Voluntary contributions: “voluntary” is usually defined as something which is “done, made, brought about, undertaken of one’s own accord or by free choice”. This is a definition many of the State’s schools would do well to learn off by heart, as they seem to have developed something of a blind spot when it comes to this word. Some schools put huge pressure on parents to pay up, with constant reminders sent via their children. Some even go as far as to identify, in front of their classmates, the children of parents who have not paid the contribution. We do have sympathy for some schools on this score as a chronic lack of funding from the State means that many have no choice but to aggressively chase parents for money just to heat and light their schools and cover the cost of repairs during the year. It should not be like this.

WhatsApp: Most parents will be familiar with class WhatsApp groups. They can be very useful in sourcing stuff second-hand. Most parents love getting rid of stuff their children have outgrown so don’t feel any shame in asking if anyone on your WhatsApp group has any uniforms or extracurricular stuff their child has outgrown up for grabs.

eXtracurricular: One of the more depressing findings of the ILCU report was the fact that more than 60 per cent of Irish parents feel they will have no choice but to cut back on extracurricular activities for their children this year because of rising prices.

Yay!: While school holidays are obviously good on many levels – there is less traffic on the roads, less pressure to ferry children from A to B and back again and all the rest, keeping young folk entertained can be costly and stressful. The school hours might give some parents some peace for a bit.

Zeds: We’ll all miss them when they are gone.