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GTA parents feeling the pinch of a more expensive back-to-school season

For Toronto mother Tanya Hayles, getting ready for back-to-school 2023 has been anything but easy.

“All the things that they need have gone up in price,” said Hayles, the mother of a 10-year-old son and founder of the group Black Moms Connection. She’s also gone from a shared household to paying the full rent, in addition to taking on all the other household expenses — and back-to-school costs haven’t been cheap.

“I think when people think of back to school, they think very narrowly; like new crayons, a new backpack. But they forget about all the other things that come along with it.”

Those other things include clothing, electronics and everything else that comes with in-person learning.

“The pandemic really kind of made us forget about all the extra costs, the pizza lunches, the school pictures, like all the other things that are associated with the school year,” said Hayles.

She says that based on conversations she’s had with other parents, she’s not alone in feeling the pinch.

“Everyone is in the same boat,” she said.

A picture of Tanya Hayles outdoors. She is the mother of a 10-year-old boy in Toronto and founder of the group Black Moms Connection
Tanya Hayles is a mother of a 10-year-old boy in Toronto and founder of the group Black Moms Connection. (CBC)

“I think every parent, whether they’re married couples with a house in Brampton or a single parent or co-parenting down in the Beaches — I’m hearing the same thing across the board.”

New figures released by Statistics Canada in August show that the price of many school stationery supplies, lunch box food staples and after-school activities have gone up this year. That, coupled with the growing cost of many items and services stemming from rising inflation rates means this September’s back-to-school season is hitting some parents harder.

Supply costs

Statistics Canada data also shows that prices for children’s clothing are running below the pace of inflation, and electronics that might be used for schooling have gone down year-over-year. But parents will still have to deal with price jumps like a 12.9 per cent hike for stationery supplies when compared to last July.

Some experts say they’re not surprised that supplies like binders, pencils, or paper are going up in price, because the products have a lower value per kilogram.

“When you’re trying to move bulky things that aren’t worth a lot per unit of volume or per unit weight, the transportation cost makes up a larger fraction of the selling cost than it does with other products,” said David Soberman, professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

A head shot of David Soberman, who is a professor with the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
David Soberman is a professor with the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Soberman says overall, prices are much worse than last year. 

“When we think back to the previous back-to-school season, which was September 2022, in a way we could think inflation was just getting started,” said Soberman.

“Now, by the time we’re in September of 2023, we’ve had a full year of these higher inflation rates. And so people now have the time to really feel this effect.”

The Retail Council of Canada says it’s seeing some of that translate into consumer behaviour.

In a survey released last month, it found the number of people planning to spend less than $50 on school shopping has gone up by 3.4 per cent compared to 2022. It says that could be “indicative of the tightening of purse strings due to the prevailing economic conditions.”

Shoppers strolling in a mall turn to look into a shoe store displaying red sale signs.
The Retail Council of Canada says many parents are purchasing lower-priced items than in years past during this back-to-school season. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“We know that Canadians are still spending money on necessities and spending when they need to. They’re just really doing so in a more careful, mindful way. They’re focused on purchasing more lower-priced items than in years past,” said Michelle Wasylyshen, spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada.

The Statistics Canada figures also show prices for school textbooks were up 2.8 per cent year-over-year in July and the cost of after-school activities like music lessons or other programs are up 5.6 per cent. Some of the biggest increases in price are among lunch box items — for example, the price of cookies and crackers were 12.4 per cent higher this July compared with 12 months earlier, and fresh milk prices were 6.2 per cent higher.

Managing costs and conversations

On top of those financial challenges is the pressure social media can put on kids to have specific products or brands as they head back to class.

“Of course now that you’re back at school, you’re seeing everyone in person too. And kids are really hyper aware of all these things like what kind of shoes, what kind of backpack, what kind of binder,” says Robin Taub, a chartered professional accountant and author of the book The Wisest Investment – Teaching Your Kids to be Responsible, Independent and Money Smart for life. 

Taub says the difference between needs and wants is a really important conversation to have with kids — and says it isn’t always easy. But she says while young children might not be able to grasp some of the ideas, teens or even preteens can — so setting an example for them with your own practices is a good start.

A photograph of author and Chartered Professional Accountant Robin Taub.
Robin Taub is a Chartered Professional Accountant and the author of ‘The Wisest Investment – Teaching Your Kids to be Responsible, Independent and Money Smart for Life.’ (Supplied by Robin Taub)

“You could just use this as an opportunity to talk about the importance of living within your means. So if you’re feeling the pressure to spend more than you have budgeted or allocated for back to school shopping, you can explain that you feel it’s important to live within your means,” Taub said.

For Hayles, she thinks there are ways to have these conversations, especially in light of the current economic situation.

“It’s not about burdening your kids. It is about teaching your children because you send them to school to be educated. But your job as a parent is to be your child’s first teacher,” she said.

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