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Young man moving onto college university campus

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Presenting one of my all-time favourite commercials as a lesson on how much more complicated and expensive it is for kids to head back to school these days. It's a Staples spot in which a giddy dad buys school supplies with two dejected kids in tow. The soundtrack is the Christmas song, It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

I'm not sure if Staples still runs that ad, but I bet it would make a lot of parents mad. No one's giddy as they try to buy all the supplies kids seem to need these days for their return to the classroom. By one estimate, parents are expected to spend an average $472 per child on back to school shopping, up 43 per cent over last year. No wonder the back-to-school season is now second to the winter holiday season for spending.

More expensive by far than public school is the cost of a college or university education. If I were to list the top five personal finance behaviours that most surprise me, I'd have to include the way parents neglect registered education savings plans, or RESPs. Contribute up to $2,500 a year to an RESP on behalf of a child up to age 17 and the Canada Education Savings Grant provides a matching 20 per cent (additional grant money is available for lower income families).

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College and university tuitions have been rising above the inflation rate and average $6,191 per year, as of Statistics Canada's latest tally. Parents, if you're able, help your kids to afford the cost. I'd rather see you pay for their post-secondary education than help them buy a house. A well-chosen degree is the better investment.

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A savings guide for students
A comprehensive rundown on ways students can cut the cost of a post-secondary education, including apps and suggestions for finding cheap coffee and cell phone plans. Here's another resource for students – the Yconic website, which includes a database of scholarships. Here's a smart money student guide we put together at The Globe.

Financial planning for students
Proliteracy.ca offers an interactive way to look at the costs of attending university or college. Results are tailored to the province where you'll attend and do a good job of highlighting the cost of going away to school rather than staying home.

Save money on supplies
Before you buy stuff like clothes and school or lunch supplies, check for savings on websites like ebates.ca, groceryalerts.ca, save.ca and SmartCanucks. Here are some thoughts on buying essentials and skipping the frills.

One more pitch for RESPs
As described in this report, RESPs mainly benefit higher income families. It wouldn't surprise me to see the federal government address this criticism by fine-tuning the way it helps families afford a post-secondary education. RESPs might not be as appealing in the future, so grab that grant money while you can.

Today's featured financial tool
Try this calculator to estimate your children's future education costs and then see how RESPs can help you cover these expenses.

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Ask Rob
The question: "I want to set up RESP accounts for my grandchildren contributing $500 each year to their accounts. Currently I have three grandchildren under two years old with more on the way. I had hoped to use a self-directed family plan. I would like to use equities at the start and ramp down to GIC-type investments as they approach 17. How do I do this in a family plan as there becomes a mix of older and younger grandchildren? Or should I use individual plans?"

My reply: Most generous of you. Also, your investment plan is sound. Start with stocks and then gradually move into safe investments as your grandchildren approach graduation. With my own two boys, I started to reduce risk before age 17. A family plan would probably be easier for you to run than a bunch of separate individual plans, but you'll need to manage the assets so that the younger grandkids are still mostly in stocks while the older ones are invested more conservatively.

Do you have a question for me? Send it my way. Questions and answers are edited for length.

Featured Video
How parents can push back against big school supply bills.

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