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School extras can break the parental piggy bank

Extras like eating pizza can break the piggy bank.

While most of Amreen Omar's finances are handled the modern way – online or with plastic – she keeps a jar of change on her kitchen counter.

It's filled with toonies and serves as a savings bank to cover the long list of miscellaneous school expenses for her children Aamir, 8, and Amina, 6. There's $10 every other week for pizza day, $6 for the special reptile presentation at school, $8 for the field trip to Harbourfront Centre.

"We have to send cash and it has to be exact change," says Ms. Omar, a 39-year-old lawyer and professor at Toronto's Seneca College.

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She'll usually draw $20 to $30 a month from the jar, one more thing to budget for on top of the hundreds she spends on lunches, sports and after-school programs for her kids. "It's expensive. It's definitely expensive. And you can't do everything," she says.

Parents, you may have just parted with a few hundred dollars to outfit your kids with school supplies and clothes for their return to the classroom, but the hits will keep on coming right until June.

Between hot lunch programs, snacks for class parties, book fairs and after-school gymnastics, budgeting for the school year goes far beyond those late-August runs to the office-supplies store. But most families don't prepare themselves for the extra costs.

Last month, RBC commissioned an Ipsos Reid poll on school-related spending. Of the 1,010 parents surveyed, 34 per cent said they were setting a budget for the year, meaning the majority weren't clear on how much the year would cost and had a pay-as-you-go mindset.

This is the first year all three of Christine Coleman's kids will be attending school, in Georgetown, Ont., and she's bracing for the financial damage.

When her eldest, Campbell (10), was the only one in school, she didn't think twice about signing him up for the pizza day and milk-and-cookie snacks program. She also enrolled him in the "Lunch Lady" service that delivers a hot meal twice a week.

But now, with younger siblings Cuyler (8) and Eva (4) also in school, Ms. Coleman finds herself writing cheques totalling $230 a month for those extras.

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She also forks over about $100 a year for field trips. "One week, the total for two field trips was $46," she says. "I remember when they were free."

The flurry of cheques and envelopes of cash became hard to track, so she opened a savings account to manage all school-related costs. Having everything drawn from one account helped her budget, and she knows that if her credit card is maxed out and cheques from her primary account are used up, she can still make a last-minute payment for a school trip to a conservation area.

Sarah Deveau, the Calgary-based author of Money Smart Mom: Financially Fit Parenting, says school-year costs can vary widely for parents, depending on the ages of their children and whether a school has an active parent council. Some councils that are skilled at fundraising can fully subsidize team uniforms and field trips, while others leave parents to pay those costs.

Ms. Deveau suggests that instead of handling payments as they come (often five minutes before leaving for school, when your child presents a dog-eared permission slip), parents should speak to the teacher or school secretary in September to find out how much the year's activities and programs will cost.

"The school's happy to let you know that. … They get a lot of money from fundraising, they get a lot of money from Scholastic [book]orders," Ms. Deveau says. "They don't want your kid to be the only one who can't go on that field trip."

Kathy Buckworth, Mississauga-based author of several parenting books, including The BlackBerry Diaries: Adventures in Modern Motherhood, says things only get pricier when children reach their teens.

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The combination of high-school-level keeping up with the Joneses and a wider array of expensive activities can mean parents regularly shell out thousands, rather than hundreds, each year.

Instead of day trips to the zoo, it's a two-week excursion in Western Europe. The $7 recorder has been upgraded to a $600 clarinet. Oh, and they'll need that $75 pre-payment for the yearbook the first week of school.

Instead of continuing to cover those items in high school, parents should encourage kids to take on part-time jobs to pay for at least a portion of them, Ms. Buckworth says.

If something's out of their budget, parents should not just tell their children they can't afford it, but explain why they chose not to spend money on that particular program or activity, Ms. Deveau says. "Being really open and honest with your kids about money is about teaching them how to handle it.".

Ann-Marie Burton, 35, is still smarting from the $75 she spent on her six-year-old's back-to-school gear last month, and not looking forward to how much more she'll have to spend this year.

Like Ms. Coleman, she's startled by the money pit school has become since she was a kid.

Birthdays are more elaborate (she's budgeting $200 to cover gifts for 10 of her daughter's classmates) and even in-class events – like Halloween parties – aren't as simple as they once were due to nut-free policies.

"Some schools won't even let home-baked goodies into their schools," says the Burlington, Ont., mom. "To bake a few cupcakes is a few dollars, but now if you're going to have to go out and buy who knows what, pre-packaged things are always more expensive."

When her daughter asked to enroll in both jazz and tap-dancing classes, Ms. Burton put her foot down and told her to choose one. It was an early defensive play; she knows things will only get hairier as her kids grow older.

"I have three, so I'm trying to not over-promise with the first," she says.

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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