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Where to find the cheapest school supplies

We visited Staples, Walmart and Dollarama, in the hopes of saving you money. Here’s what we found. Patricia Kozicka reports.

Back to school is the second busiest shopping season for Canadians, right after Christmas. And the Labour Day long weekend is traditionally when the bulk of the school supplies are bought.

A recent President’s Choice survey found more than one-third of parents plan to spend more than $500 on each of their children this time of year, which is more than they expect to spend over the holidays. Last year, 50 per cent of parents parted with even more cash than that.

To help save your hard-earned dollars, we took an average supply list from a Grade 4 Edmonton school and checked out prices at the three biggest back to school vendors: Staples, Walmart and Dollarama.

In our quest to find the best deals, we were reminded (despite what its name might suggest) few things at the dollar store are actually a dollar. But when we crunched the numbers, the bill at Dollarama was still the lowest.

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WATCH: 5 things you should buy at the dollar store

It had eight of the least expensive items on the list. Walmart and Staples both had five. You can see what was cheapest where below:

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Another dollar store perk was that it was also much easier to navigate because, for the most part, everything was limited to one neatly organized aisle.

 

The back to school section at a Toronto Dollarama.
The back to school section at a Toronto Dollarama. Patricia Kozicka, Global News

Walmart, on the other hand, was a bit of a back-to-school war zone so it took longer to find the items on our list.

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The only ruler we could find, for example, was randomly mixed in with some Post-Its. Stuff was often in the wrong bins, and sometimes just out of the packaging altogether.

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A picked-through bin with loose crayons at a Toronto Walmart. Patricia Kozicka, Global News

Shopping all the aisles at Staples proved to be the most time-consuming and expensive. Interestingly, the items we found online were $40 less expensive than the ones in-store. (Walmart had a $10 gap between online and in-store costs.)

A Staples spokesperson explained the store tries to keep prices the same across all branded platforms, but exclusive “online” or “in-store only” deals sometimes skew costs. Its “Take all the Notes” event, which is aimed at University students who shop online, was cited as the reason for the discrepancy this time around.

Those who do order online from Staples can expect to see their purchases delivered the next day for free.

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READ MORE: How families struggling with cost of back-to-school supplies and fees can save

Select Walmart locations offer in-store pickup, which might make for a more “civilized” and speedy shopping experience for busy families.

Family finance advisor Rubina Ahmed-Haq is a big believer in online shopping. She thinks it makes it easier to be more targeted in your selections and less likely to succumb to external forces.

But before buying anything, Ahmed-Haq urges parents to do an inventory check of what they already have at home. Her number one piece of advice is to avoid buying everything before school starts.

READ MORE: The psychology behind impulse buys — how stores manipulate you to spend more

If you’re going to splurge on anything, she suggests it be electronics. A lot of people will try to go for the least expensive option only to have to replace it a year later.

It can also help to include your kids in the shopping process – to a degree.

She recommends letting children pick out their lunchbox and backpack.

“They carry it every day so they should be proud of it,” she reasoned. “It can showcase their personality.”

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READ MORE: 5 tips to teach your kids about money

Ahmed-Haq also suggests parents use this time of year as a learning experience.

Parents and kids can set a budget after going through the list of must-buys together. Once at the store, kids can be tasked with finding each item.

“It helps them understand [personal finance]. They’re comparison shopping, and if [something’s too expensive], they’re adjusting.”

You can check out our complete shopping comparison breakdown below.

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Infographics by Ben Simpson, Global News