x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

On the Money: Back-to-school regimens can test any parent

The back-to-school chaos leaves a big hole in my savings account.

Summer's over and school's back. One minute we were counting down the days to the start of the school holidays in June and the next, we were counting down the days until it went back. Where did the time go?

It is a time of the year that I dread (and I know I'm not the only one), not that I will admit that to my daughter. Instead, I maintain that false bravado that all mothers adopt when they say something that's not exactly from the heart. "School," I tell her (probably more often than is needed), "is meant to be the best time of your life."

Secretly, however, I'm thinking it's a myth that has been perpetuated by the majority of adults, all who yearn for the days when they didn't have to stress about much, had long, carefree holidays and their parents were responsible for the financials. Kind of like me.

Like any savvy eight year old, my daughter never buys it. In fact, she can spot it a mile away. Of course she knows it's the end of staying up late and sleeping in, hanging out with her friends all day and exploring new places when we join the annual summer exodus of travelling families.

She knows the new school year marks the beginning of homework, early nights, even earlier mornings and restrictions on her social life. A routine we both struggle to become used to again, despite a few years of practice.

For me, it marks a return to the treacherous morning school runs (seriously, this is not a good way to start your day), longer days thanks to said early morning school runs, my constant nagging (have you done your homework/where are your shoes/have you packed your bag/have you done your homework/where are your shoes/have you packed your bag? ... I'm sure you get the drift), and - not to forget - my stock answer for everything (despite efforts not to sound like my mother): "You can't do that because it's a school night."

The back-to-school chaos also leaves a big hole in my savings account. And it starts a couple of weeks before classes begin with the annual kit-out. Uniforms, shoes, trainers, swimming costumes and everything else a child needs to start the new school year with confidence.

And it's not like you can forget. The reminders are everywhere thanks to the back-to-school sales in all of the malls and the catalogues that land on your doorstep every other day.

Not all of the sales equate to real bargains, and for me, it is all about quality over quantity, one of my strategies to save money in the long run. Then again, there are some odd ones out there. Need a pencil sharpener? You don't have to buy just one anymore - they come in packs that will see out your child to the end of college, perhaps with an MBA thrown in for good measure if they use them wisely. I guess there's a bargain in that, more so if they are not made in China (it's all about quality, remember?). And it seems to be the same with pens and pencils.

Fortunately, I don't have to buy these types of supplies, but there are many parents in the Emirates who do. Add these to the cost of uniforms (why do children grow so quickly?), shoes, laptops, calculators and everything else they need, and the cost swells. Throw in two, three, maybe four or more children and you will need the equivalent of the GDP of a small country just to get your kids to the school gate.

Which brings me, inevitably, to one of my favourite subjects: school fees. Yes, we all know they are high and many parents question the quality of education their children receive in return. But there's no avoiding them. Children are legally required to go to school and parents, in turn, have no choice but to cough up school fees at the start of each new term.

Some choose to pay the whole year in advance, while others sock away a certain amount every month to ensure they have enough to pay for each new term. Others are very organised: they kicked off education funds before their children (or child) were even born, ensuring school fees were taken care of until the end of college. Then there are the lucky ones: their companies pay for everything.

Is it possible to pare back the back-to-school expenses? The cost of school fees are out of our hands, although being more organised with our finances can go a long way in helping us to manage them. And there are some savings to be made on the kit-out - not to mention investing in a lifetime's supply of pencil sharpeners.