Back to School with Frugal Frannie

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So, it’s almost time to go back to school. For some of us mamas, it is that poignant, teary time when our kids will have their first day at “big school.” It’s a big transition, and potentially, a very expensive one as well. There are the school fees, the books and uniforms, textbooks and supplies.

I’m going to give you a few simple tips that may well enable many of you well-deserving mamas to recover from Christmas and even eventually put enough money aside for a really nice family holiday. What’s more, it takes very little effort on your part. Sound good? Let’s go!

Let’s start with school lunches. In fact, let’s not worry about the sandwich. Let’s just focus on the snacks. I’ve been sitting here number-crunching with my calculator and drawing up infographics – two of my favourite activities. Yes, I am a nerd.

A pet peeve

Warning: I’m about to get nitpicky and talk about a real money-sucker. You know those cute little tubes of yoghurt with Shrek on them, the multi-packs of biscuits, the sugary, heavily packaged ‘health bars’? They are every frugal mama’s nightmare, I’m afraid. Essentially, you are paying for two things: processing (often with all kinds of preservatives and chemicals we could probably do without) and packaging!

Check this out mamas: a few simple choices can save your family hundreds of dollars, and I am being conservative here.

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tick!These prices are taken from an online catalogue from one of our leading supermarkets. I have omitted the brands because I didn’t want to pick on anyone, but I tried to pick mid-range brands. Email me if you are interested to know what they were.

I have made the infographic for two children over a fortnight, because I figured two kids would be the most common number and because fortnightly shops minimise extra impulse buys. Which one gets the Frugal Frannie tick of approval? See if you can guess.

This should go without saying, but of course I am not suggesting you feed your kids the same lunch every day for a year. This is meant for informational purposes only, folks! Even so, this same principle applies to all kinds of other things – a cheap packet of bulk pasta vs a mini can of spaghetti, home made muesli slice vs muesli bars, bulk sultanas versus those itty bitty boxes and so on. You get the idea.

These savings could be driven even lower by buying a generic brand of yoghurt (or making your own), taking advantage of cheap, seasonal fruit and swapping the crackers and cheese for some good, old fashioned home baking. I tried to pick snacks that would not require much more time and energy than the expensive items. I’m sure we can all find time to scoop yoghurt into a little container or slice some cheese.

“But Frannie,” you say, “I haven’t the time!”

Mamas, I do understand. These things are convenient. We’re all run ragged as it is. School lunches are a drag and we have to make them every… SINGLE… blinkin’… day. Kids love the little cute packages. Maybe they are more inclined to eat their lunch if it has a picture of their favourite pop culture icon on it. They probably get a gooey feeling inside when they see the Wall-e staring up at them from the cute little packet and a lunch box is just not the same.

I remember that feeling as a kid. I longed to get the little boxes of sultanas and crisps like my friends ate, instead of the brown paper bags of whole foods dried fruit and funny-looking grainy bread.

Beyond money…

It’s not just money we waste by buying heavily packaged convenience foods. Imagine how much smaller our national rubbish pile would be if we all simply switched to lunchboxes and bulk or unpackaged items. Not only that, but we pay just once when  we make the switch from disposable packaging to re-useable items like lunch boxes and washable lunch wrappers.

For this reason, we have adopted a clingwrap-free policy at home. We re-use lunchboxes and even things like yoghurt containers instead. These savings do add up, and you also get to feel good about minimising our part in the ballooning piles of 8 billion people’s trash. I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet. I’m not Mother Theresa. Avoiding cling wrap is dead easy. Anyone could do it. All you need to do is make other choices.

These little choices can make a big difference. According to the wastefreelunches campaigners, children throw out an average of 67 pounds (about 30 kilograms) of rubbish from school lunches every single year. That’s about the weight of a 9-year-old boy! Multiply that by about 4.6 million (the number of people aged under 18 in Australia, according to the ABS) and you have a pretty massive pile of rubbish.

scalesMost kids care enough about this stuff to listen if we talk about it. They don’t want to fill the planet with unnecessary trash. I am sure as parents we can help them see the wisdom of exchanging that throwaway tube of yoghurt for a little lunchbox and spoon, the heavily wrapped muesli bar for a home-made biscuit, the cling wrap on the sandwich for a paper bag or snug-fitting lunchbox. Many schools are teaching this stuff now, and even adopting waste-free lunch policies.

“It’s ok. I recycle,” you say. And good on you, sez I. Thing is though, if we are really serious about protecting our planet and minimising pollution, recycling is not nearly enough. For a start, recycling does not negate the need for more of the same. Many recyclable products are ‘downcycled.’ Plastics, for example, lose quality and purity the more they are recycled. What starts as a plastic bottle might end up being cheap plumbing pipe.

Time for another infographic? I’m on a roll now…

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I am only skimming the surface and getting very sidetracked in the process. Essentially, it boils down to this: if we are serious about being responsible custodians of this planet, it is not enough to recycle. We must stop creating the waste in the first place. We need to re-use whenever we can.

What does this have to do with frugal living?

What does all this have to do with frugal living, you may well ask. Well, for me, it lies at the heart of frugality to think about where a thing has come from and whether its life is over. Why throw out a perfectly usable jam jar or yoghurt container and then buy cling wrap (another disposable item) to store things in? This way of seeing things can translate to every area of our lives and oh boy, can it save money.

The more we do this, the less we waste, the less we need to replace and the better we use the resources we have at hand. The good news is that making even small changes like swapping school snacks can also save us thousands of dollars over the course of our children’s schooling life. Do the maths. Have I convinced you yet?

I intend to go into greater depth about this and I will in a future article, because observing models like the waste heirarchy in our homes can lead to incredible savings, affecting everything from the grocery shop to the power bill. This is only the tip of the iceberg. You wait, mamas! This stuff can truly be life-changing!

Google green frugal living, or jump on Pinterest. There are some amazing families, living on less than $20,000 a year and really enjoying the time and freedom their frugal lifestyle brings. It’s so inspiring! It’s not for everyone, though. It’s about finding a level your family is comfortable with, and that is a very personal thing. Hopefully, I will be able to help all of you, from the skinflints to the lush-loving princesses.

OK, ENOUGH SOAPBOXING, Frannie. Focus! School savings! Come on!

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Let’s talk about school supplies

Where was I? Oh, yes. Back to the task at hand. What about all those school supplies? I remember at school I was required to bring in a few exercise books, some pens and pencils, and that was about it. Not anymore, huh, mamas?

At the start of each school year, most kids seem to come home with a list of ‘essentials’ adding up to hundreds of dollars. Some schools even bag up ‘back to school kits’. Ours does, and the one for my son’s class is more than $250. No thanks.

Frugal tip number two: don’t buy what you can scrounge. I can hear the collective groans from here. Believe me, I am joining the chorus. I have spent a depressing amount of time sharpening pencils with broken leads and testing ageing textas for signs of lid negligence.

textasYeah, it can be painful and chaotic to dredge up all those highlighters and calculators, tearing out the pages in a few old exercise books, testing textas and so on, but isn’t it worthwhile? With jobs like these I like to think of it in terms of wages. An hour scrounging up pens, pencil cases, rubbers, calculators, textas, glue sticks, books blah blah blah might save you $80.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t make $80 in an hour as a general rule. Well, it worked for me. Maybe it will help some of you find the motivation too! GROAN. In today’s affluent society, many kids have overflowing drawers of these kinds of things and their parents can go ahead and toss all those ‘back to school’ catalogues in the bin.

Now for the uniform

calculatorBuying new school uniforms is not cheap. Most of you have probably figured that out already. Gone are the days when a school uniform consisted of a tunic or a pair of trousers, a shirt and a pair of shoes. These days, there are sports shirts, swimming caps, socks, shorts, skorts, wide brimmed hats, coloured team shirts, formal and informal uniforms, library bags, music bags, chair bags, zip up jackets, blazers… my head is spinning just looking at the order form for my school’s uniform shop!

I’ve never bothered with all the fancy labeled library bags and whatnot, but even so, I added up how much it would cost to buy the basic compulsory school uniform items with a couple of changes of tops and socks: $363 for girls and $298 for boys. Ouch! I could have gone higher for those parents whose kids need a special shirt for playing music (!) or those who want them to have all the bits and pieces, like hairbands.

The days are also gone when you could get a cheap second hand uniform at the clothing pool too, at least at my school. I checked it out last year. Everything was more than $10. Yeah, no. This is when us frugal mamas need to get on the blower and call that social butterfly mama who knows everyone. You know the one. Every school has one. Bless her cotton socks.

With a bit of networking and scrounging, us mamas should be able to find some pre-loved uniforms, hopefully for free. I know some local mothers have jumped on our suburb’s Facebook pages sending out requests for school uniforms. We can also bless other mamas with things that no longer fit our kids.

Yes, it can be a bit of a hassle. I think it’s worth it. Why not organise a picnic lunch and uniform swap at the park? Who knows, maybe YOU can become the social butterfly mama this year (if you are not her already).

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Those danged fees

Lastly, there are the fees. I am only going to talk about state schools here because private schools vary too much in their financial policies. Many state schools ask for fees to subsidise things like art supplies, or specialised teachers in drama or languages. They might charge for planned excursions, administrative and photocopying costs and so on.

It can all add up very quickly, but if you are struggling to come up with the money upfront, pop into the office and have a chat – you might be able to arrange some sort of payment plan, or to waive some fees altogether. Yes, it’s a bit embarrassing, but the school probably has requests like this all the time.

Feel guilty? Why not offer to volunteer some time instead? State schools always have lists of jobs that they rely on the kindness of parents to accomplish. Offer to read with the kids, help in the canteen, cook cakes for fundraisers or weed the veggie patch: it’s just as valuable a contribution as money.

Well, that’s my lot for this week. After all that boring, practical stuff, I’m ready for a fun blog. It’s nearly Valentine’s Day and I’m in the mood for lurve. Will this involve empty consumerism and tacky hallmark cards? I don’t think so. Join me next week, lovers… whether you are coupled up or single, let’s make this Valentine’s Day our best (and cheapest) yet!

Until then… adios amigos.

Parents may well wonder why uniforms are so pricey. As it happens, I know the answer to this because I was involved in a campaign called Fairwear, which lobbied to get clothing companies to sign a guarantee that they would not use clothing made in sweatshops. Stubbies and King Gee (our uniform makers) were among a tiny handful of  clothing companies that were prepared to sign this agreement. Consumers bear the costs of paying people properly and in principle, Frugal Frannie approves of this. Nice one. Even so, I’ve got to admit, I’d still prefer the hand-me-downs!

frugal-frannieFrugal Frannie is a fictitious character based on a real-life mama who loves nothing more than to pinch a few pennies. She’s a saver, socially responsible and a bit of a greenie, with a strong interest in the DIY movement. Over the coming weeks, she will share frugal tips on all sorts of things, including family entertainment, budget date nights, dirt cheap gardening, home maintenance, setting up a frugal craft cupboard, luxury on a budget, cheap entertainment for kiddies, tricks to curb the spending urge and more.

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