For most parents the phrase "back-to-school" sounds like nails scraping a blackboard, with tuition hikes, rising prices, and exploitative school practices putting a dent in their budgets. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Forget pencils and notebooks: From theme-day costumes to cow brains for lab dissection, back to school shopping has become a complicated and costly chore.

Like a math quiz, budgeting for this season can be a hassle especially with schools starting just after Ramadan and Eid, which would have taken their toll on your wallet.

But this time it does not have to be a test of your patience. Parents are giving their children a crash course in Economics 101 as increasing prices and stagnant salaries force them to get creative with saving on school purchases.

Tahani Mustafa, a Jordanian mother of four said she was a veteran saver who spent no more than Dh300 on each of her children. Her advice was to make an inventory of last year's school supplies and salvage anything that could be reused.

"When I get back from the holidays, I check their stuff and see if they really need something new for next year," she said.

"I only buy a couple of things so the kids feel they have something new."

Tahani said she collected pencils and pens and tore out used pages from old notebooks, to be reused.

Tahira Yasmeen, a Pakistani homemaker, said having three schoolchildren was expensive but could be a financial blessing too. Tahira's "hand-me down" system — where clothes and textbooks used by her older children are passed down to the younger ones — helps her to avoid buying new items each year.

"Our budget is affected due to the recession. The bonuses have stopped and we can't get extra things for the kids with just the salary," she said. Most parents believe investing in costlier but better quality items is better since these last longer and can be used by the next generation.

Uniforms and textbooks figure as the most expensive items on a shopping list, with most parents saying that they are forced to buy them from the schools.

Umm Abeer, a Palestinian housewife and mother of three, said she refused to spend Dh900 on three sets of uniforms for each child.

Instead, she said she bought them at half the price from The School Uniform: Rewa Fashion, a shop which made private and public school uniforms.

The shop owner's son Majid Taqvi said: "In the peak season we don't have time to sit and drink water. Schools sell uniforms at a high price, that's why parents buy from outside."

Rewa Fashion also sells school uniform belts, ties, socks, and lunchboxes. It has branches in Dubai and Sharjah. Shafiq Ebrahim, an Indian father to two girls, said he recommended going to Al Ghuwair Market in Rolla, Sharjah, where tailors such as Al Fadwa and Pony make uniforms for Dh50 a set.

Christienne, a Lebanese mother of three boys who study in Al Maarif Private School, said she limited her back-to-school budget to Dh1,500 for each child but still had to be conservative with her spending. "Instead of buying five uniforms for every day, I buy two and wash them more often because they will get dirty anyway," she said.

Umm Amal, a Syrian housewife and mother of three, said she pitched in with 10 other mothers to buy material, plus one uniform and a logo from the school before asking a tailor to copy the uniform's design.

Parents said they were also banding together to bear the back-breaking cost of textbooks. Sheila Magdaleno's 13-year-old son studies at the Philippines School in Dubai.

His textbooks cost Dh1,200, but Sheila said she bought them at a quarter of a price for Dh300. "There is a network of parents in school who pass down the books to the children in the grade below," she said as her son browsed through stationery in Al Maya supermarket.

Umm Amal added that used or expensive brand new books could still be sold if they were in a good condition. The former school teacher and mother of three said she resorted to photocopying some of the textbooks.

"You can get a book photocopied for Dh10 when the original costs Dh60," she said, adding that it only worked for subjects that did not require the problems to be solved by writing in the book itself.

Although it is a violation of copyright laws, photocopying makes brisk business. Nawas Yousuf, owner of a stationery store in Sharjah, said: "About 40 per cent of our business comes from photocopying textbooks every term."

Some parents said they hunted for textbook bargains outside school. The Liberty Bookshop in Karama sells Indian curriculum books while Al Mutanabbi Bookstore in Deira stocks CBSE and IGCSE school books. The University Bookstore in Sharjah carries textbooks from a variety of school systems too.

And while all work and no play can make for dull children, extracurricular activities and projects figured as another hidden school cost.

Theme days

Christienne said her grade one toddler demanded to be decked out in her finest clothing for theme days at school, built around topics they were studying.

"There's colour day and animal day and winter day. The cartoon day cost me Dh70 for a Snow White dress," she said.

By the time bakery day came around, Christienne said she had had enough.

"I made a baker's costume at home from scratch. I made a chef's hat with her name "Chef Kholoud" on it," she said. "The outfit took an entire day."

But she added that designing and stitching home-made costumes for plays and other activities was a cheaper and fun alternative to ready-made garments, adding that children could be involved in the process.

For her son's grade nine science lab, Christienne said she had to splurge on a white lab coat and safety glasses that set her back by Dh200. Pupils were also required to dissect an animal's brain, heart, and kidneys, so Christienne said she bought them from the Carrefour butchery when they were on special. "What can I do? He needs them for participation grades," she said.

Other schools demand a long list of arts and crafts items and parents said it was hard to say no when the class promised to develop your child's creativity.

Umm Abeer, a former teacher, said: "The teacher has asked for oil paints, water paints, acrylics, textiles, and glass. That bundle costs about Dh50 for each child. If I find it useful, I'll buy one set of each and make them share it."

The former teacher said some schools also offered archery, horse-riding, and swimming classes that cost Dh500 for 12 lessons. Many parents were opting out of these expensive add-ons.

"You can just give them private lessons with a trainer who selects the best club," she said. Umm Abeer said her children's classes cost just Dh200 for 12 lessons.

Additionally, parents said those who had endured endless whining, only to cave in and buy their child a Hannah Montana bag, were not alone. "Randa, my three-year old going to KG 1, wants a Hannah Montana bag," Umm Abeer said.

"But these bags cost over a Dh100. And the branded ones actually get torn or broken." She recommended keeping school bags in good condition and re-using them next year.

Mother and housewife Suhair Hamdi said buying unbranded bags and stationery was gentler on your purse. Suhair said she compared prices at several outlets before shopping, adding it was cheaper to buy stationery, in bulk, from the One-Dirham shops, especially as younger children were prone to losing them.

Feroz Abbas, mother of six-year old Zainab, said giving teachers the stationery at the beginning of the year and asking them to distribute it when required was another saving strategy.

With all that jazz of back-to-school promotions, parents warned that children were bound to want more than they could afford to buy and it made for a good lesson in self-reliance.

Umm Amal said she bought a savings box for her children to set money aside, from their monthly allowance, for extra things.

"They save up then they can decide for themselves if they want to use their own money to buy the extra, unnecessary things," she said.

M.H. Lee, father of identical twins Jain and Soo, said he created a savings system based on rewards.

Reward scheme

"If they do a good thing like cleaning or making the bed, I give them a sticker. If they collect more than 20 stickers, I buy them something special or expensive like a Hannah Montana bag," he said as the twins capered around the crayons aisle in Carrefour.

Mustafa said this year, with school following Eid, children could use their Eideya or Eid money to buy the extra things they wanted.

She said she took a no-nonsense approach to shopping. Parents, not the children, should make most of the choices, Mustafa said.

"When kids cry for something, the parents automatically buy it for them. But we should teach kids to be content with what they have. Parents should select the price range and if the product is suitable, then kids can select the colour or the model," she said.

Mustafa said she had become good at avoiding the classic embarrassing scene of having children crying in the aisle clutching a Barbie lunchbox or a Ben Ten schoolbag that mummy was refusing to buy the,.

"Parents should go shopping without their kids. Then whatever you bring home, he'll agree to it. But when he goes to the shop, he wants everything, the arguments start, he cries, and you have to buy it. It's embarrassing," she said.

Mustafa advised parents to buy what their children needed, not just what was on sale. Buying in bulk during sales was a bad idea, because you could be tempted to buy too much.

She said that she avoided buying during sales because bulk quantities were not necessarily cheaper. For example she only needed two notebooks for Dh5 each, rather than five sold at Dh15, she said.

"Promotions lure you in but their prices are still high. All that talk about 50 per cent off is nonsense," Mustafa said. "I calculate it by the single piece. Compare prices in Dubai with those of your home country and if they are cheaper, do your school shopping there over the summer holidays," she suggested.

In Dubai, the parents interviewed recommended the following stores for the best back-to-school offers: Carrefour, Lulu Hypermarket, Ansar Mall, Monalisa, Gift Village, One-Dirham shops, Farook International Stationery, Shoemart and Babyshop, while adding thata long-term savings strategy begins with the mind of your child.

"I set a budget then tell them not to break their school things or they won't get anything new. They need to understand the value of things and that it's not easy to just buy a replacement," Umm Abeer said.

"There's a lot of consumption and showing off among kids nowadays. Parents have to teach them to buy what they need," she added.

Tips on back to school shopping

Getting your children ready for school does not have to cost a fortune. Gulf News quizzed parents on child-proof ways to stick to your budget:

  1. Make an inventory of your child's school supplies from last year. Buy items based on what your child is missing.
  2. Find deals on uniforms from specialised tailors that charge less than the school. Parents recommend Rewa Fashion and Al Ghuwair Market. Buy fewer sets and wash them more often rather than buying more.
  3. Buy used textbooks from parents of pupils in the year ahead and sell your child's books from last year.Find deals in bookshops outside school. Parents recommend Al Mutanabbi, University Bookshop, Liberty Bookshop and Al Munna.
  4. If you have more than one child, the little ones can inherit textbooks, uniforms and bags from their older siblings if you keep the items in good condition.
  5. Opt for cheaper, unbranded products.
  6. School bags are expensive: wash and reuse next year.
  7. Let your children know how much they can spend so they buy only what they need. Motivate them by telling them they can keep any extra cash they don't spend.
  8. Ask children to chip in for school shopping with their own allowance and savings, especially if they demand extra or unnecessary items.
  9. Reward your children for doing chores by buying them the one school item they really want.
  10. Make use of back to school offers in August and September to buy all school supplies in bulk and at cheaper prices.
  11. Promotions can lure children to demand things they don't need. Ask them what they need and go shopping without them. Alternatively, shop together but select the price range while they select the colour or model.
  12. Shop for school supplies on holiday back home if it is cheaper.
  13. Get creative with the cost of extra-curricular activities: Design and stitch costumes for theme days or plays yourself, share one set of arts and crafts items among your children, or buy the animal parts required for science dissection at special prices from your local hypermarket.
  14. Children can use their Eid money to buy an item they really want if it exceeds your back to school budget.
  15. Develop a price-conscious mentality in your children: teach them to value their school purchases. Ask them not to break or lose any items because they will not be replaced. Teach them not to compare themselves with other children or buy items to "show off" among friends.

A big deal: Parents dread extra add-on purchases

For most parents the phrase "back-to-school" sounds like nails scraping a blackboard, with tuition hikes, rising prices, and exploitative school practices putting a dent in their budgets.

Schools require parents to buy uniforms and textbooks from them and charge higher prices than retailers outside, parents say. "The school surprises us with an increase in the price of uniforms and textbooks every year without telling us in advance," said Umm Amal, a mother of three schoolchildren.

Schools are becoming increasingly "exploitative" as they require even notebooks to be purchased from them at a higher mark-up than stationers, said Christienne, the mother of three children studying in a Dubai school. "It's so expensive, we're not even paying for quality education, we're paying for these add-ons," she said.

Annual increases in tuition fees have left parents at their wits' end. "We had a 100 per cent increase in tuition fees. Parents are afraid of the next semester because of the costs," said Amerah Gareeb, a mother of three.

Schools are run like a business and an opportunity to make money out of pupils rather than as an institution of education and learning, she added.

One mother said it was unfair that her sons' academic performance was related to completing projects that cost them a fortune during the year.

"The project costs are constant and they don't end. It's like ‘pay and buy and we'll give you the grades,'" said Suheir Hamdi, a mother of four.

"The ministry of education is not siding with the parents or the kids but with the owners of the school," Gareeb added.

Hamdi said it is hard to save on school purchases because there are few pupil discounts compared to the UK and US as "Dubai is becoming more business-oriented."

Parents complained about the annual price increase of back-to-school items and were dissatisfied with the current sales. More retailers are expected to announce sales in early September.

How do you find the prices this year compared to last? Do you shop on a budget? Do  you shop throughout the year or wait until the beginning of the school year?