Back to School

How much do Canadians spend on school supplies?

It’s back-to-school shopping season, and Canadians coast-to-coast are loading up their shopping carts with pencils, lunchboxes, and everything in between. How much are they spending? Detailed back-to-school shopping data is difficult to find, so in lieu of scientific stats, we went shopping.

We downloaded grade five school supply lists from teachers and school boards across the country, did some online shopping, and tallied up the bills (we used PEI’s province-wide standard list; standard school board lists from Vancouver and Moncton; and individual teachers’ lists from Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Montreal, Halifax, and St. John’s where standard lists were unavailable). The lists ranged from minimalist to extremely detailed to totally tyrannical, and they give us a good look at what parents are expected to shell out.
We also included the total amount that households spend on education, by province, to remind us that the prices of pens and pencils are just the beginning.

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The trouble with shopping for school supplies is that the individual items can be incredibly cheap (25 cents for a pack of pencils?!), but by the time you get to the checkout counter, it can be like the death by a thousand cuts. These things add up, especially if you’re buying for more than one child.

The average spend in our unscientific survey was around $108 per child. But that’s just the beginning – school supply lists don’t account for clothing, extra-curricular fees, or tutoring. Plus, our totals could be lower than the average bill because the shopping was done by a frugal finance writer and not by a ten-year-old who wants the latest brand-name notebooks or licensed merchandise.

But there are ways that you can wrestle back some dollars:

  • Buy items in bulk and dole them out year-after-year. There’s no point in buying three ballpoint pens at a time. Buy 100 at a low price and they’ll last you for years. The savings will add up!
  • Look around the house. You might already have some of the items on your school supply list. Many teachers are asking students to bring USB drives and headphones for computer use – if you can find those items in your desk drawer, you’ll save.
  • Shop around. Stores will be competing for your business during one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year. You are bound to find some great deals. Try a flyer comparison app like Flipp to save time.

Above all, it’s important that you go in with a plan. With budgets tight, savings low, and debts high, many Canadians can’t afford impulse or misguided spending. Back-to-school shopping season serves up extra expenses worth a couple of hundred dollars, which could be enough to throw off your finances.


In lieu of a city-by-city or provincial breakdown of back-to-school spending, we downloaded “school supply” lists from major cities across Canada. In some cases, the lists were standard across a school board (Vancouver, Ottawa, and Montreal) or province (PEI). When standard lists were unavailable, we accessed lists from the websites of public schools. All lists were designed for grade five students.

We searched for the items on and, buying generic or store brands where possible (some lists specifically requested brand names), and taking the average of the two prices. Since sale prices come and go, we stuck to the normal price. When quantities were not specified on supply lists, we bought one pack (i.e. “pencils” were interpreted as “one pack of pencils”). Some lists were classified as “mandatory” while others were “suggested” – but if it was on the list, we included it in our shopping cart. We then applied local taxes to the totals.

The numbers on total household spending on education are from Statistics Canada’s most recent Household Spending Survey and include any spending related to education, such as text books, tutoring, and tuition.