These days, the end of summer and back-to-school rush seems to always sneak up on us, leaving us scrambling to put away the sunscreen and flip flops and dig out the indoor runners and backpacks.

Despite the rush, back to school still feels like the beginning of a new year, even more so than January 1. With fresh notebooks and sharp pencils in hand, it seems like a natural time to take stock of where I am with my plans and goals, and get things organized for a last chance to meet them before year’s end.

At the top of our list of annual goals is our savings for the kids’ future education. Sometimes however, we get to this time of year and realize we’re not quite on track to meet our end-of-year savings goals. Whether we’ve had unexpected expenses, a dip in income, or decided to take an extra family vacation over the summer months, we often need to top up the accounts in the fall to catch up.

If you’re in the same slow boat for your child’s education savings, read on for some last-minute savings strategies for any budget.

Save money on supplies

The easiest way to save money in the back-to-school rush is to avoid overspending in a last-minute panic. If you didn’t take advantage of off-season and sale prices earlier in the year, start by taking stock of your current supply before heading out to the stores. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you already have in your closets from last year, freeing up a little extra money to get your savings goals back on track.

Re-using backpacks, lunch kits and binders over multiple years always pays off, and we usually even find basic supplies like pencil crayons, pens and erasers last more than one school year.

We also tend to avoid back-to-school shopping for clothes as much as possible, preferring instead to buy most clothes and shoes on sale or second-hand as needed, or trading hand me downs throughout the year with friends and family.

This summer, my sister-in-law even used some fabric scraps to help my 11-year-old sew her own new T-shirt and a stylish infinity scarf – DIY pre-teen fashion for the new school year that is both thrifty and one-of-kind!

Making lunches healthy and affordable

After a summer’s worth of hot dogs, hamburgers and watermelon slices, I often succumb to a big back-to-school grocery shop to restock my pantry and fridge with more and better choices to start the semester off right.

But healthy, hearty lunches and weekday dinners don’t have to break the budget – in fact, school lunches are an easy way to cut down on grocery costs and free up extra money for your child’s education savings.

Making homemade lunches for you and your kids is the first step to making a real dent in your grocery and food expenses. And investing in thermoses and microwave-safe lunch containers mean last night’s leftovers can become tomorrow’s lunches. Buying in bulk and using your own containers vs. paying more for single-serving packages of things like yogurt, cheese and milk will save you even more money.

Fresh fruits and vegetables don’t have to be expensive either to be delicious and appealing to kids. Sometimes it’s all in the presentation – cut up carrots and apple slices with yogurt dip on the side are nearly universally appealing to kids of all ages, and even the organic options of these basics won’t break the bank.

And if you’re seeking new inspiration for this fall’s lunches, spend some time looking through magazines and cookbooks with your kids at home or in your local library. Inviting your kids to help make a grocery list and be involved in what goes into their lunch kits is a good way to ensure they’ll eat what’s in there and waste less food – and money – overall.

Cut costs on extracurricular activities

Back-to-school also brings a return to after-school activities. From registration fees and program costs to new sporting gear and equipment, keeping our kids active and healthy can be a real drain on our savings. But with a little research and creativity, you can manage to put your kids in their favourite extracurricular activities this fall and still free up some funds for their education savings.

For younger kids, community recreation programs are generally always an affordable option – from swimming and dance lessons to art classes and karate, your neighbourhood community centre or YMCA likely offers a program your child will love at a price you can appreciate.

My older kids love taking part in school intramural sports and clubs, often in lieu of registered programs with higher costs and a bigger time investment. In addition to being free, school sports and clubs let my kids try out a variety of different activities throughout the year, and alongside all their school friends while they do it.

And don’t forget to explore the costs of memberships vs. per-use fees for your family’s favourite activities around town – often, a membership will pay for itself many times over for things like art galleries, children’s museums, ski hills, recreation centres and more.

Make saving a family activity

The return to school each fall is a pretty big event for most kids – even the most reluctant of my little learners can’t resist the satisfaction of sorting out school supplies and first day outfits and the anticipation of seeing school friends again.

Why not take advantage of this enthusiasm and involve the kids in a family discussion about how best to meet your savings goals for things like their future education? The earlier you begin to teach your kids about wise spending and saving habits, the better prepared they are to make healthy financial choices throughout their lives. And the more engaged kids are in setting and working towards family savings goals, the more likely you are to find fun and creative ways to reach them together.

Ultimately, any extra money your family can save getting ready for back to school is helping you work towards your goals for your children’s future education. Whether you’re getting ready to open a new Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) or topping up your current contributions, it’s never too late in the year to get your family on board with smart saving.