When Jane received her 8-year-old son’s back-to-school list, she could hardly believe it.

Video by Mamamia

Christmas was grim in Jane’s household. While the mother-of-three’s whole-foods outlet is doing fine, the café she recently opened in Sydney’s inner west has been struggling. Staffing issues, a drop in foot traffic – setbacks the neither she nor her husband could foresee despite their meticulous planning.

“As far as presents go, we had to skimp on absolutely everything. There was one present Santa and one from us, and that was it. When I asked the kids what they’d like Santa to bring I was bracing myself for the answer, but all of them just asked for a yoyo,” the 42-year-old told Mamamia. “So thankfully, Santa was able to deliver.”

The next round of bills are never far from front of mind. But it’s the back-to-school period that’s placing even more strain on the purse strings. Because while she planned ahead and picked up what supplies she could last year, and while her children’s local Catholic primary school supplies their text books, she’ll be forced to add another item to the list this year.

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An iPad. For her eight-year-old son.

When she received the note from school outlining the request, Jane could hardly believe it.

“A few words that probably aren’t printable came out of my mouth,” she said. “Look, I fully support the importance of technology in learning, but my concern is not just buying the iPad – I mean, yes, that is the first part – but it’s also that I’m giving it to an eight-year-old boy who I know, sooner or later, will probably bust it. And then I’m going to have to buy another one.”

And no, apparently any tablet won’t do. According to the school, it must be the latest iPad, said Jane. It must have certain specifications, it must have certain apps, it must be one-per-child, and must be available at all times during the school year, which means it can’t be shared with a sibling or parent.

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“All these little things with the café have come along and sideswiped us and pushed us back. And now I’m sitting here January 2018 and thinking, ‘How am I going to scrounge together $500 to pay for this iPad?’ And that’s not including the cover and the screen protector.”

back to school budget
Image: Getty.

Research by Kantar TNS commissioned by iSelect recently found that one million Australian parents have had to sacrifice something for their kids in the past year due to the cost of bills or expenses, which are rising at approximately twice the rate of their income.

Those sacrifices are often felt during the school year, with one in five parents saying household expenses have meant they couldn’t buy their children books they needed or afford to send them on a school trip. Fifteen per cent said they have been forced to cut back on fresh fruit, vegetables and meat.

Fortunately, Jane is able to supplement her family's meals with extras from the café and through supplies she orders through the wholesaler. But their tight budget means she sometimes eats a tiny portion so her growing children - aged four, eight and 11 - don't go without. It also means negotiating with her youngest daughter's childcare for fee concession or reduced days. And of course, no pleasures for herself, just so the bills can be paid and school shoes bought.

"It's a lot of the little things, like no take-away coffees during the day, no more clothes, shoes, earrings - none of those things that might be a nice treat," she said. "It's all cut out to make sure that we can make it through the month."

Her husband's salary currently covers their mortgage, while Jane was forced to go back to a full-time job in IT (on top of running their two businesses) in order to cover the rent and utilities for the café.

"This is the first year that finances have been this tight. So it's a bit of a shock for the whole family to have gone from 'It's OK, we might have to scrimp and save a little or we might not be able to go out to dinner', to 'halt absolutely everything nonessential'... We went from not counting the pennies, to my youngest saying to me the other night, 'Can I have icecream' and me saying 'Nope, sorry. Not happening,'" she said.

LISTEN: Sophie Falkiner shares her key rules for screen time, on our podcast for imperfect parents. (Post continues below.)

While there are countless small savings to be found in the back-to-school period (see here for some tips), the Kantar TNS research highlighted one significant way to alleviate pressure on the household budget. According to the survey, families who switched energy providers in the preceding 12 months in favour of a better deal saved, on average, $790 a year.

As Laura Crowden, iSelect spokesperson noted, that can go a long way toward school supplies and uniforms, and reduce the number of sacrifices parents have to make for their children's education.

“No parent wants their child missing out on the equipment they need to succeed at school or having to miss out on joining their friends on a school trip,” Laura said.

“Parents who are feeling significant cost of living pressures should first find out whether they may be able to reduce the pressure on their household budget by getting a better deal on their energy, insurance and other bills before cutting back on education and food.”

Jane is doing whatever she can to avoid those cuts. She knows things will get better, that the first few years of a small business are the most difficult. But for now, there's still that iPad:

"I'm holding out on that one. I'm going to be waiting for the eleventh hour to buy that thing."

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