The start of the school year is still a month away for many
students across the nation, but plenty of families already are
doing their back-to-school shopping. According to a National Retail
Federation survey, almost half of the parents polled said they
would begin shopping three to four weeks before school starts, and
more than 20% said they would start shopping two months in
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This marks an earlier start to back-to-school shopping than in
2011, and parents also are expected to spend more this year,
according to NRF. Survey respondents with children in kindergarten
through 12th grade said they will spend a total of $688.62, on
average, on clothing, electronics and school supplies -- up from
$603.63 last year. That's a hefty price tag for back-to-school
Families can keep back-to-school costs under control, though, by
developing a shopping strategy. Here's how:
1. Take inventory of what your kids have.
Don't assume that your kids have outgrown all their clothes and
need a new wardrobe. Take the time to make them try on what is in
their closet and drawers to figure out which clothing items they
really need. Then plan on buying items that can easily be mixed and
2. Set a budget.
Let your children know how much they can spend so they buy only
what they need. You can motivate them to keep spending under
control by telling them they can keep any cash they don't
3. Share the cost.
Ask children who receive an allowance or who have money from a
summer job to chip in -- especially if they want to buy more than
your budget allows. If kids are expected to help pay for
back-to-school items, they'll be more price-conscious.
4. Time your shopping right.
Retailers offer some of the year's lowest prices on pens, pencils
and notebooks in August. For clothing, you'll find deep discounts
on summer apparel now (and you can layer light-weight clothing with
sweaters, jackets or long-sleeve shirts to carry kids into fall)
and look for sales on Labor Day weekend. Also, 17 states exempt
back-to-school purchases from sales taxes on certain days. See my
guide to sales-tax holidays
and Kim Lankford's
Strategies for Making the Most of Sales-Tax
5. Shop online.
You may be more tempted to overspend when shopping in a mall, where
you're surrounded by so many options, tempting displays and impulse
buys in the checkout aisle. If you shop online, you can give your
kids a choice of just a couple of retailers that have coupon codes
-- which you can get from sites such as
-- and free-shipping offers (see
6. Use price-comparison sites and apps.
7. Buy discounted gift cards.
Buying a discounted gift card to use for your own shopping is a
good way to score additional discounts. For example, buy a $100 Gap
gift card for $90 (instant $10 savings).
sell merchants' gift cards for less than face value.
8. Check for student discounts.
Some stores, such as Apple, offer discounts just for students. All
it asks for is your name and school you are attending.
9. Sign up for e-mail or Twitter alerts
from back-to-school retailers to know when their items go on
10. Buy used.
Textbooks are cheaper used (and even cheaper when you rent them).
How to Cut Your Textbook Costs in Half -- or
for Web sites that will help you get a deal on books. Also consider
buying items such as computers refurbished rather than new.
11. Swap rather than buy.
Outfitting your kids for school doesn't have to mean a trip to the
store. Some kids will be content with clothing that is "new to
them." For example, my younger daughter is usually pretty happy to
get new clothes in the form of hand-me-downs from her big sister.
So consider hosting a clothing swap with friends who have children
similar in age and size to yours to freshen up your kids'
12. Buy items in bulk
to take advantage of larger discount coupons that give bigger
savings for spending more. This is a good strategy to score savings
on school supplies, such as paper, pens and pencils. Places such as
Staples offer bulk discounts and free shipping.
A final note:
Don't buy something just because it's cheap. This especially
applies to school gear that kids can use year after year. For
example, if you purchase a quality backpack that costs more than a
bargain model, you'll likely save money over the long run because
you won't have to shell out money each year to buy a new one.
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