11 Smart Ways to Cut Back-to-School Costs

School started the first week of August for my kids, but most students won't be headed back until the end of the month (lucky them). So that means parents still have time to plot their back-to-school shopping strategy.

I say "strategy" because families need to make a plan before they hit the stores so they don't spend too much. Although they're expected to spend a little less this year than last, families with children in grades K-12 are expected to shell out, on average, $603.63 on apparel, school supplies and electronics, according to the National Retail Federation. That's a hefty price tag for back-to-school shopping.

I'm proud to say that I spent less than $30 getting my two girls ready for school. I had to replace a lunchbox for one, and get basic school supplies for both. No new clothes: They still had plenty that fit, and it's too hot to even think about buying fall clothing. No new electronics: I get off easy here because my kids are too young for their own computers.

You, too, can keep costs under control with these tips:

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 matched.

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 spend.

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. 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' wardrobes.

5. 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 sales on Labor Day weekend. Also, some states exempt back-to-school purchases from sales taxes. See my guide to sales tax holidays for more information.

6. 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). Plastic Jungle and Gift Card Granny sell merchants' gift cards for less than face value.

7. 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.

8. Sign up for e-mail or Twitter alerts from back-to-school retailers to know when their items go on sale.

9. Buy used. Textbooks are cheaper used (and even cheaper when you rent them). See How to Cut Your Textbook Costs in Half -- or More for Web sites that will help you get a deal on books. Also consider buying items such as computers refurbished rather than new.

10. 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 CouponCabin.com , CouponWinner.com and CleverTeens.com -- and free-shipping offers (see FreeShipping.org ).

11. Buy items in bulk to take advantage of larger discount coupons that give bigger savings for spending more. Places such as Staples offer bulk discounts and free shipping.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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