Shop smart when buying school supplies

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For families with children in school, this time of year means shelling out lots of dollars on everything from new socks and sneakers, to new backpacks and paper pads.

This year, the average U.S. family with K-12 kids will spend $634.78 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, according to an annual back-to-school survey by the National Retail Federation. That's about $54 less than in 2012, which was a banner year for school spending, coming out of the recession.

Parents are being a little more cautious, doing their back-to-school shopping "with cost and practicality in mind," NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement. "Having splurged on their growing children's needs last year, parents will ask their kids to reuse what they can for the upcoming school season."

With that in mind, we gathered some money-saving advice from local parents and national experts:

Take inventory: Go through closets, dressers, desks and drawers. If Cooper already has three pairs of jeans that fit, you may only need one more pair. Same with pencils, felt-tip pens and other school supplies. Only stock up on what your kids truly need.

"Last year's school scissors are still sharp and last year's pencils still write," said Pam Farley, a Sacramento, Calif., mother of two who blogs at BrownThumbMama.com. "Buy only what the teacher suggests, not every shiny, new back-to-school item."

Make a back-to-school list for each child and set an amount you can comfortably afford to spend. Yep, it's a budget.

Give kids a say: Involve your kids in the budgeting process, including how much money is available to spend.

"Get them involved in prioritizing expenses between 'must-haves' and 'nice-to-haves,' " says personal finance website PracticalMoneySkills.com, which has a back-to-school budget calculator for students.

When shopping, take a printed budget with you and have your kids or teens fill out the amount of each purchase.

As an added incentive, offer to split the savings with your kids if the back-to-school shopping comes in under budget.

Be label-wary: Teens and even young kids can be label-conscious, wanting just the right brand name on their backpack or jacket. But it can be risky to buy all the latest gotta-have-it apparel or accessories. The TV show your youngster adores today might be too uncool-for-school next month and he'll refuse to wear the logo T-shirt or carry the lunchbox, no matter how much you spent.

Give teens choices, especially when they're clamoring for trendy, pricey sneakers or designer jeans. If it's beyond your budget, let them figure out how to buy it cheaper. Wait till it goes on sale, find something similar at a consignment store, swap with friends, etc.

Ms. Farley recommends what her father did when she desperately wanted a pair of Birkenstock shoes in high school: He offered to pay half and she had to save up the rest.

"When [teens] have to earn it or use their birthday money, it makes them think harder about their choices," she said.

Buy it used: There are plenty of "gently used" stores that specialize in children's clothes, including school uniforms. "It's our busiest time of the year," said Mo Castro, owner of a Once Upon a Child store in Sacramento, who says some parents even shop early for Halloween costumes.

Consignment and used clothing stores are an incentive to clean out your kids' closets. Bring in their outgrown clothes and shoes and you could receive cash or in-store credits.

Another option: Organize your own kids clothing swap. Invite a dozen friends with kids of similar ages. Ask each to bring 10 to 12 clean, good-condition clothing items for trading. Many schools and community groups organize back-to-school clothing swaps.

Play it again: It's not just clothes that can be bought secondhand. If your kid is enthused about signing up for band or orchestra or trying softball or golf for the first time, don't rush out to buy an expensive cello or baseball bat.

Classified ads, Craigslist and Amazon.com, for instance, are good sources of used musical instruments and sports equipment.

Shop the sales: Even if stores are showing sweaters and other cold-weather wear, stock up now on end-of-season sales for shorts, tops and other summery clothes that can be worn into October. By then, all the autumn apparel that popped up in August will be headed for the clearance racks.

Spread out your school shopping over the next nine months, so kids don't outgrow everything and you're not forking out too much all at once.

Coupons and comparisons: Whether they want the newest Nikes or the hottest cellphone, back-to-school shopping is a perfect chance to teach kids how to comparison shop, say finance experts.

Have them look up prices from three different outlets as a comparison. Especially with electronics, show them how to look at terms, fees, monthly charges, etc., that go beyond the initial price tag for that cellphone or laptop.

Coupons are another money saver. Check the Sunday newspaper inserts for clippable coupons. Look at online sites, including Coupons.com, RetailMeNot.com and others.

Packin' a lunch: Ms. Farley, who blogs on thrifty family life, says her 8-year-old son, James, always totes his own lunch with things she knows he'll eat, like peanut butter and crackers and a piece of fruit. What he doesn't eat, however, is required to come home. "If he only takes a bite out of an apple, I'll carve up the rest and put it into an apple crisp for dinner," she said. Every week, she makes a pan of six-ingredient granola bars, which the whole family eats. "They're bigger, more nutritious and a fraction of the price [of store-bought bars]," said Ms. Farley.

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