Pencils, papers, backpacks, books: It's back-to-school shopping season once again.
As any parent knows, it can quickly dent a wallet. The average family of four will spend about $550 to $600 getting kids ready for school, according to a raft of back-to-school spending surveys.
And parents may be opening their wallets a wee bit wider this year, compared with 2009. About 83 percent plan to spend the same or more than a year ago, according to a July survey of more than 1,000 households with K-12 children by Deloitte & Touche LLP.
But given the cranky economy, parents say they're also looking for the best deals, discounts and money-saving ways to get kids outfitted for school.
As you and your kids gear up for the classroom, here's a roundup of money-saving ideas from parents and pros:
Sort it out
Comb through desk drawers and your children's rooms. You may already have a huge stash of paper, felt tips and binders left over from last year. Even the best deal isn't worth it if there's already a stockpile of supplies at home.
Same with clothes: Sort through closets and dressers to see what still fits, what doesn't.
Stick to it
Decide how much you can comfortably spend, write it down and take the list with you. And don't be afraid to let your kids know there's a set amount, advises the California Society of CPAs.
When it comes to back-to-school shopping, it's important to distinguish between needs and wants, says Perry Ghilarducci, a Sacramento, Calif., CPA and father of three teenage boys. Peer pressure can lead to impulse buying as kids and teens decide they "have to have it" because everyone else does.
With his teens, Ghilarducci said, "we'll talk about it and decide to discuss it again in a few days or a week. It's amazing how less important an item often becomes." The same is true, he said, when it's suggested that kids spend their own money. "Often they decide it's just not that important."
And parents can often agree to meet kids halfway.
If your daughter "needs" those $100 designer jeans, for instance, work out a compromise: You'll pay half if she can earn half to pay for them.
You don't have to buy everything on your list before the first day of school. "Ask the teacher which supplies your kids will need on Day One and which can wait until after stores start unloading their overstocked inventory," suggests Jason Alderman, who writes on personal finance at practicalmoneyskills.com, the Visa-sponsored website.
Same with clothes. You don't need to buy an entire school-year wardrobe at once. Lots of fall fashions go on sale in October or so, as retailers make room for holiday merchandise. By then, your kids will know what's hot and what's not.
Consider teaming up with other families. Whether it's lunchbox granola bars or multipacks of T-shirts, consider buying in bulk at warehouse outlets like Costco or Sam's Club and splitting the cost with another family.
If your kids wear a uniform, check if the school has a trade-in policy or clothes closet where you can swap outgrown sizes with those from other parents. Look for "gently used" school clothes at garage sales, thrift shops and consignment stores.
Check the coupons
Whether they're clipped from the paper or downloaded off a website, coupons can slash the price tag on everything from Vans sneakers to CliffsNotes. Find your favorite sites among the dozens carrying hundreds of coupons, such as CurrentCodes.com, Retailmenot.com, dealcoupon.com or Becentsable.net.
Rachel Gordon, a former librarian who now blogs about money-saving tips at MashupMom.com, says no one should ever shop without a coupon.
"If you print out coupons online and wait for sales, you can often find stuff that's free or close to free," said the stay-at-home mother of two young boys in suburban Chicago.
Grab the deals
Some budgeteers advise spreading your purchases over the year. In other cases, it's smart to pounce on those "loss-leader" items that stores use to lure you in, like 10-cent spiral notebooks or $1 packs of pens.
Gordon says mid-July through August is the best time to stock up on school supplies because retailers know that's how to get you into their store.
Be careful about loading up your cart and your credit card which can cancel any savings.
"It's tempting to get all the back-to-school shopping out of the way, but it can be better to fit it into your weekly shopping," she said. "Grab the 10-cent notebooks this week, the 25-cent Crayolas next week."
She also advocates drugstores and office-supply chains, like Walgreens or Staples, which she says often offer back-to-school bargains via mail-in rebates, gift cards and rewards points.
Is all the time spent bargain-hunting and coupon-clipping worth it?
Absolutely, say money-saving experts. Gordon says many people on her MashupMom website say they never bothered with coupons until their family was slammed by the recession, either by layoffs, pay cuts or downsizing.
"A fixed expense like the mortgage, rent or gas are things we can't do much about," said Gordon. "But what we're spending on groceries, at drugstores and for back-to-school those are things we can control and do something about."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.