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Diligent consumers concoct planning strategies and set aside money to pay for holiday gifts and summer vacation, but one of the year’s most expensive and inevitable events seems to get far less attention — going back to school.

This year, the average family with students from kindergarten to 12th grade is expected to spend $689 on back-to-school supplies, up from $604 last year, according to the National Retail Federation. Parents estimate they will spend an average of $246 on clothes, $218 on electronics, $129 on shoes and $95 on school supplies such as notebooks, pencils and backpacks.

“The family that will pay the most for back-to-school, without a doubt, is the family that realizes they have to make these purchases and they’re not prepared for it,” said Josh Elledge, chief savings angel at Placing purchases on a credit card and not paying the balance only adds to the expense, he said.

Besides expense, it’s a time of year some parents dread. A study sponsored by online coupon site found 29 percent of parents described the back-to-school shopping experience as annoying or stressful.

Here are tips to make back-to-school shopping easier and cheaper.

  • Do your homework. “The most important thing most of us forget to do is to take inventory before you shop,” said Sarah Platte, consumer-savings expert with “I think many of us have those hordes of supplies that tend to get shoved to the back of our closets or a junk drawer.”
  • It’s important to avoid duplicative purchases. Before stepping foot inside a store, make a list. Pay special attention to the big-spending categories of clothing, including shoes and school supplies. When it comes to the wants versus needs, take the opportunity to talk with your child about the difference and what you’re willing to spend. That will cut down on drama and overspending at the store.
  • Save on supplies. Dollar stores can be a good venue for buying routine items, especially school supplies, where quality doesn’t matter much. But back-to-school promotions at the national chain office-supply stores might be even better, especially if you have time to visit several stores over a few weeks and cherry-pick the loss leaders — notebooks for 5 cents or a box of crayons for a penny.
  • Find those deals on the back and front covers of the retailer’s weekly advertisement. If the ad limits how many you buy, that’s often an indication it’s a great sale. Elledge estimates that parents who buy supplies from a single store just before school starts will pay two to three times more than ones who shop the sales.

“I’ve just been cherry-picking school supplies that are 80 percent off or better,” said Elledge, who has children in eighth, third and first grades. “We’re easily cutting in half what we would normally spend.”

It’s not only school supplies.

JCPenney, for example, is luring shoppers by offering free haircuts during August for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Still, only 26 percent of parents say they are shopping where the best back-to-school promotions are offered, according to a study by retail research firm WSL Strategic Retail.

Some schools offer a bundle of supplies for your child’s grade or class, sometimes as a fundraiser by the parent-teacher organization. That will be more expensive than hunting for bargain supplies by yourself, but a lot less hassle. And once you factor in the cost of gasoline, the cost difference might be relatively small and time savings worthwhile.

Note that for parents who work at home, back-to-school season is the best time of year to stock up on many supplies, Elledge said.

  • Wait on the season. You don’t need a child’s full wardrobe on day No. 1. Instead, by the time your child needs fall clothes, they’ll already be on clearance. So delay fall clothing purchases until after school starts. Waiting also spreads out spending, making a less immediate dent in the bank account, Elledge said.

Another benefit is not making a fashion faux pas. “Your kids get to figure out what they really want,” he said. “They might get back from school and say, ‘Mom, I’m sure glad you didn’t buy that shirt because apparently if you wear that at school you’re a dork.’ ”

  • Online shopping. Since 2003, online shopping has quadrupled for back-to-school shopping. If you’ll be shopping online, conduct a quick search for coupon codes that can yield discounts or free shipping. Use your favorite search engine with keywords including the retailer’s name plus “coupon code.”

Or, for more reliable leads on coupon codes, search such aggregators as and

  • Compare prices. If nothing else, spending a few minutes online will give you an idea for the range of prices.

Elledge says comparison shopping, especially online, is key. “The days of just blindly walking into a store and paying whatever they decide to sell it to you for? That’s kind of for suckers nowadays,” he said. “I’m amazed at how many people fail to compare.”

  • Computers and electronics. A student’s ID can yield savings. Such retailers as Apple, Microsoft and Dell offer student-only pricing on laptops and often include a free gift card, Platte said. For example, Apple has offered college students a $50 discount on its MacBook Air with a free $100 gift card, and Dell is offering a $200 e-gift card — or Xbox 360 gaming system — with select student purchases of a PC. See company websites about rules for proving the purchase is for a student.

And don’t forget about refurbished electronics, some of which come with significant discounts from full price and warranties, she said.