If you're paying more than 25 cents for a box for crayons, you've spent too much, according to frugalistas like Crystal Paine, known as Money Saving Mom on the web.
Part of the "coupon mom" brigade that came to prominence during the recession, Paine spends her days aggregating bargains so that her thousands of devotees don't have to do the leg work.
Whether shopping for a second grader or a college sophomore, families are eager to save, especially with costs rising and the economy still weak. The average cost on back-to-school spending for kindergarten through 12th grade is $688, according to the National Retail Federation, up from $603.63 last year. Getting ready for college? Expect to pay a lot more - $907, or $100 more than families did 2011.
Here are a few tips from the pros:
1. School supplies - Shop early and often, Paine suggests. "Waiting is the worst," she says. You want to go for the loss-leaders that the office supply and department stores dangle, for pennies or dollars on the crayons, paper and pens that all students need. But you also have to be patient, because the stores don't dole those out all at once. And definitely don't wait to buy college supplies at the university book store.
Tara Kuczykowski, known as Deal Seeking Mom, ran the numbers and found that if she shopped her whole list for her five kids at Walmart or Target, she would have spent about $23. But if she shopped the various specials and deals at all different stores? "I would have spent $7," she says.
Paine's suggestion: price matching. "Look at sales online and then go price match all of that."
Too lazy for that much effort? Watch Groupon or other deal sites for a big box of school supplies.
2. Computer equipment - Major hardware purchases are no longer just the domain of those going off to college, according to a new survey from CouponCabin.com, which found that nearly half of respondents planned on purchasing computer equipment this year for their children under age 18. That could be pretty tricky when the least expensive computers are about $300.
Shopping site dealnews.com has consistently found the time between Black Friday, as the day after Thanksgiving is known by retailers, and New Year's to be the best for the lowest price on a new laptop, but Lindsay Sakraida, features director at the site, says there are still some options for PCs in the fall. "One great promotion is that there are back-to-school bundles," she says, like Dell's offer of discounted pricing along with a gift card or XBox 360. "It's a really great way to get value."
For Mac products, she suggests checking out resellers first to compare deals against what Apple itself is offering.
3. Other electronic gadgets - Is an eReader required? Sakraida suggests waiting to get a Kindle Fire from Amazon because a new version is on the horizon, and the same goes for rumors of a mini iPad. "There's a lot of competition in the seven-inch tablet market," she says.
As for where to shop, Paine says she usually sees the best deals online rather than in stores. But she suggests visiting a store first, to make sure you get the right screen size and fit for what you need.
4. Shoes - For Paine, who has three children, it's all about buy-one-get-one deals. "The best thing you can do is shop online, combine a coupon code with a buy-one-get-one deal and have the purchase shipped to the store for free," she says.
Also, if you find a style you like, she suggests, "think ahead and buy for your children's size six months from now, and that way you won't get halfway through the school year and have to pay full price."
Kuczykowski says she takes her children into stores to get measured and try on different styles, then orders online, especially when there's not enough selection in the store. "We went shopping for shoes and my daughter found a pair right away, but they didn't have the right size for my son, so I ordered everything online," she says.
5. Clothing - Sakraida's research at dealnews.com shows that the best deals for storewide discounts, especially at stores that cater to young shoppers, come in mid-August. These sales are also often good for dorm supplies. "Sales are only going to get better if you wait a little longer, although the selection might be better earlier," she says.
Kuczykowski's tip on shopping for clothes is to do it online. "I'd rather shop online," she says. "A lot of the stores we like are always running out of the sizes we need. The stores also get more crowded."
And, of course, true bargain hunters should take note that new is not the only option, especially for pricey sports equipment.
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