Back-to-school can do some serious damage to your household budget.
Families will spend an average of nearly $685 outfitting kids in kindergarten through high school for the 2018-2019 school year, the National Retail Federation reports. Equipping a college student for the new term costs about $942, on average.
But here's the deal: You're not a bad parent if you don't spend ridiculous amounts of money getting your kids all new stuff at the beginning of the school year.
Here are 10 smart tips for stretching your back-to-school spending.
1. Take stock of what you've already got
Find out from your kid's school what school supplies are needed besides notebooks and pens. Depending on your child's grade, this might include specialized notebooks or craft materials. Also, review school uniform and dress code policies.
From this list, do a quick inventory of the items you currently have at home. You might find empty, unused notebooks, a box of pencils or crayons, and colored pencils still in good condition that can be used in the new school year.
Check your kid's shoes. Do they still fit? Can they last a few months more? If your child has to wear a uniform, look for tears that can be repaired or seams that can be let out.
The goal is to buy only what's absolutely needed, and use as many supplies as possible that you already have on hand. You can buy any needed replacements later in the year when the frenzy of back-to-school shopping is over.
2. Involve your kids in setting the budget
They may whine about being reminded that school bells will be ringing again soon, but get your kids engaged in the back-to-school budgeting.
Involving the kids in creating the shopping list can make them "willing and compliant" helpers, says Huffington Post blogger Samantha Kemp-Jackson. You might even teach them a valuable lesson in spending.
A Capital One study found that learning about the shopping process can benefit teens even more than younger kids. In just a few years they'll be offered credit cards, and they should pick up some basic financial skills before heading off to college.
Talk with your children to set limits for certain things. Kids will always want specialty items like Disney backpacks, so tell them they'll need to compromise. They might pick two or three specialty items but have to accept cheaper versions of other stuff.
3. Shop tax holidays, Labor Day sales
Take advantage of the back-to-school sales tax holidays planned in more than a dozen states, and you can save on shoes, clothing and electronics.
Also, hold out for big sales over Labor Day weekend before you buy some items. The holiday period tends to bring big bargains on clothing, in particular.
Another excellent time to shop is after Labor Day, when school has already started and the shopping fever has gone down. Just a couple of weeks into the school year, stores will be marking down their unsold back-to-school items.
If your child can make do with last year's shoes, clothing, electronics, backpacks and lunchboxes for just a few weeks, your family might enjoy big savings — though there's a risk stores may sell out of some items.
4. Set price alerts on expensive items
Tech gear can be pricey. So watch for special sales on expensive items on your list, like laptops and graphing calculators.
Set price alerts so you'll know when prices come down on these things. Find out what brick-and-mortar big-box stores are charging, and compare with online prices.
Be sure you're signed up to receive emails from your favorite online stores. You're virtually guaranteed to get an additional 10% to 20% off your first purchase this way.
5. Buy in bulk
For school materials that your kids will need in steady supply throughout the year, it's a good idea to just buy in bulk.
Office supply stores and specialty bookshops have cheaper notebooks by the dozen, boxes of pencils, or packs of printing paper that you can get at a lower price if you buy in bulk rather than per piece.
If you belong to a wholesale club, like Costco, Sam's or BJ's, be sure to make a shopping trip to look for bulk deals on school gear.
6. Ask stores if they match rivals' discounts
Don't stick to just one store. While it's tempting to get all school supplies in one place, it's also the easiest way to bust through your wallet.
No retailer will have all the best deals. Instead, check out lots of shops for sales, discounts and coupons.
And, while you're at it, find out if the stores where you're shopping offer price matching. It's becoming more common.
7. Consider quality as well as price
Be smart about brand names and quality. It's perfectly fine to look at higher-priced brand names that offer better quality when considering products like school bags.
For example, a branded bag that offers a few years' warranty may cost more, but it can save you from spending $50 to $80 on a new backpack every year.
Purchasing quality electronics can save you thousands of dollars over many years. Brand-name portable electronics offer quality and fantastic extended warranties. They don't lose too much of their value over time, and can be resold later.
Spending more for quality doesn't always work with clothing items. Choose a more expensive, quality pair of shoes for back-to-school only if your kid's feet aren't likely to double in size by next year.
8. Consider buying used
Yard sales and thrift stores are excellent places to get very good, cheap back-to-school items.
And it's not all secondhand. Goodwill stores are often stocked with unused office supplies donated by companies and workers.
Thrift stores are good places to find basic supplies like lunch boxes, notebooks and binders. If the family doesn't mind some wear and tear, you also can hunt for used backpacks and refurbished gadgets.
9. Don't forget clearance and liquidation sales
Getting that school supply list from your child's school in advance gives you the opportunity to start shopping early: at spring clearance sales and early-summer seasonal sales.
And, it's a sad fact that thousands of stores are going out of business this year as traditional merchants struggle to keep up with Amazon and other online retailers. So, cruise store liquidation sales for deeply discounted school items.
But get your timing right, to get the best deals. Store-closing sales typically start with just 10% price cuts. The really sharp reductions don't come for a few weeks.
10. Go it alone
While it's smart to get the kids involved in making out your back-to-school shopping list, you may want to leave them at home and go shopping alone.
This way, your children can't insist on Disney princess notebooks or Pixar pencils, which are guaranteed to be more expensive than regular school supplies. Going alone will give you a chance to buy generic, cheaper school supplies.
Paying for a night of babysitting is more than worth it in savings!
Finally, be conscious of your spending limit when you're writing your shopping list — then let the list guide you. Stick to the budget that you have set. Don't be distracted by deals on things your kids don't really need.
Planning and good timing are the keys to stress-free and wallet-friendly back-to-school shopping!