How to Create Your Back-to-School Budget

8 tips for keeping your spending on school supplies in check.

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If you’re like most parents, you’re trying to spend less on school supplies this year. But creating a back-to-school budget isn’t an easy thing to do. That probably explains why about 44 percent of respondents in the Chase Slate-U.S. News Consumer Monitor survey said they maintain a written budget, but only half of that group said they “strongly agree” that they are able to stick to it each month.

[In Pictures: 8 Painless Ways to Save Money.]

These expert tips will make it easier to count yourself among that self-disciplined group:

Harness the power of a web tool. On Mint.com, you can upload your account information and get immediate insight into where your money is going. You can then use that information to start saving more money, just in time for back-to-school season. Other online options include Wesabe.com, Pennyminder, and You Need a Budget.

Avoid Back-to-School displays. It sounds counter-intuitive, but sticking with the regular aisles will save you money. “Items moved to the front of the store and labeled with back-to-school branding may not be cheaper, especially since brands pay more money for premium placement in the store – and sometimes pass the cost onto you,” says Linsey Knerl, senior blogger for the personal finance site Wise Bread. The same goes for sale items – 25 cent colored pencils might look like a bargain, until they sit unopened for months.

Shop used – carefully. The risk with used clothing is that your children don’t like it and end up not wearing it. Then, says Knerl, it doesn’t matter how little you paid – it’s a waste of money. Instead, she recommends shopping in layers, from tank tops to T-shirts to sweatshirts. That way, you can buy separates when they go on sale, and help kids keep up with today’s layered fashions.

[See How to Save on Back-to-School Shopping.]

Get creative. Jonas Brothers notebooks cost more than the plain-covered ones. Instead of paying extra, host a “DIY” party for kids and their friends to decorate their own notebooks and folders with photos from the Internet and magazines, suggests Knerl. Not only is it frugal, but it also helps your kids reconnect with their friends before the first day of class.

Time yourself. AnnaMaria Turano, coauthor of Stopwatch Marketing: Take Charge of the Time When Your Customer Decides to Buy, says that once you decide you need to buy a specific item – a new computer for example, or a backpack – give yourself a specific time limit to make the purchase, such as a half hour. “You don't want to lose precious time sifting through options when your instinctive reaction will probably end up being the best decision,” she says. That way, you can spend more time playing with your kids, instead of shopping with them, which many parents say they consider a chore.

Consider the year, not just the month. Chances are you’ll be making school-related purchases all year long. To keep them from knocking you off your budget, consider the entire year when you’re deciding how much money to dedicate to school costs. Budgeting for the year is better largely because we feel less confident in our estimates, so add more of a buffer for unexpected expenses, according to research by University of Southern California's Gulden Ulkumen, Cornell's Manoj Thomas, and New York University's Vicki Morwitz.

[See Back to School Shoppers Hunt for Deals.]

Write down every expense. Aryn of Sound Money Matters and her husband track all of their expenses -- even a $5 Subway sandwich -- with Quicken. The program allows them to analyze the last 12 months of their expenses and create averages for each month, which they then transfer to Excel. Once the data is in Excel, they tweak it as needed. It sounds like a time-consuming process, but Aryn says it just takes about five minutes every other night or so to enter in expenses. Plus, the pay-off is well worth that effort. She says the strategy is what allowed the Los Angeles-based couple to pay off $40,000 in credit card and student loan debt last year, which helped them to buy a house.

Talk with other parents. Being vocal about your saving and budget goals helps you stick with them. As the Budgeting Babe, a.k.a. Nicole Mladic, says: "If you were trying to lose 10 pounds, you'd tell your girlfriends, right? You'd want them to know why you've suddenly gone vegan and are committed to running a 10K in two months. And you'd expect their full support.” Other parents are probably trying to make similar cutbacks and may have some money-saving tips of their own to share.

Chase Slate-U.S. News Consumer Monitor Back to School Survey was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of Chase Credit Card Services. The telephone survey of 1080 adults nationally was fielded between August 3rd and August 9th, 2010. The margin of error on a sample size of 1080 is +/-3% and larger for subgroups. To learn more about the Chase Slate-U.S. News Consumer Monitor or Chase Slate with Blueprint, please visit http://multivu.prnewswire.com/mnr/chase/45421/.

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