4 Tricks to Outsmart Retailers and Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Don’t be fooled by early deals on paper and pencils.

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Matthew Ong
Back-to-school buying season is in full swing, and if you haven't already looked at the price of a school list and winced, you're in for an unwelcome surprise. The National Retail Federation estimates that parents of school-age children will spend a whopping $635 on back-to-school shopping this year.

School supplies aren't getting any cheaper, either. Huntington Bank's annual Backpack Index, which measures the total cost of a typical school supply list, notes that the cost of K-12 school supplies has risen 7.3 percent since last year.

If these numbers are a bit overwhelming, don't panic. There are easy ways to knock some serious cash off your spending tab. To do so, though, you have to think about what retailers want you to do – and then do the exact opposite. Here are four tips for outsmarting retailers and saving on back-to-school shopping.

1. Prepare at home – without the kids in tow.

Retailers know shoppers value convenience. If a set of pencils is on your child's supplies list, you might be tempted to buy them at the store, even though you have the exact same set of pencils around the house somewhere.

The solution? Task the kids with rounding up supplies around the house while you compare ad circulars and online coupons. You'll get the kids out of your hair while you find the best prices, and the kids might just find the supplies that you couldn't. After the scavenger hunt, you can head to the store with a concrete shopping plan in mind and a lighter list in hand.

2. Stick to the list.

Retailers have a veritable arsenal of time-honored tricks to make you buy more than you intended. During back-to-school sales, displays are flashy, and items are scattered around the store so you'll have to pass by non-essentials during your school list hunting.

To keep from leaving the store with twice as much as you anticipated, stick to the list. Don't buy anything that's not on the list, and even consider striking some items from the list if they seem frivolous. If your child finds out on the first day of school that she suddenly needs a protractor, buy it the first weekend of September when school supplies are on clearance.

3. Don't shop too early.

This year, retailers have been pushing the back-to-school season earlier than ever before, beginning the marketing campaigns even before the Fourth of July.

Don't be fooled. A NerdWallet study found that 90 percent of school supplies from July 2012 were the same price or lower the following month, suggesting that there's no reason to shop too early for the basics. While some items such as clothes and electronics have good sales in July, the deals on the bread and butter of your child's shopping list aren't disappearing anytime soon.

Retailers usually give nice price cuts at the beginning of a shopping season to stimulate early buying, but then wait until the season really heats up to bring out their best and biggest deals. So resist those specials and wait until the prime of the back-to-school season in August.

4. Teach kids financial literacy.

Retailers know kids exert buying pressure on parents like no other marketing campaign ever could. To save money this shopping season, and in the years to come, use your back-to-school spending to teach your kids about money, budgeting and good buying habits.

Depending on your family's allowance policies and the age of your kids, ask them to buy a couple items on their own or make a mock budget for themselves. Stimulate your family's creativity (and mental math skills) by asking your kids to find the best values or comparison shop. Introduce the concept of investment by discussing how the school supplies they buy today will pay for themselves down the road once they learn, graduate and get good jobs.

Matthew Ong is a retail analyst for NerdWallet.com, a consumer finance website that helps users be smarter about spending and saving. NerdWallet builds web products and writes content for users to better understand the personal finance landscape, including back-to-school shopping.