How to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Parents say they want to spend less this year. Here’s a guide to cutting back.

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From colorful binders to laptops, back-to-school shopping lists can seem endless—especially this year, when parents say they want to spend less than they did last year. A recent Pricegrabber survey found that just 48 percent of parents plan to spend $250 or more this year, compared with 56 percent last year. To minimize the impact on their budget, parents also reported spreading their purchases out over a longer period of time before the school year starts.

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That frugality push means that parents are also spending more time and effort tracking down deals. A new Deloitte survey found that 1 in 3 parents will use social networking sites such as Facebook to help them find the best promotions. Saving on notebooks and pencils can also free up more money for the inevitable expenses that come with school schedules. The deal site RedPlum found that on average, parents spent $32 per school day, which includes food, transportation costs, extra-curricular activities, and after-school care.

Here's a guide to spending less while still making sure your child is ready to learn:

1. Make a list and check it twice. Lisa Reynolds of RedPlum suggests making a master list of all of the back-to-school "must-buys," then keeping a lookout for any deals or promotions that might apply. Starting early can give parents extra flexibility to wait for discounts and look through the weekly circulars.

2. Make saving "cool." Kids' clothing is the single most expensive item on back-to-school lists, reports the American Express Spending & Saving Tracker. In fact, 6 in 10 parents say they will purchase designer labels and name-brand clothing, including sneakers and jeans, in preparation for the school year.

But Reynolds says that's not necessary. Instead, she suggests browsing magazines with your child and jointly picking a trend to recreate at home. DIY projects include hair accessories, jewelry, and accessorizing socks or backpack patches. Visiting consignment stories is another affordable option.

3. Skip the cosmetic work. The American Express Spending & Saving Tracker also found that 4 in 10 parents planned to splurge on cosmetic or beauty products, including haircuts, teeth whitening, and manicures.

4. Shop discount. Big-box stories, office supply stores, and discount shops often offer the best deals at this time of the year, which explains their popularity: According to Accenture's survey, 9 in 10 parents will shop at discount or mass merchandize stores, up slightly from the previous year. Meanwhile, fewer parents say they'll stop at specialty and electronics stores, where prices can be steeper.

5. Make trade-offs. To help offset the cost of big-ticket items such as braces and computers, 53 percent of parents say they will dine out less and spend less on themselves, including their own entertainment (39 percent) and clothes (37 percent), reports American Express Spending & Saving Tracker.

6. Rent books. Instead of purchasing books for the school year, BookRenter.com lets you rent them. The website lets students (or their parents) rent textbooks for up to 80 percent off the retail price. Pricegrabber reports that 44 percent of consumers plan to buy books as part of their back-to-school shopping this year.

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7. Spend time on gadget research. About 1 in 4 parents plan to buy a computer, cell phone, or other gadget for their children this year, down from 36 percent last year, reports Accenture. For some parents, printers, scientific calculators, and cell phones are also on the back-to-school lists. Those making big-ticket purchases can save by comparison shopping on sites such as Pricegrabber and Dealnews.com.

8. Pay attention to the details. While the most popular items on shopping lists (pens, papers, notebooks) also tend to be the cheapest, they can quickly add up. As the school year gets closer, retailers often offer amazing deals on these smaller items to draw customers into the store in the hopes that they'll also buy bigger ones. Amazon, for example, is featuring 100 items that sell for $5 or less; newspaper circulars often contain similar deals at local outlets.