Back-to-School: How to Get the Best Deals

Forecasters predict a boom for retailers as parents get their children ready to learn.

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Parents are poised to spend: On average, they'll shell out $688.82 on back-to-school supplies, up more than $80 from last year, the National Retail Federation reports. Those supplies include clothes, on which parents spend an average of almost $250, and electronics, on which they spend almost $220. Six in 10 parents said they'll buy some kind of electronic device, such as a calculator or computer, for their child.

But parents aren't splurging without a fight. The National Retail Federation report also found that they're going out of their way to save money where they can, by shopping sales or comparison shopping online. Parents looking for more strategies can apply these seven tips, which U.S. News gathered from shopping experts:

1. Shop online.

Not only do you save on gas, but you can compare prices, especially on big-ticket items such as computers, more easily. Consumers realize this: Experian Marketing Services found that search terms related to back-to-school are up 13 percent compared to last year. Top terms include "back-to-school outfits," "back-to-school deals," and "back-to-school coupons." Most of the searchers appear to be moms—women between ages 25 and 44, Experian reports.

"They're trying to find out more information about sales and seeing when those sales start so they can figure out the best time to buy," says Heather Dougherty, director of research for Experian Marketing Services' Hitwise. People often go straight from their Web searches to retailer websites, she adds.

A recent PriceGrabber survey found that 8 in 10 shoppers said they would use the Internet to buy back-to-school items, compared to 7 in 10 last year. Graham Jones, general manager of PriceGrabber, attributes that rise to the fact that it's easier to comparison shop, find coupons, and follow price changes online. Free shipping was important to three-quarters of respondents.

2. Seek out sales.

The National Retail Federation survey found that slightly over half of shoppers plan to seek out sales, a slight increase over last year. While many retailers got an early start on back-to-school sales in June and July, they will continue to roll out discounts through September, says Trae Bodge, senior editor for RetailMeNot Insider. "Now is the sweet spot. Some people wait until after school starts—I would urge people not to do that," she says.

While general items such as notebooks and pens will always be easy to find at low prices at big-box and discount stores, specific items, such as certain backpacks or electronics, will be at their lowest prices before school begins, Bodge adds. The webpage RetailMeNot.com/backtoschool lists current deals; some of the coupon codes also work for in-store purchases.

3. Make a list (and stick to it).

"Parents often struggle with pressures from their kids, that they need expensive sneakers or the hottest new tablet. Make a list first, and then set out to stick to that list," suggests Bodges. Then, once you have the list, it's easier to visit price-comparison websites such as nextag.com or PriceGrabber.com.

4. Teach your kids to shop for themselves.

On a related note, back-to-school shopping can also offer parents an ideal time to pass on budgeting lessons to their children. Linda Descano, president and chief executive of Women & Co., a website aimed at women and published by Citigroup, says more than half of moms use back-to-school shopping as a chance to talk about money with their kids. One option, she adds, is to have children, especially older ones, pay for some of their own expenses out of their allowance or earnings. Only about 12 percent of moms currently do this, she says.

Descano also suggests avoiding impulse purchases by snapping photos of desired items, especially those not on a "must-have" list, and considering them for later. "If they still have their hearts set on something after a couple weeks, it's time to put it in the cart," she says.

5. Don't forget department stores.