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The National Retail Federation (NRF) reported that families in America spent an average of $630.36 per child on back-to-school needs like electronics, clothing, and school supplies in 2015. That’s less than what parents spent in 2014, but it’s still 42% more than families spent a decade ago.

With back-to-school season looming, it’s time to start thinking about approaching this shopping season with a plan. Chances are, you don’t actually have to spend that much money on school clothes and supplies. And racking up debt for supplies that weren’t absolutely essential simply isn’t worth it. (You can see how your current debts are affecting your credit by viewing your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.) 

Here are some tips that can help you save.

1. Set a Budget You Can Afford

First, decide what you can realistically afford to spend on back-to-school season. Starting with a clear budget in mind, and keeping track of the money you spend on school shopping, can help keep unnecessary spending in check.

2. Let Older Kids Access Some of Their Money

Giving older kids some autonomy when shopping for more variable back-to-school items, like clothes and shoes may be a good idea. Give your kids the cash you would normally spend on these items, and let them shop on their own. You may find that kids are more frugal when they’re spending their money than they are when they’re spending yours.

3. Shop Secondhand Throughout the Summer

Kids’ clothes can be easy to find secondhand, often in great condition. But buying secondhand does take more time, so make sure you budget that as well. Make it a point to hit up garage sales, Goodwill and consignment shops throughout the summer to get the clothes your kids need to head back to school. Chances are, you can find some trendy items that fit well while saving a fortune.

4. Organize a Swap Meet

If you know friends and neighbors who have kids who are around the same age(s) as yours, consider a swap meet. This is an event where everyone brings a certain number of great condition, used items. If you bring four items, you can leave with four items. No one spends a dime. This could work for back-to-school clothes, shoes, and even electronics and school books.

Hint: If your kids wear school uniforms, create a uniforms-only swap meet. Parents who want to offload uniforms but don’t need new ones could show up later to sell their used uniforms at a discounted price.

5. Leverage End-of-Summer Sales

You may not be able to find everything your kids need secondhand. If that’s the case, you still don’t need to pay department store prices for brand new clothes. Instead, wait for sales. Stores like Old Navy, Target and The Children’s Place often offer steep discounts on basics like jeans, khakis and polos at the end of the summer.

6. Check Your Closets First

Before you buy a single crayon or box of tissues, clean out your closets. Pick a day, and have all the kids gather up every office or school supply they can find in the house. Consolidate it on the dining room table, and see what your kids can use for the upcoming school year. This goes for things like backpacks and lunch boxes, too, which you don’t really need to buy new each year, as long as they’re still in good condition. Just finding all these items and assigning them to kids can save you loads of shopping.

7. Only Get What’s On The List

Yes, your kids are going to want fancy electronics, brand-new backpacks and a bunch of other school supplies that aren’t on the list. But stick with what’s on the school supply list provided by your school to reduce your spending.

8. Get Basic Supplies, But Personalize Them

One of the ways to pay a premium for school supplies is to buy the trendiest, most decorated styles. But you can save a buck (and also keep your kids busier this summer) if you avoid this route. Instead, buy plain folders, notebooks, lunchboxes and backpacks. Then, hit up a local craft store for some paints, iron-on patches, buttons and other fun items. Let your kids go to town decorating and personalizing their supplies. You’ll spend less and they won’t come home with another kid’s identical backpack.

9. Try Dollar Stores

Before you hit up the big box stores for the school supplies you still need, try your local dollar stores. They often offer the same supplies, even name-brand art supplies, at much lower prices. You may not be able to get everything you need at the dollar store, but it’s a good place to begin.

10. Buy Bulk Supplies

Fulfilling school supply lists for multiple kids? Chances are, they all need some similar items, such as tissues, hand sanitizer, pens and notebooks. You can get these items at a discount if you buy them in bulk from warehouse clubs. Bonus points if you already have and use a bulk store membership to buy other family basics.

11. Stick to Supermarkets For The Rest

Avoid the big name stores and opt for supermarkets instead. Most of the time, supermarkets that specialize in groceries but also carry office supplies will run back-to-school specials that can save you a bunch of money on these supplies.

12. Check Out Coupons

Before you go school supply shopping, run a quick online search to see if you can find coupons for any of the supplies you need. Chances are, the coupons will be for name-brand products, so be sure to compare the discounted name-brand price with the regular off-brand price before you purchase.

13. Finish Up at the Last Minute

Stores are too smart to give the good back-to-school discounts when everyone is shopping for school supplies at the end of July. If you can hold off and finish up your shopping just before school starts, do it. Often times, by early August, those sale prices are even lower. If you know your kids won’t need all their supplies right away, send them to the first week of school with the bare bones. Then, make a supermarket run for the rest of the supplies you need after the first week of school.

14. Learn to Say No

Perhaps the hardest part of back-to-school shopping with kids is that they want so much. They want a new backpack even though last year’s is perfectly serviceable. They want the fancy folders instead of the plain ones. All this is understandable, but now is not the time to give in to every childish whim. If it’s easier, just don’t take them shopping with you.

15. Then, Maybe Say Yes

All that budgeting, scrimping, reusing of secondhand supplies and saying no can be tough on you and your kids. But the bonus here is that these tips will likely bring you in under your back-to-school shopping budget. If you have money left in the budget, whether it’s $10 or $100, let your kids splurge with at least some of it. Maybe it’s an extra-special pencil case or a new tablet for the whole family to use. Either way, a splurge (that still doesn’t put you over budget) is well-deserved at this point.

Image: Hongqi Zhang

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