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It only costs $68 billion to send the kids back to school

By , CardRatings contributor
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For many families, the beginning of the school year is a close second to January 1st when it comes to fresh starts.

I speak from experience when I say each year I make just as many school-related resolutions as I do New Year's resolutions. This will be the year we get ready the night before. This will be the year my kids take well-balanced, beautifully packed lunches rather than leftovers. This will be the year we're not scrambling the night before to buy school supplies.

And speaking of school supplies, I might need to add a separate line item to my budget just to pay for all the notebooks, paper, calculators and other items on the growing list of necessities my kids seem to need each year.

According to the National Retail Federation, families like yours and mine will spend a combined $68 billion to send kids back to K-12 school and college in 2015, down from previous years. But before you think the budget-busting, "BTS" trend is over, back-to-school spending is still up 42% over the past 10 years, the NRF said.

Average Spending on Back to School Has Grown 42 Percent in Past 10 Years - See more at: https://nrf.com/media/press-releases/after-splurging-2014-families-trim-back-school-spending-2015#sthash.eBvProLP.dpuf
Average Spending on Back to School Has Grown 42 Percent in Past 10 Years - See more at: https://nrf.com/media/press-releases/after-splurging-2014-families-trim-back-school-spending-2015#sthash.eBvProLP.dpuf
Total spending for K-12 and college is expected to reach $68 billion.*  - See more at: https://nrf.com/media/press-releases/after-splurging-2014-families-trim-back-school-spending-2015#sthash.eBvProLP.dpuf

Families spending an average of $630

That means back-to-school is big business for the nation's retailers and is second only to Christmas in terms of seasonal spending. The latest NRF survey also says the average U.S. family will spend $630.36 to send their K-12 students back to school, down from $669.28 last year. Parents are spending less money on electronic gadgets, at least one category that may not have to be replaced each year.

Here's how the spending broke down in the NRF survey:

  • New clothes: $217.82
  • Shoes: $117.56
  • Supplies: $97.74
  • Electronics: $197.24

Save money while back to school shopping

The average back-to-school bill may be $630, but you don't have to pay that much if you are a smart shopper.

Before you even start shopping, make sure have a plan for what you need. Consider these ways to stretch your back-to-school dollars.

  • Hit the major office supply stores each week to grab the "loss leaders": If possible, head to Staples, Office Max and Office Depot for free and nearly free school supplies designed to get you into the store -- just leave before buying anything else. Starting now, each major chain offers a different selection of bargain basement items each week. Some of these deals may also be available online but you may have to pay shipping costs.
  • Head to consignment stores for back-to-school clothes: Kids can be picky about what they wear, and consignment shops offer designer duds for less. Plato's Closet and Buffalo Exchange are chain consignment stores or you can shop online to virtual stores like ThredUp and SeamsKarmic for gently used name brand clothes.
  • Wait until the clearance sales start: This is not a good plan for general office supplies -- you will encounter frustratingly empty shelves -- but for clothes, lunchboxes and similar merchandise, you can often get the best deals right after school starts. If you don't mind a limited selection, wait until the clearance pricing starts in September.
  • Use your credit card rewards: Use your cash back rewards cards to save money on back-to-school shopping. (There are many cash back credit card offers to consider if you don't have one.) If you think you'll need more than one month to pay off your purchases, find a low APR credit card to minimize the interest you will pay.
  • Don't overextend your budget: It's tempting for everyone to arrive on the first day of school with the latest in everything -- a brand new backpack, new shoes, shiny new folders and more -- but it's not worth risking a giant hole in your budget. Talk with your kids before heading out to the stores about what they truly need for the first few weeks vs. treating the outing like an early holiday event. 

What's your secret to having a smooth back-to-school but still staying within your budget? Share in the comments section below.

According to the National Retail Federation, we will spend a combined $72.5 billion to send kids back to school and back to college in 2013.
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