It only costs $72 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, we will spend a combined $72.5 billion to send kids back to school and back to college in 2013.

Families spending an average of $634

Back-to-school is big business for the nation's retailers and is second only to Christmas in terms of seasonal spending. According to the National Retail Federation, the average family will drop $634 to send their K-12 students back to school.

Shopping site PriceGrabber did its own survey that backs up the findings of the federation. PriceGrabber found 68 percent of consumers plan to spend up to $500 on back-to-school shopping while 17 percent say they budget in the $500-$1000 range. Meanwhile, 15 percent brave (or foolhardy?) survey respondents say they have no budget in mind.

Where is all the money going? PriceGrabber reports the following percentages of consumers are shopping in these categories:

  • General supplies: 72 percent
  • New clothes: 68 percent
  • Backpacks: 42 percent
  • School books: 36 percent
  • Laptops: 17 percent
  • Tablets: 11 percent

Save money while back to school shopping

The average back-to-school bill may be $634, 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. The National Retail Federation notes 2012 back-to-school spending hit a record high, and spending will be lower this year since families may have overspent last year and still have plenty of school supplies in good condition.

Once you have inventoried what you have and know what you need, it is time to hit the stores. Consider these ways to stretch your back-to-school dollars.

  • Hit the major office supply stores each week to pick up nearly free supplies: If possible, head to Staples, Office Max and Office Depot for free and nearly free school supplies. 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 could 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 doesn't work for general office supplies, but for clothes, lunchboxes and similar merchandise, you can often get the best deals after school starts. If you don't mind a limited selection, wait until the clearance pricing starts in September.

Of course, using your cash back rewards cards are another way to save money on back-to-school supplies. 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, consider finding a low APR credit card or comparing balance transfer offers to minimize any interest you may pay.


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