As a kid I loved back-to-school shopping. A new pair of kicks, a cozy white cardigan, and a backpack stuffed full of fresh school supplies were my reward for crossing the finish line of summer.

Today, the high cost of back-to-school gear makes me want to quit the race. Have you seen the long supply lists schools give kids today? I need a degree in scholastics just to source everything out.

back to school shopping

Here’s a Grade Six list sent to me by a friend:

back to school list

The saddest thing on this list is the requirement for unscented felt pens. What’s the use of being in grade six if you can’t have smelly markers? I digress.

Missing from this list are the electronic gadgets many kids carry these days, such as iPads and cell phones. And unless your kid attends class naked, you’ve got to budget for shoes, clothing, and gym gear too.

The average parent with kids in grades K-12 spends $688 on supplies, clothing, and electronics for the new school year. The National Retail Federation compiled this widely reported stat, failing to break down the cost per kid. But you get the idea — shopping for back-to-school ain’t cheap. In fact, the September school rush represents one of the top spending sprees of the year, second only to Christmas.

Discounts22 Ways to get a discount on anything

The art of snagging serious savings and uncovering hidden discounts isn’t hard to master. Check out: Part One: 22 Ways to get a discount on anything for the cost-cutting tricks.

To help you cut costs this school year, I asked a number of parents and teachers to share their top tips for stretching their school budget. I also wracked my own brain (yep, I’ve got one) to find ways to save. Here are 12 thrifty tricks for beating the steep price of sending the kids back to school.

How to save on school supplies.

Binders, books, and scent-free markers oh my! Your total school supplies tab could reach $95 if your kid is in grades K-12 says The National Retail Federation. Here’s how to cut the school supplies cost:

1. Do a home inventory.

Take a look around your home before hitting the stores — chances are you already own a few of the school essentials and can save big money by not duplicating these items.

back to school checklist
Homework Download: Tally your old supplies to prevent costly duplication.

That’s what teacher and parent Brandi Scraper recommends. “I always save my children’s pencil boxes and Fiskar scissors for the following year,” she writes on Facebook. “After accumulating about six pairs of scissors around the house, I realized there was no reason why those couldn’t be taken back to school the next year.”

2. Get the school list.

Many schools send parents a list of mandatory school supplies in August. Parent Mia Lee doesn’t shop until she knows which supplies are required for the school year.

“I remember one year I stocked up on crayons and wide ruled paper because it was on sale, however, my son’s list didn’t ask for crayons, and he really needed college ruled paper. I save money by only buying what he needs,” writes Lee via Facebook.

3. Score loss-leaders.

Office supply and department stores want your back-to-school dollars, and often sell school supplies at a loss to get you in the store. Scoring loss-leaders for pennies per crayon and pencil, a buck a notebook, and a quarter or two per binder is a deal that cuts costs significantly. The trick is scooping up these bargains without being enticed to spend on non-sale items.

Patience is also a virtue — stores won’t loss-leader everything at once, so you have to watch weekly flyers and may need to make multiple trips to stock your shelves.

4. Use coupons, price match.

See an item advertised for less either online or in a competitor’s flyer? The solution to saving is simple — save the advertisement and price match.

22 Ways to get a discount on anything22 Ways to get a discount on anything

Check out tip #20 in Part Three: 22 Ways to get a discount on anything for the coupon-clipping details and coupon expert links.

Combining coupons at price-match friendly stores (like Walmart and London Drugs) can net you deep discounts on your purchase.

5. Buy in bulk.

Buying your school supplies at big-box and warehouse stores like Costco can save you 25% over buying pencils and paper in small quantities. By stocking up, you’ll have enough pens for your student to last well beyond the first semester — even if she loses them regularly.

6. Order stationery online.

Before setting foot in a brick-and-mortar store, browse your favorite retailer’s online shop to find the sales. Discounts of at least 10% can be had on both big-ticket items and basic stationary, and free shipping is often just a secret code away.

Get big savings with secret online coupons

Find free shipping and online promotional codes with these 8 Ways to to uncover online coupons.

10 Ways to score textbooks for less

Skip the college and university bookstores, kiddies. Here’s where to buy used textbooks and rent copies for cheap.

7. Purchase supplies from your teacher.

Many retailers give special discounts on school supplies to teachers. In some cases, they’re able to buy supplies in bulk and pass significant savings along to parents. Fiona Forshaw lives in a district with such a program — she pays her daughter’s teacher $35 in September for pencils and notebooks instead of spending $100 throughout the year at retailers like Walmart or Staples. “It’s really the best way,” she says.

Cut your kid’s clothing costs.

Back-to-school shoes and clothes run the average parent with kids in grades K-12 a total of $375 — that’s $246 for threads and $129 for kicks. I really wish that National Retail Federation survey broke down the actual costs per kid per grade, ’cause I have a hunch that parents of grade 12 students spend a lot more on clothing than those of your average kindergarten kid.

back to school

Regardless of the age of your student, here are my tips for cutting through the expense of avoiding classroom nudity.

8. Join a kids clothing swap group.

Whether you find a used kid gear group on Facebook or in a community church basement, it pays to watch the used online postings and join the weekend swap meetups to nab those $1 jeans, free shirts, and barely used runners to save big.

After seeing massive savings on my local Facebook kid swap group, I’m sold on buying gently used gear online from fellow parents for 95% off retail. Just watch for stains, wear, and smell. Sticking to brand name clothing is a win since the resell value is high if your kid doesn’t wear the threads bare.

Since the majority of gently used clothing is for kids under 10 years of age, it’s best to bank these savings in the early years before your child hits the teen decade and calls you out for being thrifty.

9. Don’t stock your kid’s closet in August.

Resist the urge to buy all your kid’s new clothing in August, when back-to-school ads strongly encourage you to spend. Sure, buy a few key pieces before school starts, but wait until late September and early October for the best clothing steals and deals. Here’s why:

  • ‘That’s not cool anymore!’ Kids want to be on trend, and waiting until after the first month of class can help your student develop a style they’ll stick with, saving you from spending on the wrong pair of jeans.
  • You’ll need fall gear. Retailers don’t discount fall clothing in the summer because it’s not fully in stock.
  • Retailers unlikely to discount. The pressure to spend on back-to-school shopping is second only to Christmas. Since parents face a faux September deadline, they are less likely to hunt for bargains, and retailers are least likely to cut a deal.
  • Celebrate back-to-school in October. The best clothing deals online and in-store can be found in October, when department stores and shops aim to catch your early holiday shopping eye. Kid’s jeans, sweaters, shoes, and dresses can be nabbed for over 50% off to clear the back-to-school shelves for the holiday blitz, plus you’ll save on your kid’s winter wardrobe during early Black Friday and Cyber Monday pre-season sales.

Not spending too much moolah on clothing in August or September can also help ease a tight budget which might be feeling stretched from spending on binders, electronics, and kids fall activities.

10. Dress for less online.

The mayhem of shopping with excited kids in a store crowded with someone else’s excited kids can be avoided (and meltdowns eschewed) by knowing your kid’s sizes and shopping online. Not only can you benefit from a greater selection, but you may find online coupons and discount codes that cut your clothing costs by at least 15%.

Buy refurbished electronics.

Gadgets are the new cool school tool. The National Retail Federation’s back-to-school study says “nearly six in 10 (59.6%) [of parents] will invest in some sort of electronic device” for their kids this school year, spending an average of $218 on devices.

Longtime readers of Squawkfox will know where I’m heading with this one …

11. Resist the urge to upgrade.

Of course your kid wants the newest digital thing in the stores (selling at full price) for showing off in September. Your kid is friends with “Britney” and “Brandon” after all, and those brats always have the bestest drool-worthy stuff.

Here’s the deal: Tell your kid she can have that new iThinger if she pays for it. Saving up for wanted items is a lesson well learned in school, and making kids prioritize spending earlier will serve them well into adulthood.

UpgradesDo you really need that upgrade?

Before pulling the trigger on that new device, maybe it’s time to stop and think.

Otherwise, encourage your tearful student to keep last year’s model and wait to upgrade to something shinier. Read Do you really need that upgrade? for the heated discussion on today’s upgrade culture.

12. Shop for refurbished devices.

That shiny nearly-new model can be had for 15% to 25% less by sourcing computers, iPads, iPods, and cell phones in the refurbished sections of online stores. Apple products, arguably the most popular brand with school kids, can be found refurbished by watchful parental eyes throughout the school year, so it pays to know the features your kid needs.

Discounts22 Ways to get a discount on anything

Check out tip #17 in Part Three: 22 Ways to get a discount on anything for the refurb tips, gotchas, and details.

Your Turn: OK parents: what are your best tips for saving money on the back-to-school crunch? Share your secrets, people.