Remember the days when all you needed for school were some number two pencils and a sandwich? Neither do we.
Luckily, we have simple strategies that will save you big on all things back-to-school.
Planning is the first key to saving, says Stephanie Nelson, the famously frugal founder of CouponMom. "Before you even leave your house, sit down and plan out what you need." And then, she says, shop your own closets first.
While inventorying your child's current wardrobe, donate items that are too small and pass older children's outgrown clothing to a sibling, she says: "I did this with both of my sons and learned that they had plenty of outfits. They each bought a couple of sale-priced summer items and decided to spend their new clothes money later in the season when the weather gets cooler."
Take the same fresh-look approach with notebooks, pens, and other supplies. You'll be surprised at the amount of stuff you already have. "Often the kids use a quarter of a notebook and are ready to throw it away," says Nancy Young, mom to two high schoolers in Knoxville, Tennessee. "I just tear out the used pages and hand the notebook back to them." In other instances, the pencil case that one child is tired of will feel brand-new to another child.
"There's nothing worse than going shopping for a back-to-school wardrobe and having your child tell you that when they got to school, what they bought wasn't the right thing," says Stacy DeBroff, founder and CEO of MomCentral, a social networking site for moms.
DeBroff advises moms to save themselves time and money by "having the kids spend some time in school and then tell you what the kids are wearing and what they want." So, buy a few basics before classes start and the rest a few weeks in.
The same applies to supplies. "Wait until your children's teachers have given you their list," says Becky Bellini, a high school English teacher and mom in Pleasant Hill, California. "The lists at office supply stores are often more than you need. Plus, this will save you from having to shop twice, since the teacher will inevitably ask for something you didn't buy." And it could save you money if you shop after the sales start.
With all of the websites that promise to save you money, it's daunting to figure out which ones will really deliver. Here's a cheat sheet from our pros.
Do a coupon search
For starters, "Always do a web search for the name of the retailer and the word "coupon" before purchasing, to see if you can get a discount before checking out online or going to the store," says Kimberly Palmer, author of Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.
Check out these sites
Palmer recommends the dedicated back-to-school page on Bradsdeals.com as well as www.CouponMom.com.
Nelson recommends looking for free coupons from outlet mall websites such as www.premiumoutlets.com and subscribing to the email newsletter of your local mall.
Watch Twitter for deals
They're for budget-savvy moms too. "Companies now announce their best deals on Twitter," says Palmer. Don't waste your time following dozens of company feeds. Instead use the "new feed just launched by twitter @earlybird which pulls together deals from dozen of retailers and companies."
"Don't forget the old-school newspaper circulars, which are packed with deals," says Palmer. "Discount stores announce most of their deals through weekly circulars."
With those in hand, Nelson says you can score supplies at up to 90 percent off by taking advantage of price matching (when stores honor any other store's lower price). "Check the circulars for grocery stores, drugstores, office supply stores and even dollar stores. Find the lowest advertised price for every item you need, circle it and take all the circulars to the closest store that price matches." Stores, like WalMart, which have a national price-matching policy, save you time, money, and gas, she adds.
The number of elementary school students who will start school with a new laptop, cell phone, or smartphone has almost doubled this year from last, according to recent research. That makes tech a crucial area when it comes to spending wisely.
Look for software apps that can do the job of another gadget
For instance, "if your child has an iPhone or an iTouch, you can buy the graphing calculator application rather than purchasing a graphing calculator, which is very expensive," says Bellini.
Revisit your family's phone plan
Make sure you understand how much your kids are texting, warns DeBroff. "People don't think about it, but it makes a dramatic difference in saving money. Here you are buying economical notebooks and then you your middle schooler starts texing non-stop and you get a $200 bill."
Review online entertainment subscriptions
Look at what subscriptions your kids have for online entertainment. (Are you spending $14 a month for a WebKinz account that goes unused?)
Next to technology, shoes are some of the most expensive back-to-school items you can buy. So, it pays to be strategic.
A common promotion this time of year is "buy one pair, get the second pair 50% off," says Nelson. "So it makes sense to take all of your children shoe shopping together."
For some back-to-school basics, it pays to look for quality at a good price. Take backpacks, for example. They can really take a beating doing their job. Finding brands that are well made and offer lifetime guarantees will serve you well in the long run.
"You can expect a good backpack to last a few years and provide the necessary support and padding for heavier books," says Nelson. Instead of skimping, consider such an item as an every-other-year or every-third-year purchase that's worth the extra money.
Likewise replacement policies for expensive items such as cell phones are a must, says DeBroff. "There is not a child on the planet who will not lose a cell phone."
"Make it a tradition that your children's grandmother takes them shopping for school supplies every year. That's what I did," says Donna Raskin, a teacher-mom in Pennington, New Jersey.
"She's more generous than me. She and my son have been doing it since kindergarten and now he's going into fifth grade. They look forward to it every year." And so will you.
With carpool season looming, now is a good time to scope out where you can find the cheapest gas in town (try gaspricewatch.com) or to sign up for a points-for-gas program.
Consumers who use their Kroger Plus Card at their local grocery store earn points toward reduced-price gas at some locations, for example.
And if you have a student driver this year? Make sure they take a safe-driving course, which can earn you a discounted price on car insurance. Ka-ching, ka-ching!
Here's a win-win. Catherine McCord, author of the popular kid-food blog Weelicious and LA mom to three-year-old Kenya, recommends picking up a reusable lunch box with containers or compartments to save money on plastic baggies and other packaging—and give the planet a break.