If you're paying more than 25 cents for a box for crayons, you've spent too much, according to frugalistas like Crystal Paine, known as Money Saving Mom on the Web.
Paine, part of the coupon-mom brigade that came to prominence during the recession, spends her days aggregating bargains so that her thousands of devotees don't have to do the legwork.
Whether shopping for a second-grader or a college sophomore, families are eager to save, especially with costs rising while the economy remains weak. The average cost on back-to-school spending for kindergarten through 12th grade is $688, according to the National Retail Federation, up from $603.63 last year. Getting ready for college? The average is now $907.
Here are a few buying tips from the pros:
School supplies: Shop early and often, Paine suggests. "Waiting is the worst," she says. You want to go for the loss leaders that the office-supply and department stores dangle, for pennies or dollars on the crayons, paper and pens that all students need. But you also have to be patient, because the stores don't dole those out all at once. And definitely don't wait to buy college supplies at the university book store.
Tara Kuczykowski, known as Deal Seeking Mom, ran the numbers and found that if she shopped her whole list for her five kids at Walmart or Target, she would have spent about $23. But if she shopped the various specials and deals at all different stores? "I would have spent $7," she says.
Computer equipment: Shopping site dealnews.com has consistently found the time between Black Friday, as the day after Thanksgiving is known by retailers, and New Year's Day to be the best for the lowest price on a new laptop. But Lindsay Sakraida, features director at the site, says shoppers still have some options for PCs in the early fall. "One great promotion is that there are back-to-school bundles," she says, like Dell's offer of discounted pricing along with a gift card or Xbox 360.
For Mac products, she suggests checking out resellers first to compare deals against what Apple itself is offering.
Shoes: For Paine, who has three children, it's all about buy-one-get-one deals. "The best thing you can do is shop online, combine a coupon code with a buy-one-get-one deal and have the purchase shipped to the store for free," she says.
"Think ahead and buy for your children's size six months from now, and that way you won't get halfway through the school year and have to pay full price," she adds. Kuczykowski says she takes her children into stores to get measured and to try on different styles, then orders online, especially when a store's selection is lacking.
Clothing: Sakraida's research at dealnews.com shows that the best deals for storewide discounts, especially at stores that cater to young shoppers, come in mid-August. These sales are also often good for dorm supplies, too.