Back-to-school savings: Where to shop

Sam O'Keefe / Today
Five-year-old Millie Tomlin rests her chin on the shopping cart at Target in Lynchburg, Va., as her mom shops for her.

The cost of outfitting your kids for the upcoming school year could vary by almost $500 depending on where you shop, according to research by

Cheapism first surveyed prices on kids’ clothes, shoes, and accessories at seven mass-market retailers in 2011. The total for a complete back-to-school wardrobe for a boy and a girl ranged from about $220 at Walmart to more than $700 at Kohl’s (although that doesn’t account for discounts and coupons available to Kohl’s Rewards and credit card holders, nor promotions such as Kohl’s Cash). This year, prices are roughly the same, give or take about $1 to $3 for most items, Cheapism found. The exception is JC Penney, where the past couple of years have brought upheaval in the senior management and pricing strategy. The pretax total there fell to about $460 but remained among the highest.

Apparel and shoes consume more than half of U.S. families’ back-to-school budgets, according to the National Retail Federation. The trade group’s annual back-to-school survey, released last week, predicts that U.S. families with school-age children will spend an average of $634.78 this year, including $345.24 on new clothes and shoes.

RELATED: Best cheap laptops

Cheapism’s researcher shopped for items such as T-shirts, tops, and hoodies; jeans, skirts, and dress pants; socks, shoes, and even underwear for elementary-school children between 7 and 10 years old. Of course, most kids already have some of these necessities in their closets and dresser drawers. Be sure to take stock before you head to the mall. When you’ve pinpointed the holes in your kids’ wardrobes (both literal and figurative), Cheapism can point you to the best places to shop for what they need. The site’s mission is to seek out the best value, not just the lowest price, so the recommendations below also factor in variables such as selection and quality.

RELATED: Rolling backpack reviews

Best for Shirts: Old Navy.The wide selection of T-shirts, button-downs, fashion tops, and other shirts covers trendy styles as well as basics. The prices may not be the lowest, but they’re never more than middling (the best deals start at five for $25). Polo-style shirts for both genders scored high in an expert test based on indicators of quality such as colorfastness and reinforced stitching.

Best for Jeans:Walmart. The discount giant is famous for low prices and, true to form, its private-label Faded Glory jeans were the cheapest (starting at $10 for girls and $11 for boys). Nevertheless, expert testing showed them to hold up better than a brand that commands more than twice as much.

RELATED: Buying eyeglasses online

Best for School Uniforms:JC Penney. Prices for Izod-brand uniform shirts, skirts, and pants are among the cheapest for girls ($6-$10) and in the mid-range for boys ($11-$20). JC Penney dedicates entire sections of its stores to school uniforms, whereas consumers must go online to find much of a selection from most other retailers.

Best for Shoes:Target. The “cheap chic” retailer came in second only to Walmart in price, both overall and in the shoe department, where the breadth of available styles was unparalleled. Prices on sneakers and dress shoes start at $10 for girls and $13 for boys.

More from Cheapism:

Full report on cheap back-to-school clothes

More from TODAY Money:

Follow business on Twitter and Facebook