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Your child's teacher just emailed the supply list, your mailbox is stuffed with back-to-school circulars, and piles of perfectly stacked notebooks are taunting you from store aisles. But there's no need to panic and lose those good summer vibes: Just take a few deep, cleansing breaths before checking out these foolproof shopping strategies.
1. Go shopping first in your closets and drawers.
Don't buy a thing until your kids try on their clothing from last year and you assess what still fits and what needs to be replaced. You should also hunt around for leftover school supplies that you may have stashed and forgotten — and now is a good time to designate a special box for these items so you don't lose track of them during the year.
2. Make a list of what you plan to buy—and stick to it.
This might seem obvious, but it's especially crucial if you're taking your kids to stores. To resist the siren call of impulse purchases, just keep repeating your mantra, "If it's not on the list, we don't get it."
3. Create a budget and share it with your kids.
Figure out an amount that's realistic and commit to it. If they're old enough, get your kids involved in the planning as well—it can count as math practice! It's also a great early financial lesson to understand that, say, the electronic light-up backpack will use up half the budget, or that novelty folders cost twice as much as solid-color ones.
4. Don't like the price? You might be able to go lower.
Larger stores like Target and Wal-Mart are committed to matching their competitors' prices, and through Sept. 17, Staples has pledged to offer an additional discount of 10 percent off the total price difference.
5. Skip the crowded back-to-school displays.
You might wax nostalgic about your own days of buying Trapper Keepers and push-a-point pencils with your parents at the local shopping center, but remember, they didn't have the Amazon app in their arsenal. Shopping online after kid bedtime (preferably with a glass of wine by your side) saves the hassle of navigating stores with over-excited children who may have lots of extra requests.
If your school's PTA sells individual boxes of supplies online, it's worth taking advantage, especially if they offer delivery right to the classroom. And since a portion of the proceeds usually go towards fundraising, it's a win-win in terms of convenience and warm fuzzies.
6. Don't leave money on the table.
The savviest online shoppers never pay full price at major retailers. First, sign up for your favorite brands' email newsletters that will alert you of general sales, promotional codes and perks like free shipping. But before you check out, always do a quick Internet search for something like "Old Navy discount code" — sites like coupons.com may bring up additional offers.
You can also use comparison-shopping apps or in-store savings checkers like Target's Cartwheel to be sure you're maximizing your discounts.
Finally, some states also have tax holidays for back-to-school shopping. See if your state is one of them.
7. Join forces.
You often save more by buying items in bulk, so it might be worth teaming up with one or more families in your class to share buying power. A recent Amazon search showed that one bottle of a popular hand sanitizer was $6.24, but a two-pack of the same brand was only $3 more. And if one of your parent pals is a warehouse-store member who's willing to shop for the crowd, this is basically the equivalent of winning the back-to-school lottery.
8. Bring the shopping home.
Want first-day outfit inspiration? On sites like Kidbox, Kidpik and Rockets of Awesome, you first set up a profile for your child with sizes and style preferences. They'll send you a box of seasonal clothing few times a year, or more or less if you prefer. You're not required to purchase anything and you won't necessarily save much money, though some sites offer designer brands at lower prices. But the thrill of getting a package in the mail might make your child extra-receptive to trying on things she normally wouldn't.
9. Buy new shoes in the next size up, too.
When you find a sturdy pair your child loves, buy a second pair that's one size bigger, so long as it's a year-round shoe like a sneaker. If your kid has a mid-winter growth spurt, you'll have at least one option she can wear right away.
10. Splurge on the backpack.
Your kid's school bag will get lots of abuse, so it's worth spending a little more on something that won't get destroyed by Thanksgiving. If your child isn't picky about colors, remember that darker hues will show their age more slowly. The ideal knapsack has padded shoulder straps, smooth-gliding zippers, side pockets for water bottles and a chest strap to help distribute the weight evenly. Well-established companies like Lands' End and L.L. Bean also offer lifetime warranties to protect against damage like rips and broken zippers, so the pricier initial investment may be worth it long-term.