When Karen Beecher looked over the two-page list of school supplies that her son, Conner, 6, received before he started kindergarten last year, she was surprised to discover her oldest needed more than a box of crayons. Determined to find some good deals, she managed to buy everything on the list for less than $10.

"My husband, Matt, had me add it up a couple of times because he couldn't believe it, either," she said.

Beecher's strategy? She shopped sales throughout the summer at several local retailers and cashed in reward points already earned at stores such as Walgreens and CVS Pharmacy.

Calling herself a "plan ahead kind of person," Beecher, of St. Francis, spent about the same amount this year for Conner's first-grade supplies -- already purchased, marked with his name and ready for the first day of school -- and has also picked up an inexpensive folder and backpack for 3-year-old preschooler Olivia.

Planning ahead is definitely the secret to finding back-to-school deals, whether on classroom supplies or clothing, according to Carrie Rocha, a Maple Grove mom of two preschoolers and founder of PocketYourDollars.com, a website devoted to saving money and steering clear of debt.

"Since you're going to be out and about doing errands all the time anyway, don't hesitate to pick up one or two amazing deals when you find them," said Rocha. "You're going to spend much less money if you are willing to shop this way rather than doing it all at once. Start early because if you wait too long, it's going to be harder to find what you are looking for at a good price."

Good deals on the rack

If your kids need back-to-school clothing, now is a good time to find plenty of choices on clearance racks. Since the first few weeks of the school year are usually warm, deeply discounted summer merchandise can help fill out those lists.

"There are also lots of coupons out there for stores like J.C. Penney and Kohl's," said Rocha. "Make sure you know what sizes your kids need and be intentional about buying things they can wear both now and later."

Back-to-school shopping season is a great teachable opportunity for kids and teens, says Nathan Dungan, founder and president of ShareSave Spend and author of "Money Sanity Solutions: Linking Money + Meaning." With a little advance planning, the experience can be successful rather than stressful.

"Start by having an emotionally neutral conversation at home about the family back-to-school budget. Do it before you head out to the mall because you won't be able to have that kind of discussion once you are in the line at Abercrombie and Fitch," he said. "Spend time prioritizing a list of needs and wants. Do your research ahead of time. Look at ads, look online to find the best deals and set boundaries around the shopping trip."

If teens have items on their lists that could be better classified as "wants," such as expensive jeans, talk to them in advance about how much they will contribute toward the purchase to help maintain the established budget.

Dungan also suggests using cash instead of plastic to fund all back-to-school purchases.

"This is especially meaningful when you are shopping with elementary school kids because cash is more real and more tactile for them. And when it's gone, it's gone," he said. "It's definitely a way to reduce impulse spending."

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.

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