Lisa Weiland of St. Paul finished her back-to-school shopping for her three kids early. In May. She's not a super shopper or uber organizer. She took advantage of an offer now available to many parents with kids in elementary and middle schools -- a supply kit that is customized by school and personalized for each student. The parent checks off the needed items and the kit is delivered to the school by the first day of classes.

No more visits to five stores and scrambling for sold-out supplies.

"It saves me from shopping for school supplies the third week in July when everything is 10 cents, but I'm not in the mood to shop yet," said Weiland. It also eliminates the frustration of the procrastinating parent who can't find a two-pronged red folder because all the retailers are sold out.

Weiland is one of 20 percent of parents who bought the kits at L'Etoile du Nord French Immersion School in St. Paul. It was the first time the school offered the kits, which are sold by a number of companies such as Schoolkidz, Innisbrook, Edukit and Epipacks for $20 to $40, depending on the class and the teacher.

The kits are popular with time-pressed parents. Business has almost doubled in the past five years, said Jim Mulder, director of Schoolkidz, a kit provider that is a division of Staples.

Although Weiland and others who bought ahead are spared the crowded back-to-school aisles, many families are just beginning the increasingly expensive process. Nationally, K-12 families are spending an average of $600 for apparel and an ever-expanding list of supplies that their elementary and middle school kids need before classes begin.

Some parents look at the kits as an extravagance and prefer to scope out supplies all summer long, cherry-picking the best deals to maximize savings.

Other parents who are, um, more relaxed, are wondering why anyone is buying school supplies when it's not even Labor Day yet.

See if you recognize your own habits in one of these three back-to-school shoppers.

The Procrastinator

Somewhere out there is a mom using a smartphone app to scan prices of back-to-school items.

That's not Chris Norman of Brooklyn Park. "I save a lot of money by waiting until the evening of the first day of school," she said. She's been burned in the past by buying supplies that went unused. The seven book protectors? Never touched.

Norman prefers one-stop shopping. "Considering the time and effort to get a better price, I'm not sure how much I would save," she said. If Target and Office Depot were next to each other in a strip mall, she would consider the back and forth, but even that is a stretch. "I just want to get in and out."

What about the common lament that everything is sold out by the time school starts? Norman hasn't found that to be true. "I almost always get what I came for," she said.

Hassle factor: "Not much. I avoid stores like Target that run out of supplies. If I go to Office Max or Office Depot there's rarely a problem."  

Amount spent: $200 on supplies, about the same as last year.

The Comparison Shopper

Terri Blase of Coon Rapids was ahead of the game last year when she bought backpacks on clearance for this school year. She shops year round for deals and stockpiles glue, pens, pencils and notebooks.

She wasn't always a comparison shopper. She started buying the school-supply kits with her first of her three children, for about $30, but realized that she could get the same stuff for half the price by shopping sales.

Is the $10 to $15 in savings worth the three hours it takes her to gather the supplies? Blase thinks it is. She combines her back-to-school shopping with trips for other items. "I buy a little here and a little there when items are on sale," she said, but she draws the line at shopping before August. "It's July, people. Enjoy the summer."

Hassle factor: "It's not a hassle at all. I enjoy it."

Amount spent: For supplies only, about $45 for all three kids.

The Early Bird

The most frustrating part of back-to-school shopping for Lori McManus of Bloomington is the inconsistency in the lists. When her daughter started kindergarten last year McManus discovered that the school, the PTA and Target each had different items on their lists.

When she figured out that her daughter needed five different colored folders, they couldn't find an orange folder anywhere. "I finally found the orange ones at Office Max. All the colored folders were 59 cents except the orange. It was $3," said McManus.

The experience was so overwhelming and confusing that when the PTA offered a kit with all the necessary items pre-selected, she couldn't sign up fast enough. "I figure I'm spending less after I factor in my time," she said. Last year she went to Target, Walgreens, Wal-Mart and Office Max. This year she's looking forward to seeing all the supplies boxed neatly in a kit at the school when she goes to meet her daughter's first-grade teacher.

At Olson Elementary, where McManus' daughter goes to school, some of the money parents spend on the kits supports the PTA. Schools that don't use the kits as a fundraiser charge as much as 10 percent less for the supplies.

Hassle factor: "None. Didn't even have to think about it."

Amount spent: About $200 total, up slightly from last year.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. If you spot a deal, share it at www.startribune.com/dealspotter.