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posted: 8/21/2013 5:14 AM

Back-to-school shopping 101

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Associated Press

NEW YORK -- The back-to-school shopping season is kicking into high gear, but stores have been pushing it for a month. They're working hard to get parents to spend, spend, spend on notebooks, computers, clothes and other student needs.

The National Retail Federation trade group predicts that families with school-age children will spend an average of $634.78 on shoes, clothes, supplies and electronics, with total back-to-school spending expected to reach $72.5 billion.

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But how do you spend wisely and find the best deals? Here are a few tips from the experts:

• Prioritize: Even though it is tempting to get all of your shopping done at once, you should go in steps, says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with The NPD Group. Buy essentials first, then hold off on anything that is more of a treat than a necessity -- those sorts of items will most likely be cheaper later.

"Take advantage of sales as they occur," he says. "The longer we get into the season, the more likely products are going to go on sale."

Another reason to wait, in terms of clothing especially: the fickleness of teen fashion trends, Cohen says. Buy as much of that as you can in September or after school starts.

"There's nothing worse than buying something for your kid and finding out nobody is going to wear it," he says. "If green is the color no one is wearing and you bought a green sweater, that's going to sit in the closet, and you wasted a lot of money doing that."

• Do your homework: The deals are out there, but to take advantage, you have to study up. Check out brick-and-mortar stores' websites or sites like pricegrabber.com or dealnews.com to compare prices to make sure you don't overpay.

Find out when the sales on items you want are. The best deals are on the weekends, Cohen says, but you'll have to fight the crowds.

Store circulars are also an invaluable resource. But Matt Ong, a senior retail analyst at personal finance site nerdwallet.com, warns not go overboard comparing prices on relatively cheap items.

"The best strategy is to price compare on some of the larger items, in terms of the right time and right store to shop at. It is difficult to price compare 97-cent erasers," he says. Better to save $10 or $20 on a backpack than to waste gasoline chasing nickels and dimes.

Another helpful task before you hit the stores is to hit your child's closet, and make sure you're not buying something they already have.

"You'd be amazed at how many things are in there," Cohen says. "There's nothing wrong with teaching kids how to be a little bit frugal."

• Capitalize on studen discounts: Did you know that signing up with a .edu email address at Best Buy could get you a $100 off a MacBook or iMac? Or that Amazon offers free two-day shipping for college students?

There are a host of ways that students can get discounts, but it takes a little research to uncover.

"Every retailer differs," said Mark LoCastro, public relations manager for dealnews.com. Check your favorite stores to see If they give student discounts. Even if you don't find anything online, ask in the store.

• Get your kids involved: One way to make sure you're not going to waste money on something your child doesn't want is to get him or her involved early.

First, it can help teach about budgeting and making shopping decisions. Second, he or she will be more invested in the purchases.

"Some parents have learned it doesn't necessarily pay to buy cheap. You've got to pay for what kids are going to use and want," Cohen says.

• Team up with other parents: Every child has a list of school supplies, and it's easy to wind up over buying if, say, they need four pens that only come in packs of eight.

Coordinating with a neighborhood group cannot only help cut out buying in excess, but you can also swap items you already have with other families.

Creating an email list or a group on social media sites like Facebook is an easy way to coordinate.

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