This post is from GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes a personal finance column for MSN Money. She also writes about frugality, intentional living, and life in general at her own blog, Surviving And Thriving.

According to the National Retail Federation, we’ll spend $68.8 billion outfitting our students for school this year. Yes, I said $68.8 billion. Sounds like a lot of money, right? But the NRF actually considers this “flat.”

More than 80% of the nearly 8,700 people surveyed say that the still-crappy economy has affected the way they’ll shop for school supplies. For example:

  • 30.7% will comparison-shop online
  • 38% will buy store-brand or generic products
  • 44.6% will spend less overall

Good ideas all, but I’d add another tactic: Start early.

School Supplies Pencils Erasers August 07, 20103Ideally, you’ve already begun. No? Then start looking now if you really want to save money. Don’t wait until two days before Labor Day and then go the one-stop-shopping route. The OSS retailers get you through the doors with a few loss-leader prices and make their money back on everything else.

The NRF notes that families with kids in elementary and secondary school spend an average of $603, and parents of college students fork over about $808. This includes clothing and electronics as well as notebook paper.

Can’t afford to spend that much? Don’t want to spend that much? Start by asking yourself…

What do we REALLY need?
Don’t buy stuff you’ve already got. This sounds elementary, as it were, but apparently it isn’t. Each year my sister and I buy school supplies to donate to a social services agency. And each year I see parents buying things like backpacks, lunchboxes and three-ring binders for the glum children they’ve towed into the store. I wonder whether the previous year’s backpack, lunchbox and binder…

  • Wore out
  • Spontaneously combusted
  • Were lost in a poker game

Maybe. But it’s also possible that some parents buy new because, well, it’s a new year. To which I say: Are you out of your mind? Why are you instilling the relentless need for new Stuff when the old Stuff might work just as well?

Have your kid to go through dresser, closet and desk. Send her spelunking under the bed for stray markers. Make a pile of crayons, spiral-bound notebooks and other stray educational tools. Inspect the three-ring binder for cracks. Test the backpack straps and make sure the zippers still work.

Congratulations. You now have less to buy. But maybe not much less. That’s because…

Your school’s “must-have” list is longer than my leg
A kid might have to bring everything from dry-erase markers to a personal box of tissues. Just for gits and shiggles I checked one of these lists.

Elementary-aged kids need, at minimum: a backpack, gym shoes, tissues, lunch bag, pencils, crayons, white glue, markers, erasers, scissors, pocket folders, binder, notebook paper, dividers, composition book, colored pens and a ruler.

What, no particle accelerator?

Crayola Lincoln Logs

Warning! The following statement makes me sound really old.

In my day, we brought a three-ring binder, notebook paper and pencils. If we couldn’t afford paper pr pencils the school provided them. Crayons and scissors were doled out as needed for projects. Only the teacher had markers. Dinosaurs picked us up and delivered us back home.

Times have changed, so watch the office-supply stores (Staples, Office Depot, Office Max) for impossibly cheap school-supply sales. This morning I saw packages of pencils and index cards for one cent each. Buy the maximum amount allowed and you may get enough to last most (or all) of the school year.

Hit those sales as early as possible each week, because other parents have the same idea. Loss leaders may be sold within hours of the opening bell. If the ad doesn’t specifically prohibit rain checks, ask for one.

Note: Your third-grader may plead for a new lunch kit on the grounds that the other kids will laugh when he takes his PBJ out of a “Batman” lunchbox. He might be right. In our increasingly media-driven universe, it’s mortifying to eat from a pail emblazoned with the wrong superhero.

Or he might just be playing you for a sucker. (It happens.)

You might not mind buying a new lunchbox every time the fads change. But maybe you’re wondering how you’re going to pay for everything on that list and still keep the lights on. Or maybe you have an aversion to replacing items that are still perfectly usable. If so, then float a compromise: If you give in on the lunchbox, he’s not getting a new backpack. (Nor should he, if the old one is in good shape.) Get one of those insulated lunch kits, which tend to be more generic in appearance, rather than a box with a cartoon character on it.

Tip: Put a note on your June 2012 calendar to inventory what your kid lost or “forgot” to bring home, then visit the school’s lost-and-found. The L&F box at my daughter’s elementary school looked like a department store. How in the heck don’t parents notice that their kids’ lunch boxes, backpacks, notebooks or winter coats (!) didn’t make it home one day?

If money is really tight (hi there, all you downsized parents!), try these frugal hacks:

  • Look around your house for pencils and pens. Hint: The only place they aren’t is…right by the phone.
  • Whenever you’re in a place that gives away writing implements, take one and say “thank you.” If your fourth-grader is embarrassed to be seen with a credit-union pen, keep them around for doing homework and save the Bics and Dixon Ticonderogas for school.
  • If last year’s spiral-bound notebooks were only partly used up, tear out the old pages and start afresh.
  • Don’t give pencil sharpeners to kindergarteners or first-graders. They get a little carried away.
  • Hand sanitizer really is required in many schools. Small bottles of the stuff will likely go on sale at drugstores and office-supply emporia. Here’s the rule: Junior keeps it in his backpack, not his desk at school, so you can refill as necessary from the jumbo bottle you got at Costco.
  • Start looking now for discounted gift cards to pay for these things as well as for any clothing (more on that below).
  • Truly desperate? Talk to the school nurse or principal about doing a little “shopping” in the lost-and-found. At my daughter’s school, unclaimed goods were given to kids whose parents couldn’t afford certain items.

New, or new to you?
Who came up with the idea of the back-to-school wardrobe? The people who sell the wardrobes, that’s who. Before you re-kit your kid, think about whether it’s really necessary.

Understand: I am not advocating that your child go to school in shoes that pinch or jeans that show her ankles. What I am saying is that there’s no need to re-do a wardrobe if her clothes still fit and are reasonably presentable.

Just sayin’.

Having just-said it, allow me to suggest some ways to find lower prices on new clothes.

For starters, who says it has to be new? Consignment stores, thrift shops, and garage sales are all potential clothing sources. My niece uses all three sources and pays pennies on the dollar for name-brand clothing.

Clothing swaps are another possibility. Organize them through sports teams, parent groups or your place of worship. Online swap sites like SwapMamas and ThredUp might be just the ticket.

Don’t forget The Freecycle Network, either — I see kids’ clothing on there all the time. Some parents even post pictures.

Remember: Nobody has to know your stuff isn’t new unless you choose to tell them. You probably shouldn’t, incidentally, since not everyone is frugal and some people are creeped out by the idea of clothes other people have worn. (What, they think no one has ever tried on the clothes they bought from the department store?)

Tip: If “used” clothes bug you, wash them. Problem solved.

“New” doesn’t necessarily mean “expensive”
Start watching the clearance tables, because some of those “summer” duds — jeans, T-shirts, et al. — will work for September and maybe beyond. (They’ll also work for next April; if prices are irresistible, buy a size up for spring 2012.)

Tip: Live in a warm climate? Lucky dog. Just stock up on remaindered summer garb for the rest of the year.

Online stores have clearance sales, too. This is easier to do for younger kids and/or kids who fit in basic sizes, and who don’t care if you pick out their clothes. Be sure to look for online coupons and free-shipping codes through sites like Retail Me Not, Savings.com, and Coupon Cabin.

Don’t enjoy tracking bargains? Enlist the help of a price-comparison website such as Pricegrabber, FatWallet, and FindersCheapers. Tell these sites what you want (“Levis, size 6”) and let them do the hunting and gathering. You might even be able to set a “deal alert” and receive an e-mail when those Levis go on sale, or a “refund alert” if something you already bought went on sale.

Tip: Use cash-back shopping sites to make discounts even sweeter.

Some of those price aggregators will also check local stores, for those who prefer the brick-and-mortar experience. And if you’re already out and about, a price-comparison app called SaleLocator will let you know whether the price of those size-6 Levis is even better at a store two blocks away.

Excited for school
"I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils..."It’s not that I don’t think you should spend anything on your kids come September. On the contrary: I believe that there’s nothing like that new-crayon smell. A couple of symbolic purchases can help your child get excited about a new school year.

Kidding! Few children are truly excited about the day after Labor Day. (Full disclosure: I was. Then again, I got called “teacher’s pet” a lot.) It’s fun to see their friends again, but getting back into the educational harness is always a period of adjustment. Seeing that Junior has all the necessary tools can help re-orient him back into that universe.

Bring him into the equation by asking him to look through the Staples or Office Max flyers with you and compare what’s on sale to the list of necessary supplies. Suggest that money saved by sale prices and judicious re-use of last year’s stuff could defray the cost of a coveted item. You know, like those shoes that are $20 more than you want to pay.

A special purchase might add a bit of frisson and make the transition somewhat easier. You’d also be modeling my personal mantra: Save where you can so you can spend where you want.

Finally: Some cultures start the school year with candy or other treats, to emphasize the sweetness of knowledge. Consider instituting this tradition in your own household by serving a smoothie loaded with berries or slices of mango and pineapple on the first day of school.

Avoid doughnuts or Froot Loops, though. They may lead to running with scissors.

School supplies photo by Steven Depolo. Crayon photo by Chris Metcalf. Photo of the bouquet of pencils (which J.D. loves) by Melissa Doroquez.

This article is about Frugality, Kids, Shopping