Jeff Gelles: Ace back-to-school shopping

Here are 5 ways to make the annual spending spree more tolerable.

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At a Staples in New York, discounted backpacks are on display. Staples is offering a $10 discount card good for 15 percent off on school supplies.

NEW YORK - Prices on back-to-school items from socks to notebooks are increasing 10 percent on average, but there are lots of great deals - and new ways to find them.

Stores and manufacturers are redesigning their websites, planning promotions, and offering "savings" cards and other gimmicks to encourage consumers to spend more than they did last year - even though some industry forecasters say shoppers will hold the line or spend only a little more.

Office-supply retailer Staples Inc., for example, has created a website with back-to-school deals and shopping tips, and it is selling a $10 "savings pass" until Aug. 13 that gives shoppers 15 percent off school supplies until Sept. 17.

Sears Holdings Corp., which operates Kmart, Sears, and other businesses, has launched a more user-friendly online layaway shop.

Office Depot Inc. and other chains are luring shoppers with penny sales that include such items as notebooks and glue.

Here are five tips to embrace when shopping for children's clothing and school supplies.

Check your closets. Before you go anywhere, make a list of what you need and check your children's closets to figure out what they can still wear and use and what actually does need to be replaced, said Jody Rohlena, senior editor at Consumer Reports' ShopSmart.

As for school supplies, many households may already have the paper and glue sticks that students need to start the school year. So check what is lying around on shelves and in drawers before buying piles more.

Stay on budget. As with any spending, know your budget for back-to-school purchases. Factor in everything from computers to pencils.

Then stick to it, remembering especially that there is no requirement to buy every item on the list at once or to do it all at just one store. Also, while some things may need to be top quality, not everything has to be.

Financial-planning websites such as mint.com can help.

More effective for some may be a layaway program, which can be less expensive than using a credit card, even including fees. At Kmart, layaway shoppers pay $15 or 10 percent of a purchase total and make payments every two weeks, either online or at a register in a store, and college students can have the products delivered to a store close to campus.

For purchases as big as a TV or as small as a backpack or calculator, elayaway.com lets customers break the price into monthly payments for a fee of roughly 2 percent for three to 13 payments.

Want vs. need. A child may make a good case for an Apple iPad, which costs $500 or more, even when last year's computer will do the trick.

So C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a Summerville, S.C., consumer-behavior and consulting firm, urges parents to collaborate with their children on a realistic list of what they need. If there is money left in the back-to-school budget, then they can take a look at the extras - things they want but do not absolutely need.

Swap it out. Many websites sponsor trades of used items.

ThredUP.com, where shoppers swap children's clothing and toys, recently added books. Here is how it works: Anyone giving things away bundles them by age and sex and lists them on the website. To request one of the listed boxes, you pay $5 to ThredUP plus $10.95 for shipping, and ThredUP e-mails the donor a prepaid shipping label. Members rate one another based on the quality of the stuff they receive. Also check out Swap.com and Swapmamas.com.

Beemer says he has found shoppers are cutting their overall back-to-school spending as much as 60 percent by swapping clothing and other items.

The right time. For clothing and gadgets, you may be able to combine a sale and a coupon with a state-tax holiday for a triple discount, said Rohlena at Consumer Reports.

Start by checking - at www.taxadmin.org/fta/rate/sales_holiday.html - whether your state is among 16 celebrating tax holidays this year.

For clothing, where price increases are expected to be among the highest, remember that children actually wear summer clothes for the first couple of months of the school year so you can spread out those purchases.

Then check end-of-summer sales, where you often can find lots of things on your back-to-school list (often for less than you'd pay in back-to-school events).

Finally, head online to sundaysaver.com for weekly sales circulars and newspaper ads, and check Pricegrabber.com for localized deals and real-time information on availability.