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Back-to-School Budget Busters

$548.72. According to the National Retail Federation, that's the average amount parents spent on each kid in 2009 for back-to-school supplies. If you have that much extra cash lying around, lucky you (and why are you reading this article?!). If, like the rest of us, that sum seems pretty intimidating, read on for some easy ways to save this fall.

Don't wait for the leaves to turn before turning your thoughts toward saving. The first step toward staying within your budget this September is to plan ahead. Luckily, many schools are already posting their supply list for next year on their website. Find out when it's going up and get on it as early as you can! Securing that list as soon as possible will help avoid redundancies when you shop. Once you know what's required for next year, take stock of what you own already. You may find that some of those list items are already in stock in your household, either reusable from last year or as a hand-me-down from an older sibling.

Another thing the early bird catches is clothes. Starting your shopping early gives you time to look for coupons, rifle through the bargain racks and hunt through all those summer garage sales. See if there are outlet stores in your area-even if they're a bit of a trek, you'll make up in savings what you spend on gas. And if you have fashion-conscious teens, outlet stores will be your savior: your fashionista can wear designer gear and name brands while you pay bargain-bin prices.

Of course, the drawback to buying clothes early is those pesky childhood growth spurts. What fits in July might be comically small in October. Resist buying in advance for the entire year. You can tackle winter clothes when the temperatures start to change. For now, just plan on a school-friendly wardrobe that fits your kid for the upcoming season. Summer clothes go on sale seemingly as soon as June rolls around. Take advantage of it.

The current vintage craze is also in your favor. Remember, there's absolutely nothing wrong with thrift stores. As long as you wash your treasures thoroughly, second-hand stores are a great way to recycle and save. Just be sure to set aside some time to shop. Thrift stores aren't as organized as Target or Wal-Mart: they take a little patience and digging, but they're well worth the hunt.

For items like paper, pens and notebooks, buy in bulk! Big box stores (not to mention dollar stores!) will have tons of sales right before school starts. This isn't the place to skimp. Your kid will go through basic supplies like toilet paper, so don't worry about overbuying. Clear out some storage space in a closet and replenish his or her supply as needed. The pay out now will be worth it later.

If you don't have storage space or can't bear to turn down a deal on a huge amount of goodies, consider pooling resources with friends or neighbors. They're in the same boat you are-no matter what the state of their checking account, everyone wants to save money on back-to-school stuff, so you'll find lots of takers. Host a Supply Swap Soirée: encourage everyone to bring their excess supplies and you can all trade what you don't need for what you do. As a host/hostess gift for organizing the event, feel free to donate the leftovers to charity and pocket the tax write off.

Speaking of taxes: no one likes to pay them. You can find legal ways around the government with tax-free weekends in your area. Another website to check out is couponcabin.com, which features plenty of downloadable coupons for stores you'll frequent come fall. Or just Google your shopping destination followed by "coupon code."

Think outside the (lunch) box when it comes to school savings. Instead of sending your kids to class with cash, buy a reusable lunch box. Aim for an insulated one (a little more pricey but well worth it) to keep perishables edible.

Our final idea for saving this fall is to get your kids to chip in. Obviously, providing them with what they need for the school year is your responsibility, but when times are tight, don't feel bad about asking for a contribution. In fact, you can turn paying for supplies into a lesson. If they want designer duds, make them earn it. Help your kids set up a summer business like a lemonade stand, a babysitting gig or an errand-running franchise. They'll learn the value of saving money and of hard work, not to mention the value of a checking account. And you'll learn the value of getting the whole family involved in the process of back-to-school budgeting.

Hopefully, these ideas will save you some cash this year and spark more budget-busters of your own. There's no reason that, with a little planning and imagination, you can't tackle fall with savvy and savings!

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