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5 tips for sensible back-to-school spending

Alajandra Lozano shops for back to school supplies.Brad Doherty/Associated Press

Students may not be thrilled about summer drawing to a close, but retailers couldn’t be happier.

Traditionally, back-to-school shopping brings in a windfall second only to the December holiday season’s.

On average, a family with kids in kindergarten through 12th grade will spend $669 on clothes, electronics, and other school-related items this year, according to a National Retail Federation survey — up 5 percent from last year.

Many stores roll out discounts and some states even get in on the act, offering sales tax holidays. Hit the stores without a plan, and you could overspend.

‘‘It’s an important time to keep a handle on your finances because in the frenzy to get organized it’s easy to make bad purchase decisions,’’ said Jack Gillis, of the Consumer Federation of America.


Here are five ways to make sure your shopping doesn’t empty your wallet:

Make a budget

You know what you need, but do you know how much you can afford? This is the key to keeping an annual shopping trip from swelling into a full-on spree. Make a budget that lays out how much you plan to spend. Then stick to it.

A good strategy is to begin with what you bought last year. Odds are it won’t have changed much. Items like pens and notebooks tend to be priced competitively. But resist splurging on fancy organizers, desk sets, and other items you can do without.

Shop on tax holidays

More than a dozen states are giving shoppers a break this year from paying the state sales tax on certain purchases, including Massachusetts on Saturday and Sunday. The savings can run from 3 to about 7 percent.

‘‘All of America loves a sale, and this is a sale paid for by government,’’ said Verenda Smith, of the Federation of Tax Administrators.

If you’re buying online, the sales tax holiday applies only if the address where the item is shipped is in a state offering the sales tax break


Use credit wisely

It can be tempting to sign up for a store credit card. Many entice customers with built-in savings on store purchases. But think it through.

‘‘Unless you’re going to be paying that bill off right away, that great bargain will be quickly eroded by 15 to 19 percent interest rates,’’ Gillis said.

Shop around

It’s one of the best ways to save money — especially on notebooks and other office supplies and on clothing. It may take a little more of a time commitment, and it may mean ordering items online, so be sure the savings are worth it after you factor in shipping costs.

Consider price-comparison apps such as PriceGrabber and RedLaser. Users scan the bar code on a product and the apps display a list of stores where the item is available and at what price.

Online, Goodshop.com offers coupons good at more than 5,000 stores that donate up to 20 percent of your purchase price to a school or other cause.

Consider waiting

Sure, the on-sale signs scream there are deals to be had. But what’s the harm in waiting a few weeks? You may not find the same selection, but bargains can be found after the school year begins and stores move to clear their shelves.