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How to be a savvy back-to-school shopper

With two boys aged 13 and 14, Minnow Hamilton is all too familiar with the chaos that is back-to-school shopping. But the Toronto-based editor in chief and cofounder of SavvyMom.ca, a national online resource for moms, has figured out how to stock up on school supplies without squandering her savings.

"Don't get sucked into the 'must have' vortex," says Hamilton, who started SavvyMom with her friend and fellow mom Sarah Morgenstern. "Kids and brands will tell you all about what you supposedly must have this season."

September can be an expensive time indeed for parents. According to the American National Retail Foundation dads expect to spend $671 on back-to-school shopping (including school supplies, electronics, and clothing), while moms plan to spend $545.

But the fall doesn't have to mean your financial downfall. Having chosen to stay home with her kids after a successful career in marketing, Hamilton says she's become a conscientious shopper with a built-in radar for bargains.

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Here are her tips on how to be a savvy back-to-school shopper.

Stay calm

"Don't panic," Hamilton says. "The kids don't need everything right away — an entire new wardrobe, a new haircut, shiny shoes — all on the first day of school. They might even change their mind about a few items once they get there."

Make a list

This rule doesn't just apply to groceries. Take the list your school supplies or write down everything you need yourself before you hit the mall. Otherwise, just like at the supermarket, you're likely to come home with a bunch of stuff you don't need.

Remember savings begin at home

"Before you go shopping, take inventory of everything you have in the house." Chances are you already have items like the required pens, pencils, erasers, scissors, calculators, rulers, and crayons on hand.

Stock up

When you do see a deal, consider buying extra for down the road. "You will need to update your school supplies throughout the year so buy extra pencil sharpeners — they're like socks; they just disappear -- or paper, whatever you will need," Hamilton says. "They tend to be lower priced in early August so it's handy to have a stash for later on."

Swap

"Arrange a clothing swap with friends," Hamilton suggests. "Younger kids will wear hand-me-down clothes from an older friend or cousin with pride."

Then there are more organized swaps for sports equipment. "Fall is a time for many sports organizations to run gear and clothing swaps, especially hockey leagues, ski programs, and skate programs," she adds. "Check with your local organization for dates."

Shop online

"It's easier to ensure you're getting lower prices because you can easily price-compare," Hamilton says. "Always check for special discount codes. Google can usually find them if you don't subscribe to a retailers' email list."

Kijiji or eBay can also be good places to find deals for used big-ticket items, such as hockey gear. "Even new items can be found there," Hamilton says.

Other cost-savings strategies?

  • Keep an eye out for tax-free days at major retailers.

  • Check out second-hand and thrift shops for barely worn kids' clothes as well as classic high-school novels.

  • Team up with friends to buy supplies in bulk.

  • Check out dollar stores for supplies. As long as the items in question are of the same quality, there's no need to buy brand name pencil crayons or paints.

  • Leave the kids at home. There's no denying they'll be attracted to the shiniest, most colourful, and most expensive stuff. Avoid the battle and the expense by shopping solo.