by Tori Hamby

Fourth-grade teacher Shelly Cain has seen parents spend $100-$200 on their children’s school supplies. But back-to-school shopping can mean big savings, Cain said.

“Generally, with the school supply list I give my students, parents should only spend $30-$60 if they shop sales and use coupons,” said Cain, a Hickory resident who blogs about couponing.

Cain shared 10 “dos and don’ts” for saving big during the back-to-school season:

1. “Shop” at home for school supplies before shelling out cash at stores.

Don’t just glance over the school supply list and dash to the store, Cain said. Look for office and school supplies at home before your first shopping trip.

“You might have a couple notebooks you picked up on sale earlier in the year or a couple packages of pencils,” Cain said. “Using up what you already have is a good way to save money.”

2. Don’t try to buy everything on your list in one trip.

Try to make one trip to the store per week from the time you receive your child’s school supply list until the first day of school. Taking advantage of sales, coupons and rebates – instead of purchasing everything at once – will leave you with a lighter tab.

“I have seen where people get overwhelmed when they get these long school supply lists,” Cain said. “They go out to one store and end up spending $100 to $200 on supplies alone.”

3. Keep an eye out for office supply store flyers.

Make sure to check for items at office supply stores, such as OfficeMax, Office Depot and Staples. If your closest store sells out of an item, Cain said, ask store representatives when they plan to restock shelves.

And if you find a flyer advertising a brand-name item at a lower price than you find at a competitor’s store, many stores, including Walmart, will honor the lower price.

“If there’s an item that’s a brand name, like Crayola, advertised on a flyer for another store, take that flyer to Walmart and they will match the price,” Cain said.

4. Don’t forget about dollar stores.

Cain said she found many supplies for her fourth-grade classroom last year at Dollar Tree. Dollar stores are a great place to find classroom items for teachers, such as Clorox wipes and tissues, she said.

“Pay attention not only to your child’s individual school supply list but the teacher’s list, as well,” Cain said. “Dollar stores like Dollar Tree and Dollar General are a great place to find some neat items.”

5. Use N.C. Tax Free Weekend to shop for expensive items.

If you’re looking for an expensive item, such as a laptop, printer or graphing calculator, N.C. Tax Free Weekend, observed Aug. 3-5, can save you a bundle. Just make sure you’re ready to battle the store crowds by doing some online research in the days before the event. Many stores tend to offer sales and discounts on electronics during this time, so figure out where you should shop in advance.

But if you’re looking for smaller items, it might be best to stay at home, Cain said. The small amount of money you save might not be worth the long lines at the cash register. The same goes for clothing – take advantage of Tax Free Weekend if your child needs a new wardrobe. Need one or two items? Think twice before heading out.

6. Shop in your closets and drawers first.

The temperature doesn’t drop much between the summer and the first few weeks of school, Cain said. Most summer clothes can hold children over until cooler weather sets in.

“There’s no need to go out and buy a bunch of T-shirts and shorts before the school year, because they are just going to outgrow it by the time the next summer rolls around,” Cain said.

7. Pick out a first-day-of-school outfit.

Buy a first-day-of-school outfit that gives your child confidence, Cain said. It doesn’t have to be brand new. Thrift stores, such as Goodwill Industries International locations, are full this time of year as donors make room in their closets for their fall wardrobes.

“Everybody likes to look their best and have something new to wear on the first day of school,” Cain said. “Teachers do it, too.”

8. Save some cash on jeans and long-sleeve shirts during Labor Day and fall sales.

It’s easy for parents to get into the back-to-school mindset and go on a wallet-crunching shopping spree for a year’s worth of new clothes. Not so fast, Cain said. Keep those pocketbook closed until Labor Day.

“There are some sales for long-sleeved shirts and jeans going on right now, but as the (fall) season gets closer, you’re going to see even better sales on those fall items,” she said.

9. Invest in a pair of quality tennis shoes for your child.

All elementary school students must take P.E., so comfortable, durable tennis shoes are essential, Cain said. Look out for shoes made of sturdy materials so you don’t have to make the same purchase twice. Remember – expensive doesn’t always mean better.

“You can find a good pair for $25-$35,” she said.

10. Buy a sturdy book bag.

Look out for brands, such as Jansport, LL Bean and Eddie Bauer, which offer warranties, Cain said. Steer clear of cheap, cartoon character-themed book bags. Your daughter might love the pink Dora the Explorer book bag today, but chances are you’ll be buying another bag after a strap breaks.

“Purchasing a quality book bag may be a bit of an investment up front,” Cain said, “but it really is worth the money.”