School supplies, including pencils, erasers, and scissors.

Shopping for back-to-school supplies can send parents into sticker shock. Aside from standard items such as pencils and paper, students from kindergarten through 12th grade often need—or want—pricier items, such as laptops and headphones.

That partly explains why parents are expected to spend, on average, nearly $685 on back-to-school supplies this year—about flat with last year but up nearly 25 percent compared with 10 years ago, according to data from the National Retail Federation, a trade organization.

More on Back to School

The biggest two categories are electronics and clothing, which together make up nearly two-thirds of a family’s back-to-school spending, the NRF says.

Basic school supplies, such as pens and notebooks, can set a family back by about $122, making it the smallest spending category. Parents can cut down on their expenses by researching prices and delaying some purchases, says Kristin Cook, managing editor of Ben’s Bargains, a price-tracking site started by a student at the University of California, Berkeley.

While there are good deals to be found in August, some stores will offer even better discounts starting in September, especially on apparel, Cook says. 

Strategies When Buying the Basics

Prices for paper, pens, and pencils don’t vary much by store, but the items do add up. 

Don’t overlook supplies you may already have on hand. Organizing a swap with other parents can also save money. One family might have an extra notebook that they’d exchange for lined paper, for instance.

Because school supplies are relatively inexpensive and priced similarly at various stores, look for retailers that are offering discounts for purchasing school basics, Cook says.

Groupon, for example, has grouped discounts at a number of stores into one back-to-school category, which includes stores such as Best Buy, Target, Walmart. Staples is offering weekly discounts on certain school items. 

Cook also says that some schools are now making the shopping experience easier and cheaper for parents by working with third-party companies that buy supplies at wholesale prices. The teachers put together a package of supplies, which are sold at a flat price. All you have to do is order the package, which is sent directly to the classrooms by the first day of school. 

Smart Tech Strategies for Electronics

Several apps and services are available to help track prices for big-ticket electronics items. Camelcamelcamel, for example, tracks Amazon prices. Parents can enter the URL of a product, such as a Chromebook, that they want to buy for their kids and they’ll receive an email alert when the price drops. The site also provides a price history, so you can see when a product hit its lowest and highest prices on Amazon.

If you are shopping for back-to-school supplies at a walk-in store, bar code scanners such as ShopSavvy check to find out whether cheaper prices are available elsewhere. The best strategy may be to wait for Black Friday sales on electronics, which now start as early as October, Cook says. If students don’t have an older laptop or tablet to use until the holiday sales kick off, there are still discounts to be found, although they might not be as deep as those offered later in the year.

Hold Off on Apparel

While growing kids need new clothing, resist buying an entire fall wardrobe in August because retailers typically slash fall clothing prices in September, Cook says. She recommends buying one back-to-school outfit in August and returning the next month to score deals on more apparel. That delay also gives students a chance to check out the current fashion trends at school.

Preteens and teenagers are old enough to be involved in budgeting, says Sara Skirboll, a retail and trends expert at RetailMeNot. Even better, give them half the budget to spend themselves, which will motivate them to stretch their money and find deals. That being said, keep an eye on what they are buying because many schools have dress codes or standards.