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Back-to-school on a budget: Parents clipping coupons, hitting thrift stores

It's just a few more days before classes begin in Tooele School District as Kari Scribner herds her three sons through Costco in Salt Lake City, looking for hot back-to-school deals.

Scribner, a stay-at-home mom in Tooele, gives each son $125 for school clothes — and they have to budget every penny. "I hope it teaches them the value of money," she said. Each boy gets a $10 bonus if he keeps within his budget.

The recession may mean less money for school supplies, but it hasn't changed the things kids want — like a new box of perfectly pointed crayons or a crisp pair of jeans.

And parents aren't forgoing the annual back-to-school shopping for school supplies and clothes, either — they're just being a little more careful with their back-to-school budgets and making cuts here and there.

Back-to-school shopping is expected to be down almost 8 percent this year, according to a survey released in July by the National Retail Federation based in Washington, D.C.

The average family with students in grades kindergarten through 12 is expected to spend $548.72 on school merchandise this year, a decline of 7.7 percent from $594.24 in 2008, according to the Federation survey.

Price check

The Deseret News checked prices of school supplies, as well as T-shirts and jeans, at myriad stores along the Wasatch Front from July 13 to Aug. 13.

Packages of crayons can be found for around a quarter at many stores, including Target, Wal-Mart and Walgreens.

Not surprisingly, Deseret Industries, 131 E. 700 South in Salt Lake City, had the cheapest clothes. T-shirts ranged from $2 to $4 with jeans from $4 to $8.

Some of the Deseret Industries jeans were out of style, with acid wash and pin stripes. But others were trendy and gently worn name brands including Ralph Lauren, Gap, Liz Claiborne, Lee and Levi — some with fancy embroidery and beading.

Other Deseret Industries jeans with rips and holes are simply in style right now. Similarly damaged jeans were priced in the $100 range at some stores in The Gateway.

Wal-Mart Faded Glory brand men's jeans were the cheapest find. The priciest discovered were $108 men's Guess jeans at Macy's in Layton.

Going hunting

Kim McCormack of Tooele, mother of three school-age children, frequently hits consignment and thrift shops, especially before school starts. "It's like a fun little hunt for us," she said. "Sometimes we find nothing and other times we find great treasures."

McCormack, who works from home as a medical transcriptionist and also substitute teaches, says she has found excellent name brands at Deseret Industries, such as a Limited Too jacket for her daughter and an Anchor Blue shirt for her son.

Her ever-growing 17-year-old son wanted a new suit for church, but the budgeting mom was reluctant to purchase one. They found a jacket and pants for $15 at Deseret Industries while they were searching for pioneer-style clothes to wear on a trek. "He wears it every Sunday," she said. "He's not embarrassed. He's proud of it."

Clipping coupons

Some 49.6 percent of Americans are planning to spend less on back-to-school overall this year. Forty percent are planning to increase their use of coupons, the Federation survey states.

McCormack is obsessed with ads and coupons. She has two subscriptions each to the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune so she can have four duplicate coupons. She also buys a copy of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin once a week when it is packed with coupons.

Store selection is somewhat limited in Tooele, but Wal-Mart does an ad match. If it's for sale in another store, Wal-Mart will match it. Between sale prices and coupons, McCormack can find items for pennies. "It's kind of a game," she said. "I won't buy anything unless it's on sale."

Pinching pennies

More than four out of five Americans — 85 percent — have made some changes to back-to-school plans this year as a result of the sluggish economy, according to the Federation survey.

Karen Allison, of Alpine, has four children, all in school. Her husband is in the homebuilding business. Slumping sales has the entire family on a tight budget but they have pulled together. They are buying fewer school clothes and just making do with their current wardrobe.

"We'll get by with what we have until things wear out," Allison said.

More than half those surveyed — 56.2 percent — say they are hunting for sales more often; 41.7 percent are purchasing more store brand/generic products, according to the Federation.

Browsing at Kohl's in Centerville, father Mark Schrader of Centerville said he just wanted to get a feel for prices and what's out there.

His daughter, Kallie, 17, added she looked around online before heading out the door to get a handle on price comparisons. She and her father weren't looking for specific name brands — just good deals. "If I like it, I'll buy it. I'm not really picky," she said.

Tips and tricks

Parents have varied advice to share when it comes to back-to-school shopping.

Scribner says she goes through her kids' closets before heading out the door for a shopping expedition. She decides what can be handed down and what else is needed.

Heidi Smith, of Alpine, who has three children in school, advises parents not to wait until the teacher supply list comes out because everything is picked over by then.

Mother of three students, Lara Wilson of Salt Lake City talked while hitting the school supply displays at Staples. She advises against buying early unless a shopper finds a "super good deal."

Smith also takes each of her children on a "school shopping date" where they buy clothing and supplies, then are treated to lunch. "It's now an annual tradition," she said.