Savvy school shopping

Sure, the school supplies showed up in stores after July 4. But the real back-to-school shopping frenzy starts this weekend, when North and South Carolina suspend their sales tax on select items (see a list of guidelines, Page 7E). We've got 10 tips to help you navigate the minefield of backpacks, binders and school clothes.

Don't get tricked by tax-free. Under normal circumstances, would you rush out for a 7 percent-off sale? If you spend $200, your out-the-door savings would be $14 if no other sales are involved. Do the math and make sure the tax-free savings is coupled with another deal or sale. Consider the percentage and how it works, as well. For example, a buy-one, get-one-half-off sale isn't as good as it sounds. It's 25 percent off each pair of shoes.

Do shop second-hand. Green living and saving cash meet at places such as Goodwill, the Habitat Restore and Salvation Army. They are hot spots for incredible bargains on shoes, clothing and backpacks. I landed a pair of nearly new Adidas Sambas for my son for less than $5. Consignment shops and sales are also rife with gently used, high quality goods (uniforms, too) at a fraction of retail price. Check out our list of upcoming children's consignment sales in next week's Style section.

Don't overbuy. There's little need for long-sleeve shirts and multiple pairs of jeans right now. Weather in the Carolinas doesn't start to cool off until late October. Allow for growth and stick mostly to basics, says Mt. Holly teacher Noelle Van Der Meid. “I've seen girls get teased unmercifully because they are still wearing a trend that is ‘so last week.' Her parents have spent money … and now the student will be asking for different clothes so she can fit in.”

Do be patient. If you're a vigilant shopper and can resist the urge to buy, most of the stuff on the racks now will be more on sale by the time the weather cools. Some parents take it a step further and buy ahead by shopping end-of-season sales for larger sizes.

Do shop with the children. If you can save yourself headaches and return trips to the store by bringing them with you, do so. A colleague who is the mother of rising sixth- and fourth-graders says taking the kids cuts down on after-purchase negotiations. As the mother of a rising kindergartener and a toddler, I move quicker without them.

Do talk to your children before you shop. Go over the ground rules, the budget and identify potential areas of concern, such as sexy clothes and designer labels. Involving your child beforehand could defuse fitting room meltdowns.

Do check return policies and hang on to receipts. No one needs to remind parents that children grow fast. Make sure you're familiar with the store's return policy before buying, and leave the tags on items that won't be used immediately. Put all receipts in a central location (an envelope labeled “Fall 2008”), so if a return is necessary, you're all set.

Don't succumb to label lust. Set a good example for your children by shopping within your means. So Betsy will have to forgo that adorable $140 Little Marc Jacobs denim jacket in favor of a similar one from Wal-Mart. So what? It's never too early to teach kids that character counts more than the clothes you wear. Self-confidence is stylish at any age.

Do shop online. The Internet is a great place to do some pre-shopping recon with your child. It's also a great place to land killer deals and save the aggravation of battling the crowds. Among our favorite kid-and-pocketbook friendly sites (be sure to hit the clearance or overstock area first):, and

Don't forget your list. Take the supply list for your child's classroom with you, and don't be afraid to stock up on midyear replenishments when they're on sale, teacher Van Der Meid says. Do a little homework and find out if there are specific requirements for items such as backpacks. “Several (students had) rolling book bags and (couldn't) use them because they won't fit in the locker,” she says.