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Early Back-to-School Shopping Tips for Budget-Conscious Families

Brian O'Connell

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- OK, it's only July, and most U.S. families have a few weeks left before school starts -- usually in late August or early September depending which state you live in. But according to the National Retail Federation, 24% of U.S. families started back-to-school shopping two months before school started last year.

That makes sense considering NRF estimates that the average family spent $634.78 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics last year in back-to-school spending, down from $688.62 in 2012. Nationwide that was $26.7 billion last year, the NRF reports.

If you're one of those thinking "back to school" already, Regina Novickis, a savings analyst at PromotionalCodes.com, has a few ideas for you:

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Check your home inventory first. Novickis says the best deals may come right out of your own closet. "Take inventory of your drawers, cabinets and closets so you know what you already have before shopping," she advises. "You'll most likely find several forgotten items -- it makes no sense to make a double purchase on generic items like paper and pencils."

The trend isn't your friend. Don't go all in on trendy clothing or other gear. It's just too early, Novickis believes. "Kids will want you to buy them what's hot right now, but may change their mind after seeing what other students have," she says. "Trendy gear like lunch boxes and backpacks should be avoided until a month or two into the school year. Then you can make a safe investment knowing your child has what he or she wants."

Contact your teachers. If you can get a teacher's contact info -- teachers' email addresses are often on school websites -- they can be a great resource. "Ask your child's teacher what supplies are absolutely needed before classes start," Novickis says. "This will avoid you spending wastefully on school supplies your child doesn't need."

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No need to buy "new." For big-ticket items such as a laptop computer, used models are usually just as good at a much lower price. "The savings potential is big when buying used electronics or renting textbooks," she adds. "For electronics, consider a refurbished model. Sometimes a new model of a camera, phone or computer is rated lower by reviewers than the model it replaces, and it could even mean the original owner simply opened the box and returned it without use." Novickis says textbooks offer similar deals, and notes that sites such as Bookrenters.com offers discounted deals on textbooks.

Use college discounts. Most colleges offer new IDs for incoming students that can translate into big savings for families. "Retailers like Apple, Microsoft and Dell offer student-only pricing on laptops and often attach a free gift card to the purchase for printers, e-books or apps. Hunt for these deals during mid-August when laptops are expected to reach lowest pricing."

Parents should also always be on the lookout for discounts on-and-offline, and not be afraid to barter goods from friends and neighbors to cut costs.

So yes, school is still a ways off. But it's never too early to start looking -- and saving -- on back-to-school shopping.

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