It’s that time of year again, well according to the stores it was that time in June. It’s back to school shopping time. It seems like every year the list of supplies gets longer and longer. It can feel like you’re buying enough pencils and notebooks for the entire school. Add backpacks, clothes, and sneakers to the list and you could easily spend several hundred dollars per child. Being the frugal person I am, that’s simply unacceptable to me.

Here are five strategies I use to keep our back to school costs under control.

1. Do A Thorough Inventory – The first order of business to keep clutter at bay and money in our bank account is to take a thorough inventory of what we already have before even thinking of shopping.

This means going through everything in my kids’ closets and dressers. I have them try each item on and inspect for fit and any stains or rips. Anything that doesn’t fit I donate or throw away depending on its condition. Anything ripped or stained gets set aside for play clothes. Now that you can plainly see what usable clothes your kids have, you can start your list of what items your children truly need. This way you don’t waste money on shirts for a child that’s fully stocked on shirts, but needs pants or buy pants for the child that has plenty.

If you’re especially frugal like me, you might already have a stockpile of school supplies as well from sales the previous year. I also go through the items that came back from school with them at the end of the year like scissors and folders that aren’t damaged and cross those off the list. I often stock up on tissues when they are on are sale and I have coupons and put them in the closet for back to school when each child in my district is required to provide three boxes.

2. Don’t Shop All At Once – I know this might sound counter-intuitive. I mean who wants to go to multiple stores when you can just go to one place and be done with it. Well, if you want to take full advantage of the amazing loss leaders (items reduced to a great price to get you in the store to buy more expensive items) from each store I’d suggest doing a little at a time. It also feels more comfortable to spend small amounts over the course of a month than to drop several hundred dollars in a few days. Shopping over time means being more strategic with your time and money.

School Supplies

So far I’ve found some pretty great deals at ShopRite like composition notebooks and 12 packs of pencils for .50 each. My fantastic finds at Staples include three packs of erasers for .25 each and single subject notebooks for .17 each. Since both stores happen to be next to each other, it was easy enough to walk between the two and get only the items with the best prices from each store.

3. Shop Online – I really hate driving to the mall and searching through a dozen stores to find what I’m looking for at a great price. Instead I save some of my shopping for the comfort of my home. I get my kids book bags and shoes online. No worries, they can be returned if there is a problem. You can start your shopping with a free $10 gift card by signing up at Ebates and get a percentage of cash back depending on the store you choose to shop at.

Do a quick search for promotional coupons and use them at check out to save more money. You can also qualify for free shipping if you meet a certain dollar amount or are willing to wait a little longer for your items. Many sites like Amazon and K-mart also have memberships where you get free shipping. Just remember to cancel your trial membership after you use it or you could get charged the yearly fee. K-mart also has Shop Your Way points you can earn on each purchase and they also have coupons on their site you can choose from and apply at checkout.

Sign up for the newsletters of stores you love. Because of special e-mails I’ve been able to take advantage of one-day online sales that save me 15% or more on things I would already need to buy for my kids. Both last year and this year I was able to get two pairs of shoes for my daughter (sneakers and dress shoes) and sneakers for my son for about $40 total thanks to these special e-mails.

4. Buy Used – I’ve been frugal for so long now I actually hate buying new clothes, especially for kids who are bound to outgrow, stain, or rip them fairly quickly. I love to shop at consignment shops and sales. They have a children’s Be Green sale twice a year in Fishkill where I do almost all my clothing shopping for the kids. They have clothes and shoes in great condition, as well as Halloween costumes, coats and snow pants, boots, and special occasion dresses and suits. Between the two sales I can usually get most of my kids’ clothes for $100 per child for the entire year.

You can also take those clothes that are in good condition but don’t fit, which you inventoried already and get store credit at most consignment shops. You can also check for special bag sales and discount days to stretch your clothing budget even further. The Salvation Army in Middletown has family day on Wednesdays and most items are half off. Check for local children’s consignment stores in your area. Like them on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters so you don’t miss their sale days.

5. Buy Off Season – We do buy our kids three new outfits for the first week of school, which always starts on a Wednesday in my district. To make sure we don’t spend too much we check for end of summer clearance sales. Since early September is still pretty hot you can get dresses, shorts and short sleeve shirts for good prices.

I typically buy my kids’ backpacks for the following year in November or Early December and they get them for Christmas. They are usually a great deal. I’ve gotten them as low as $5.

With these strategies in place, you save money on all the supplies and clothes your kids need to start the school year. What are your favorite money-saving strategies?

Erin Johnson a.k.a. The No Drama Mama is the author of “So, You’re Broke? 18 Drama-Free Steps To A Richer Life.” She can be found writing for The No Drama Mama and Hudson Valley Parent when she’s not busy caring for her three adorable kiddos. Her work can also be found on The Huffington Post, Money Saving Mom, Mamapedia and Worshipful Living.