School shoppers find ways to shave costs

Shed no tears for Isabel Hales. The 6-year-old already has shed plenty for herself after being told she wasn't getting a second pair of new shoes for school.

Her mom, Suzanne, says she had to cut back. The single mother of five, a school district secretary, has bought her kids school clothes, backpacks, supplies and shoes each year. This year, the Draper, Utah, resident is promising only shoes — and only because their feet grew.

"Back-to-school shopping has me shaking in my boots," she says. Retailers should be, too.

Hales is among USA TODAY readers who say they're taking the ax — albeit creatively — to back-to-school shopping. Many will spend less than $100 a kid. Some will spend less than that for the entire family.

There will be fewer new backpacks. Fewer mall trips. Fewer electronics. Some are cutting back even on basic school supplies such as pencils, pens and paper.

USA TODAY looked closely at the back-to-school shopping plans of 10 families and found one clear common thread: They are trying to be creative in finding ways to cut back-to-school costs. Such as having kids try on all of last year's duds before shopping, tracking down used textbooks and taking needle and thread to the holes in last year's backpacks.

Maybe it's the back-to-school from hell. It certainly is shaping up as one filled with shopping negotiations between parents and kids. But it's also dotted with cleverly calculated savings steps, some of which may stick around after the economic knot loosens.

First, however, financially pinched parents who have nixed summer travel to gas up the car and restock the fridge face the unenviable task of getting the kids to understand and accept big back-to-school shopping cuts.

To a point, they can. "I'll get over it," says 13-year-old Scott Camus, who will not be getting the new backpack he so badly wanted this year. The eighth-grader from Woodbridge, Va., will grudgingly use last year's pack. But when he gets to school and sees other guys with new packs, he knows he'll think: "Aw, heck, he's lucky."

Such luck won't be widespread.

"I don't ever recall heading into fall where people were this conscious about what they were spending," says David Szymanski, retail professor at Texas A&M University. "We haven't seen anything like this in decades."

Retail experts say the driver is fear. Fear of continued gas price increases. Fear of soaring food costs. Fear of inflation. Fear of home values — and stock portfolios — declining. Fear of losing jobs.

"It's fear of the unknown," says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group, a research firm. When NPD asked 60,000 consumers in January if they thought the country was in "tough economic times," 79% said, "Yes." When NPD asked that same question in June, it was 85%.

Two of three surveyed said they plan to spend less on back-to-school stuff.

Retailers know this.

It's why Staples spls tried to lure consumers in this month by selling pencils for a penny and protractors for a nickel. "Consumers are telling us, more than anything they want value," says John Mahoney, chief financial officer.

At American Eagle Outfitters aeo, some $29.50 fashion T-shirts now are less than $20. The chain hopes the message to shoppers is, "When you get to the store, steal this," says Henry Stafford, merchandising chief.

Many purchases will be the result of spirited family horse-trading.

"When I speak with kids, they keep talking about negotiating with their parents," Cohen says. "If they get one pair of designer jeans at the mall, they're willing to get everything else at Target tgt."

Readers' cost-cutting tips

Here are 10 cost-cutting back-to-school shopping tips from the 10 reader families:

Check what still fits and make a list

For Susan Hales, the mother of five from Utah, the ritual will begin with all five kids trying on all their fall and winter clothes from last year. "We'll go through all the clothes piece-by-piece and make a list of only what we need," she says.

Last year, each got a new pair of sneakers and a new pair of dress shoes. This year, they must choose one or the other.

Last year, they all got new backpacks. This year, Hales only is replacing the two that have holes.

Last year, she spent $200 per child on back-to-school shopping. This year: $125.

And her 17-year-old, who has a part-time job, will pay for her own new duds.

Kill the catalog temptations

Instead of ordering her son's polo shirts from catalogs such as L.L. Bean or Lands' End, this year Judy Camus of Woodbridge, Va., is first looking for shirts on sale at Target and Kohl's kss.

There'll also be no more back-to-school shoe buying from fancy shoe stores, but from Marshalls or T.J. Maxx tjx.

Camus also is scanning newspaper ads for discounts, sales and price comparisons.

But she admits to feeling bad for having to tell her son, Scott, that he can't get a new backpack.

Jump at promotions

Yolanda Hawthorne figured out a way to get $15 in free school supplies from OfficeMax omx. The Dallas mother brought in five used cartridges from her printer at work and received $3 each for them.

"That's free, to me," Hawthorne boasts.

She spent $350 for her 12-year-old son's back-to-school stuff last year, but this year she says her budget will be "less than half of that."

Hit the outlet malls

Never mind that it's a 30-minute schlep from real estate agent Lee Norville's home in Jacksonville. Her son, who is a high-school senior, and her two back-to-college kids will drive to the outlet mall in St. Augustine to do back-to-school shopping.

Search out used textbooks.

After spending $400 last fall on new books for classes at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., 20-year-old Charon Spruce of Toledo, Ohio, now hopes to save half that or more by buying used books.

To help save on gasoline, she plans to take no Friday classes. And to save on expenses, she's going to cut way back on apartment decorating costs.

"I was used to instant gratification," she says. "But my parents can't just send me all that money any more."

Go to Wal-Mart — only

For the six kids that Dale Lattea, of Oak Harbor, Ohio, has at home, it's going to be a Wal-Mart-only wmt back-to-school.

No more impulse, online purchases, he says, from Lands' End and L.L. Bean.

After spending nearly $700 on clothes and supplies last year, this go-round he hopes to spend about half of that.

"We'll just get a few shirts and pants and make do with what we have," says Lattea, who runs a cleaning business from his home.

His oldest daughter, who is 15, is working part time, so he's asking her to help pay for her clothes.

Nix mom's impulse buying

When Bonnie Harms takes her kids back-to-school shopping, she often buys herself something, too.

Not this year. "This year I will forgo that," vows the Las Vegas resident who has a daughter, 11, and son, 16. "I seriously doubt I'll get anything."

If her kids must cut back, she figures, so will she.

She expects to spend just $50 per kid (vs. $200 per kid last year) — which comes to about one new outfit each, she figures. They may not get new shoes, she says. "It's a hard call. I don't like my kids having to be without."

Wait for sales to shop

Lynn Contos is a self-described shopaholic. But the retired social worker from Kalamazoo, Mich., vows to take her son only to special sales for his back-to-school needs.

But her 19-year-old son, Brian, expects to return to the University of Michigan this fall without buying a single, new thing.

"I have everything I need," he says. "Gas will cost so much more just to get me back to school, so why buy more supplies?"

Make just one shopping trip

Last year, Carlene Igras and her 20-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, made at least four back-to-school shopping trips before Elizabeth went off to college. This year, the mother and daughter from Bath, N.Y., plan only one such outing. Decent shopping is at least an hour's drive from their town, and they can't afford the gas.

And Elizabeth says that instead of driving all the way to Rochester — where the mall has her favorite Abercrombie & Fitch anf and Banana Republic gps stores — they'll shop in closer-by Elmira this year.

Elizabeth figures she'll spend about half the $700 she spent last year. By necessity, not choice. "As a girl who enjoys getting ready for school," she says, "this peeves me."

Pocket the plastic and pay cash

June Brokos of Belleville, Mich., insists nothing is different about thrifty back-to-school shopping for her family this year.

As always, the family has a budget and a careful shopping list, and plans to pay cash for at least 90% of the stuff they buy for their two college kids.

"We don't have any blues about back-to-school spending," she says. "We have been able to say no to other things, so we have what we need for their basics."

Meanwhile, back at little Isabel Hales' home, things are settling down.

The first-grader's tears came pouring out after her mom gave her the news that she could only get one — not two — pair of new school shoes this year. Sneakers or dress shoes. Not both.

"Only one?" Isabel asked her mom, Suzanne. "I won't know which kind to get."

Next weekend, Suzanne will take all five kids shopping. No new pencil cases. No new scissors. Only two will get new packs. Her twins, Isabel and Abigail, will walk into school wearing shiny new shoes. But at the high price of no new sneakers.

For the Hales family, the emotional imprint of 2008's back-to-school shopping cutbacks has gone beyond shoes. For their upcoming return to school, something feels out of step.

TELL US: Are you cutting back on back-to-school spending this year? What cutbacks are you planning on making?