WEST VALLEY CITY — Ten-year-old Savana Anderson's new backpack has fangs and multi-colored fur and would eat her homework if it were alive. She loves it.
For Savana, back-to-school shopping has little to do with paper-and-pen-type supplies. “I like getting new clothes and a new backpack," she said. "It is boring using the same backpack."
Savana has a new t-shirt for school, too. It says, "My brother belongs in a zoo." It isn't clear which brother she may mean it to refer to — 14-year-old Skyler who is starting 9th grade or 6-year-old Kendrew who is beginning first grade. Celeste, her 15-year-old sister, is a high school sophomore.
Savana’s mother managed to grant her wishes for a new backpack and school clothes, but Kaylene Anderson is spending less this year to outfit her elementary, junior high and high school children. She budgeted about $175 for each of her four children — more than the national per-family average, though the Andersons, like many families, are trying to be as frugal as possible by taking advantage of the back-to-school deals dominating newspaper ads, websites and storefronts this month.
The National Retail Federation expects back-to-school spending on K-12 students to drop 12 percent from a record $26.72 billion in 2012. Families with school-age children are, according to a NRF survey, planning on spending an average of $634.78 on supplies, electronics, clothes, shoes and maybe a few backpacks. That is $53.84 less than last year. Many parents hope to pay less using coupons, the Internet and other strategies to save money.
Retailers are competing for the money parents will spend on back-to-school shopping by slashing prices and offering deep discounts to lure parents to their stores. Office Depot advertised 1-cent folders. ShopKo offered notebooks at 18 cents and white glue at 38 cents. Walmart had backpacks for $4.88 and Lunchable lunches for $1. Kmart had 10-cent rulers. Rite Aid had 29-cent scissors. Everywhere clothes were discounted with offers like $4.88 shirts and deep discounts on children's underwear.
At the Murray Walmart on Wednesday, Amanda Marsh of Holladay shopped with her four boys ages 9 to 13. The boys followed their mother, who had their schools' required supplies lists in hand, as she searched for bargain items.
Marsh, who says she spends about $1,000 to get her children ready, already had bought new clothes and backpacks for the boys.
"I like them to have a fresh start every year," she says.
Cutting back strategies for clothes
Sara Tetreault, writer of the "Go Gingham Stylishly Frugal Living" blog in Portland, Ore., says she spends a fraction of the back-to-school average on her 16-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl.
"You need to reuse things, buy less stuff and wait until you really need it," she says. "You really need strategies for spending."
Clothing is the most expensive back-to-school category. The NRF survey says 95.3 percent of parents with school-age children will spend an average per-family of $230.85 on clothes and $114.39 on shoes.
To cut back on this expense, Tetreault says the first thing her family does is clean out the closets and go through all the clothes — trying everything on.
"Look at what fits, what doesn't and what fits that the kids will still never wear," she says.
She says it is important to make a list of what clothes the kids need before they go shopping.
"Especially for teen girls," she says. "They are all over the place."
Have them pick out the fashions before they go and make it specific.
Also, wait until it is colder before buying items for the cold. There will likely be sales.
Having a budget helps with clothes.
A survey by coupon website RetailMeNot found that while 80 percent of parents set a back-to-school budget every fall, only 23 percent of these parents are likely to spend less than their budget.
Kathy Grannis, NRF spokeswoman, says for several years the economy had parents cutting back on their back-to-school spending.
"After a few years full years of cutting back, parents didn't have as much of a choice but to spend more on school supplies last year," Grannis says. "That means less of a need to purchase select items this year."
Back-to-school shopping is the second-most wonderful time of the year for retailers. The Christmas season is the biggest, with $579.8 billion in sales. Back-to-school and back-to-college combine for $72.5 billion in sales.
Marketwatch's Andria Cheng wrote in the Wall Street Journal that analysts watch back-to-school results closely because it "serves as an indicator of how winter sales will shake out."
With expectations of a less-robust school season than 2012, like the NRF survey predicts, Cheng said this could forecast some trouble come the winter holiday season.
Grannis with the NRF says retailers are not making that type of prediction.
"Retailers don't measure the two together," she says. "Back-to-school is a time when parents have to buy their growing children clothes because they don't fit them any more it's very needs driven. And if you need folders and you need denim and you need new sneakers, parents have to budget for that. But holidays shopping is very discretionary."
Jennifer Ossana and her 12-year-old daughter, Malia, were at Walmart in Murray on Wednesday to pick up a notebook binder. Malia's school hadn't yet released a supplies list, so they were holding off on buying some things. But they were not worried about prices.
"Everything is on sale this year," Ossana says.
Overall buying up
A bright spot for the economy may be in a new Gallup poll that found a jump in Americans' daily spending in August. It has averaged $103 per day so far in August, compared to an average of about $90 per day for the previous three months. It may shape up to be the highest average spending since fall of 2008.
Gallup says people could expect higher spending in August for summer recreation and back-to-school, but there hasn't been a similar increase in the same July-to-August period in previous years. Gallup speculates that it is possible that Americans were limiting their back-to-school and vacation spending in previous years.
Daily spending is up, according to Gallup, for those with children under age 18 — rising from $108 in July to $125 in August. But it is also up for non-parents from $79 to $92 a day.
Savana Anderson's teen brother Skyler, however, learned his mother was good at cutting back on spending when he found just what he needed at a store.
"There were the most comfortable shoes ever," he said. "They were amazing and looked awesome."
But the Andersons didn't buy them, his mother said, because the shoes were $80. Instead, Skyler will wear shoes that are a little less comfortable and cost $45.
Anderson also said she looks for sales in the newspaper and swaps some hand-me-downs with friends and extended family.
Tetreault, the frugal mommy blogger, said used clothing is great, especially if you look for the better quality name brands.
Cutting back supplies
Tetreault also suggested buying supplies throughout the year — watching for sales and discounts. She recommended regularly checking the Internet for coupons to print out or use with a smartphone. The NRF survey says 95.3 percent of families say they will spend an average of $90.49 on school supplies.
The Wall Street Journal reported that coupon site RetailMeNot compared the types of back-to-school coupons retailers offered last year to this year. The discounts remained pretty much the same — in the range of 10 to 20 percent.
The NRF's Grannis said the use of the Internet to save money for back-to-school shopping is picking up. The survey found that 36.6 percent of parents reported they will do more comparative shopping online and 18.5 percent will shop online more often.
"The survey shows how much the Internet is going to play a role on how parents look to save money because of the impact the economy is going to have on their budget," she said. "Parents are looking to comparison shop more often before they ever step out the door. They want the best products that represent the best bang for their buck."
Tetreault said too many people buy into the idea that everything needs to be new for school. Lunch boxes do not need to be new, she said, and backpacks from the previous year could still work just fine.
"If the handle or strap breaks," she said, "try mending it. You can use items year after year."
Unless, as in Savana's case, a new furry monster backpack makes it easier to go back to school.