The National Retail Federation says parents spent $688 per child last year on back to school clothes and supplies.

The National Retail Federation says parents just like you spent $688 last year on back to school clothes and supplies for each one of your children.

Next month, you will have to load up backpacks with school supplies, and clothe your children for a new school year. But you don't have to spend anywhere close to $688. Just map out your strategy and start looking for bargains right now, because procrastinators pay full price.

It's easy to save big on school supplies. Pickerington mom Sherri Snyder "checks the Sunday paper all summer. Really good deals start showing up in the ads long before the back-to-school sales," she said. "Staples, OfficeMax and Walmart always have early specials on basic supplies like notebook paper, notebooks and pens. Sometimes they are even as cheap as a penny."

She stockpiles the items when they are on sale, and "I buy only what is on sale, even if it's tempting to buy more things while I'm there," Snyder said.

And don't wait until the classroom supply lists arrive in stores. By then, it's too late. If the new list isn't on the school website, "you can use the previous year's list, Snyder said.Most of the basics stay the same. Check a grade ahead, too. Might as well start on next supplies while you're at it."

Clothes don't have to be a money drain either.

Before clothes shopping, inventory closets and write down everything you think they'll need, said Neale Godfrey, founder of the Children's Financial Network. They rarely need new wardrobes just because school is starting.

If you have older children with spendy tastes, give them some control over a portion of their clothing budget. If your budget only covers a basic pair of jeans, fine. Give them the money for those, but "if they feel they can't live without the designer jeans, they can spend some of their money to cover the extra cost," Godfrey said.

Don't overlook used items for maximum budget stretching.

Columbus mom Mila Santos takes every dollar she earns seriously. She outfits her three girls-two of them fashionable teenagersin deeply-discounted Abercrombie T-shirts and designer jeans gleaned from half-price day at the local Ohio Thrift (the last Wednesday of every month)If you want trendy with a smaller price tag, head to a local consignment shop such as Plato's Closet.

My kids are akin to Bruce Banner turning into The Hulk-their preschool biceps are already bursting through the seams of their Christmas Ninjago t-shirtsso my strategy is a little more extreme. I hit the yard sales, and buy the next two to three larger sizes. My kids are young, don't care about brand names and grow like Jack's bean stalk. I only buy items that look brand-spanking new or are in good repair, and I scope out Craigslist for big yard sales in neighborhoods with lots of children. I regularly find like-new jeans, hoodies, winter coats and basics such as snow pants and snow boots. It takes time, but the savings are large. It's a cost-effective way to keep my little Hulks outfitted in their favorite super hero hoodies come fall.

-Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, and