Parents, watch your checkbooks. Back-to-school spending is kicking into high gear.

From clothing and accessories to backpacks, computers and calculators, the average family is expected to spend about $635 in the weeks ahead, according to the National Retail Federation. The retail group also reported that prices on supplies are up an average of 7.3 percent from a year ago.

If there's a silver lining, the retail federation said, it's that the estimated spending is expected to be down 8 percent from last year as more parents take advantage of sales and reuse last year's items.

Still, back-to-school spending certainly doesn't stop with clothing and backpack basics. In case you've forgotten, there are activity fees and other charges for school services.

Fortunately, there are some ways to avoid, or at least minimize, the amount of cash flowing out of your checking account. Here are some spending strategies, along with reminders about extra fees to watch for.

-- Plan ahead. Want to be a smarter shopper? Mark you calendar to take advantage of state sales tax breaks on clothing, computers and school supplies. At least 16 states offer shoppers a sales tax holiday. For example, Missouri's three-day holiday starts Aug. 2 and allows sales tax breaks of up to $50 on school supplies, $100 on clothing and $3,500 on computers.

Go to your state department of revenue website for details, or check out

Sales tax holidays work really well if you've prepared a shopping list and are not scrambling aisle to aisle or store to store. Start by looking at last year's supplies to determine what's still usable. Many schools also provide a list of what you're expected to buy.

Two other common-sense strategies: Shop with another family that belongs to a wholesale club to take advantage of discounts. And check out newspaper and online coupons.

-- Watch those fees. Many parents could probably tell me how much they expect to spend on back-to-school clothing. But I bet they haven't given much thought to all the fees for school services and extracurricular activities.

It used to be that a PTA membership was the only "extra" that parents might have to cover. But these days there are so many more fees as schools face tighter budgets -- fees for participating in music, art or school athletic programs, along with charges for field trips, technology and maybe even books. And don't forget school photos and yearbooks also require outlays of cash.

Here's the part I dislike: Most of these bills hit you all at once in the first few weeks of the school year.

-- Hold the line on gear. Whether their children are playing a fall sport or mastering the piano or violin, parents need to weigh the cost of equipment and lessons. Can you rent a piano rather than buying one brand new? Does your kid really need expensive cleats or a $140 handstitched soccer ball?

Until you're sure your child plans to stick with the sport or an instrument, go with the lower-priced options. You'll save yourself a lot of money and buyers' remorse.

Finally, there may be one financial benefit to look forward to once the school bells start ringing again. Your food bills may go down because your kids won't be raiding the refrigerator all day. Maybe that savings will offset the cost of your PTA membership or the yearbook photo.

(Questions, comments, column ideas? Send an e-mail to srosen(AT) or write to him at The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.)