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This year, families with school-age children will spend an average of $635 on back-to-school shopping. That’s a little less than they spent last year, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2013 Back-to-School Survey.

Though parents are shopping earlier than ever – 24 percent of families with kids in grades K-12 have already started their back-to-school shopping – they also are shopping smarter by searching online for deals on everything from clothing and accessories to shoes and school supplies.

People are more conscious of their budgets and expenditures and, therefore, more price sensitive, says Jon Lal, founder of BeFrugal.com, where shoppers can find coupons, cash back and more for back-to-school shopping. Shopping early is helpful because it allows you time to create a plan. Before you do anything else, start with a list, Lal says.

“Making a list gives you a chance to think about what you need and don’t need,” Lal says. As you list items, ask yourself if there is a substitute. For example, do you have spare bedsheets at home or a laptop that can be upgraded for your college-bound student? Try to create the list on your computer so you can add links to websites and coupons right next to each item on your list.

While you are compiling your list, Lal suggests getting feedback from friends, relatives and neighbors with children older than yours who attend the same schools. They may be able to offer insight on what is really necessary, and they also may have hand-me-downs they can give you.

Once you’ve made your list and eliminated items you can get through other means, decide which of the remaining items have strict specifications. Do you need a particular brand or style of the item such as with clothing or laptops? Or are you looking for things like pencils and notebooks that can be generic?

For the items that are specific, start shopping now, Lal says. For general items, hold off until the end of the season when retailers are closing out on back-to-school merchandise and you’ll get even better deals.

Now decide what you need to buy in-store and which items you can purchase online. Either way, use the Web to view store fliers and compare prices on the items you want.

Lal suggests shopping online as much as possible, because it is easier to stick to your list, it is more convenient, and coupons and cash-back offers are at your fingertips.

“You are done in a minute and can save a significant amount of money,” he says.

Shoppers on BeFrugal.com, for example, get an average of 7 percent cash back on purchases from a range of retailers.

For offline shopping, look beyond the traditional retailers. Yard sales, warehouse clubs, outlet malls and discount retailers also are good sources for a range of back-to-school items.

The per-student college figure is down from $907.22 last year and includes spending on clothing, technology, dorm furnishings and more. Roughly eight in 10 shoppers – whether buying for primary, secondary or higher levels of education – say they’ll adjust their spending plans to deal with the economy.

“As they continue to grapple with the impact of increased payroll taxes, Americans will look to cut corners where they can, but will buy what their kids need,” said Matthew Shay, the retail group’s chief executive, in a statement.

More than a third of parents say they plan to do more comparative shopping online. Nearly four in 10 college shoppers say they’ll hit the Internet for their retail needs. Forecast spending from 2012 to 2013

Back-to-school

Electronics -2%

School supplies -6

Clothes -6

Shoes -12

Overall -8

Back-to-college

Dorm furnishings +16%

Electronics +2

Food +2

Clothes -6

Gift cards -7

Shoes -11

School supplies -13

Personal care -15

College apparel -16

Overall -8

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.