By EILEEN ALT POWELL
NEW YORK — The back-to-school shopping season can be a trying — and expensive — time of year.
Parents and their kids, often armed with school-provided lists of required supplies, must maneuver crowded stores in search of just the right notebooks, trendy backpacks, hip jeans and new shoes.
The price tag for families with children in elementary or secondary school is expected to hit about $444 this year, or $13.4 billion nationwide, according to the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C.
College students, meanwhile, are expected to spend more than $34 billion as they prepare to head to their dorms, the trade association says.
The total $47.4 billion makes back-to-school shopping second in cost only to the Christmas holiday season.
Experts say that planning carefully for those shopping trips can help hold the line on costs and give parents an opportunity to teach their kids about money management.
It appears, however, that many parents just grit their teeth and open their wallets to deal with the back-to-school shopping spree.
A survey of parents of high school students by the Visa USA Inc. credit-card company in Foster City, Calif., found that three-quarters didn't give their kids budgets, which may explain why more than half of the parents felt their kids think that money grows on trees.
"Parents may have the best intentions of teaching their kids about money, but the problem appears to be putting theory into practice," said Visa vice president Rosetta Jones.
Visa has a child-friendly back-to-school calculator with budgeting tips on its www.practical moneyskills.com educational site.
Suzanne Boas, president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta, said that back-to-school spending "can be a real budget buster" for a lot of families, in part because they tend to underestimate costs.
"People forget about things like club fees, dues, band uniforms, instrument rentals," she said. "That's all on top of clothes and school supplies."
It's especially difficult for some families this year, she added, because rising gas prices are taking more of their paychecks.
Boas suggests that parents work out a spending plan — with their children.
"Use this as an opportunity to teach your kids how to be smart shoppers," she said. "You can say to them, 'Let's sit down and prioritize.' You'll probably find that if they really want designer jeans, they may be willing to forgo a new backpack to get them."
Boas said that this teaches an important lesson, which is learning to accept tradeoffs.
"One the worst things you can do to your children is not teach them to make choices," Boas said. "And the back-to-school season presents a lot of opportunities for making choices, such as new books vs. used books, or a rolling backpack vs. a standard one."
She also suggests that families consider spreading out some of their purchases.
"You don't have to buy an entire school wardrobe in August," she said. "And notebooks, pencils and pens are available year-round."
This can be a teaching opportunity, too, if the parents let their children help decide what they'll buy later, and when.
Increasingly, the kids are chipping in for school expenses.
A study by the Capital One Financial Corp. in McLean, Va., found that half of the teenagers surveyed said they planned to contribute to the bill, with many using money earned from a job.
Diana Don Colby, Capital One's director of financial education, said that "by contributing their own funds to back-to-school costs, students have a vested interest in their purchases."
This, she added, gives parents an "in" to talk to their kids about the difference between needs and wants, as well as to show them how to shop around for the best price and the best quality.
"It's a natural time to talk to kids about money management, and more parents should take advantage of that," Don Colby said.