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Back-to-school clothes shopping is currently high on many families' agendas, so we set out to identify sources for high quality, yet cheap kids' clothes. This year the National Retail Federation expects back-to-school spending on new wearables, school supplies, and electronics to hit $26.5 billion -- that's an average of about $669 per family with children in grades K-12. Of that amount, about $355 will go towards shoes and clothing.

Our research found that there's no need to spend a small fortune on the clothes and shoes portion of your must-have back-to-school list. By shopping at Walmart, for example, you can buy all the necessary attire for two kids, ages 7 to 10, for slightly less than $235. We also found that certain stores offer the best values on particular types of clothing, such as J.C. Penney for uniforms.

What to Shop for.

We checked out the wares in seven stores and filled a virtual shopping cart with the items most youngsters need to start the school year: girls' and boys' uniform tops and bottoms, shorts, jeans, T-shirts and hoodies, socks, underwear, pajamas, and sneakers; boys' dress pants, polo shirts, button-down shirts, and belts; girls' dresses, skirts, fashion tops, leggings and tights, dress shoes, and accessories like belts, hair ties, and jewelry. Of course, you may not need everything on this list or you may need multiples of some items, so your kids' clothes shopping list and final tally may vary from our findings.

Frugal consumers might be interested in some strategic shopping advice from Jene Luciani, a style correspondent with NBC. She recommends investing in good footwear while spending less on other clothing. And, she points out, choosing items you can mix, match, and layer yields the best bang for your buck.

Where to Shop.

Our comparison shopping expedition originally took place it 2011 and landed us at Walmart, Target, Kmart, Sears, Old Navy, J.C. Penney, and Kohl's. At that time we found the cheapest kids' clothes at Walmart, where the shopping cart total hit $218.36, and the most expensive at Kohl's, where the bill came to $705.13 (all totals exclude sales tax, coupons, promotions, and discounts). Subsequent spot checks on prices over the last few years have shown that the stores still fall in the same price order and all totals have increased by roughly $10 to $15, leaving the bottom line at Walmart, for example, at just below $235.

When coupons, promotions, and sales are factored in, however, Kohl's looks much more affordable. This retailer seems to offer the most sales and promotions, as well as a consistent volley of coupons. Kohl's card holders receive mailed coupons on a regular basis and if none are available they can scratch off coupons at the register for additional discounts.

If you prefer to do all your cheap back-to-school shopping in a brick-and-mortar store, Sears is the best one-stop shop. Although it falls in the middle of the price pack at $546.40 (based on 2011 totals), Sears is the only store with everything on our list in addition to some necessary items that aren't, such as boots and coats, which most stores don't carry until later in the fall.

When to Shop.

Back-to-school shopping peaks in the second half of July and the first part of August, when you'll find the largest selection of kids' clothes on retailers' racks. If your list of items is general rather than specific, Luciani recommends waiting until the end of the back-to-school shopping season when selection is smaller but prices are lower. She also advises against shopping little by little throughout the year. "Sometimes you end up overspending, or getting more than you need or items in wrong sizes, etc. and risk 'forgetting' what you even bought," Luciani explains.

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How to Shop.

As every parent knows, it's hard to keep spending under control with the kids in tow. We've said it before and we'll say it again: Shop with a budget in hand and stick to it. Luciani is OK with letting a child have one "splurge" item they've been clamoring for -- if you can afford it -- as long as you, alone, make the rest of the spending decisions. Two other tactics for cheap back-to-school shopping include recycling clothes from older children to younger siblings/cousins/friends and scouring second-hand stores and discount retailers like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls.

A Word on Quality.

Even bargain hunters want quality kids' clothes. Here, our research found that Kohl's scored high points across the board with shoppers while Target's Basic Editions jeans for both boys and girls passed extensive durability testing conducted by Good Housekeeping. To make your own quality assessment of kids' clothes, Luciani says to look for garments that are 100 percent cotton or made from non-synthetic blends.

Additional Tips.

Other useful results from our foray into the world of cheap back-to-school kids' clothes:

  • Kohl's has the best return policy of the seven stores we visited.
  • The best selection and lowest prices on pajamas and underwear is at Walmart.
  • Pants and dresses are available in the widest variety and with the highest perceived quality at Kohl's and Walmart.
  • Old Navy has the most stylish options, the lowest prices, and the best quality in outerwear and tops.
  • Target boasts the largest selection of low-priced shoes for different occasions.
  • The best place to buy back-to-school uniforms is J.C. Penney, where the selection is impressive and prices are fair.
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