Fall catalogs are, no doubt, filling up your mailbox these days, heralding the 2007 back-to-school season. Retailers are counting on your desire to outfit your kids in new duds (or your kids' ability to pressure you into it) and to get the little darlings poised for academic success with all the right school supplies.

But predictions for this year's back-to-school sales aren't optimistic. Given soaring gas prices and the economy's sluggish growth, folks aren't expected to pony up for all the latest trends. But even if you're a little more reluctant to spend this year, you're still likely to have a few essential purchases to make -- like replacing outgrown shoes and complying with teachers' supply lists. Here's how to keep your back-to-school shopping in line with your budget:

Shop tax-free
A number of states (and the District of Columbia) offer tax-free shopping days to kick off back-to-school season. Most have guidelines for what types of items may be purchased tax-free and the applicable purchase total may be capped, so be sure to check your state's fine print before you set out.

Keep these other things in mind:

  • Tax-free may mean free from state but not local taxes. Check to see if you'll be charged a county or local tax in your shopping area.
  • Be sure to check your receipt carefully for errors. Temporarily eliminating the sales tax requires stores to reprogram their registers, so human error may cut into your discount.
  • Sales tax holidays may be applicable to online retailers as well, so you may be able to shop from the comfort of home.
  • Most sales tax holidays come early (beginning- to mid-August) and last just a few days.

Here are the states participating in 2007:

Alabama, August 3-5
Connecticut, August 19-25
Florida, August 4-13
Georgia, August 2-5
Iowa, August 3-4
Louisiana, August 3-4
Missouri, August 3-5
New Mexico, August 3-5
North Carolina, August 3-5
Oklahoma, August 3-5
South Carolina, August 3-5
Tennessee, August 3-5
Texas, August 17-19
Virginia, August 3-5
Washington, DC, August 4-12

Leave the kids at home
Despite your kids' protests, you may want to do much of the scouting and shopping by yourself. That way, you can compare prices without pressure and stock up on unglamorous items like scissors and markers without getting a committee's worth of input. If you hate the idea of excluding them completely, or if they're simply too old to have Mom and Dad select everything, offer them a choice on a few special items like backpacks and lunchboxes, or give them a budget so spending is kept within reasonable limits.

Get creative
Don't tell the kids they have plenty of stuff from last year. That will just make them label those items yesterday's news. Instead, organize a hunt for all the school, art, and craft supplies that are laying around your house and have your kids gather them all in a central location. Then set up your own auction, complete with play money, to get them bidding against each other for items to stock their backpacks. Dubious? My husband staged one of these recently at our house and each kid went away happy. The bonus? Now that we know what we have, our back-to-school shopping will be limited to those things we actually need for the upcoming school year.

Use the friend network
Those of us lucky enough to have friends who pass along gently-worn clothes know how much it can help save. But why wait for your friend to clean out the closet or for the church nearby to have their annual rummage sale? Get your friends together for a back-to-school swap in which you all bring items (clothing, shoes, and school supplies) to share. Add music, food, and drinks and this just might be the most fun shopping experience you've ever had.

Still need to hit the retail establishments? Try these shopping tips on for size:

This article is adapted from the Motley Fool Green Light "Money Answers" archive, which features more than 100 articles on personal finance topics such as taxes, credit, and beginning investing, organized by subject and life stage. For access to this content -- plus the current newsletter, back issues, members-only discussion boards, and advisor blogs -- take a free 30-day trial today!  

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. The Fool has a disclosure policy.