CINCINNATI -- Parents, you aren't imagining it. School supplies are more expensive this year.
Huntington National Bank's annual Backpack Index shows school supply prices jumped an average of 7.3% this year, far outpacing inflation at 1.8%.
Almost every basic item has risen in cost since last year, some by up to $10, according to the analysis.
"We're not sure what's driving (the increases). Maybe plastic is more expensive," said Mark Reitzes, president of the Southern Ohio/Kentucky region for Huntington.
The findings come as back-to-school shopping kicks into high gear.
"I'm kind of dreading it," said Lawren Nunn of Westwood. She has three daughters in the Cincinnati Public Schools district, grades 5, 8 and 9. "It's almost August, and I haven't really seen a really good sale."
Parents will pay $10 more for a graphing calculator, $4 more for Post-it notes or scissors and nearly $7 more for a three-hole punch. The analysis compared a cross-section of online retailers.
Compared side-by-side with the same school supplies last year, parents would spend:
• $577 for elementary school students, a 5.3% increase from 2012.
• $763 for middle school students, a 5.3% increase from 2012.
• $1,223 for high school students, up 9.5% from 2012.
Parents look for sales
As the cost of back-to-school supplies rises, many parents are trying to be thrifty.
Those numbers include test fees and extracurricular spending, though those costs have remained relatively flat from 2012.
But the costs for basic supplies were up about $40 to $50 per grade category: $161.27 for elementary school (a 33% increase, from $120.87), $198 for middle school (a 32% increase) and $893 for high school (a 5% increase).
After a record-breaking 2012, the National Retail Federation estimates families will spend an average $634.78 on back-to-school shopping this year, down almost 8% from $688.62 last year. Total spending is expected to be $26.7 billion.
The retail group expects parents will spend the most on clothes and shoes, and fewer families will buy electronics than last year. Those who do buy a new tablet or smartphone for their child will spend less.
Economics experts are skeptical. It all depends where you shop, they say.
"I got a pack of pens for 14 cents at Kroger last night," said Janet Harrah, senior director for economic analysis at Northern Kentucky University. Huntington's index lists a pack of 12 pens at $6.49.
An online search by The Cincinnati Enquirer found various prices at different stores. The Enquirer found a four-pack of dry erase markers for $2.50 at Wal-Mart and $5.99 - the price listed in the Huntington Index - at Staples and Office Depot.
The graphing calculator, listed by Huntington as $119, was on sale for $99 at Staples and regularly priced at $97 at Wal-Mart. It was listed at $119 and higher at some stores.
Experts also noted the prices may vary according to brand. Some stores may be carrying a more expensive brand than last year's.
Teachers look for help
Mariemont parent Robyn Robinson expects to spend less this year, but only because her son's list is shorter.
"Since he's going into sixth grade, his list is cut in half," she said.
Although her school has a program in which parents can pay $40 to forgo shopping and have the school provide the basics, Robinson prefers to do it herself, even though she usually spends more than that.
"He'll find fun erasers, that sort of thing and we'll get it. It's a fun thing to do, just you and him," she said.
Nunn, the Westwood mom, said she used to get excited about back-to-school shopping, but that's faded. She's trying to reuse what she can this year but still expects to spend more than she did last year.
A survey by the online coupon website RetailMeNot found that nearly nine in 10 teachers use their own money to pay for classroom supplies for students. Half said their school doesn't provide them with the classroom supplies they need.
Teachers spent an average of $347 of their own money in the 2012-13 school year to buy school supplies and instructional materials for their class, according to a survey by the National School Supply and Equipment Association. That's up from $314 in 2009-10.
Crayons to Computers, a local free store for teachers, says it's seen a rise in customers. About 80 to 100 teachers began shopping there for the first time last school year, said President and CEO Susan Frankel. Daily sales increased 6 percent. "That's significant," she said.
The increase, she said, is likely because the number of low-income families is rising.
"If families are deciding between food and school supplies, they'll buy food," she said.
Schools ask for contributions
Some schools are asking parents to contribute to classroom supply lists.
"I'm getting a lot of customers saying they're buying for a school or teacher or family member or friend," said Scott Rakel, shift manager of the Fairfield Township Wal-Mart.
"There's been a lot more charitable donations."
Jessica Brown, The Cincinnati Enquirer