It's the first day of school, and off goes an army of youngsters in their new jeans, spotless brand-name sneakers and brightly colored windbreakers, all sporting E.T. lunch boxes, Dukes of Hazzard notebooks and, for good measure, pint-sized backpacks.

The kids are all set. But their parents may be somewhat staggered by what it costs to outfit children for school these days, not to mention the cost of gym uniforms, locker fees, extracurricular activities and lunches.

"Most family budgets are limited and when it comes to school supplies and clothes there is always a conflict over what the child feels he or she needs to be part of the gang and what is really necessary," said Rae Reilly, a home economics specialist at Iowa State University in Ames. "That combined with increased prices makes sending children to school more and more of a challenge."

The most recent Consumer Price Index compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that prices for most children's clothes and shoes have risen over the past year.

Children's shoe prices are up 2.3 percent over last summer, and the cost of boys' clothes is up 2.7 percent. If your children are girls, you will get a little bit of a break, since prices for girls' clothing are down slightly, .6 percent, from last July.

But the prices for nearly everything else have risen. The Consumer Price Index reports that overall the cost of consumer goods has risen 7.1 percent since last July.

Although most major department and discount stores in Washington refused to release any information about clothing and shoe prices this fall, a quick check through catalogues from Sears Roebuck & Co. shows slight increases in most prices since last year.

This fall, girls' sweaters and blouses from Sears will cost about $13.99, according to the Fall/Winter catalogue, or about $1 to $2 more than last fall. The cost of children's jackets and coats is about the same in the Fall/Winter catalogue, and runs anywhere from $20 to $40. Boys' jeans are listed at $12.99, the same as last year, but prices of corduroy pants, flannel shirts, sports shirts and jackets have increased $1 to $5.

"It is difficult to work out what it costs to outfit the average child since there is really no average," said Reilly.

Reilly suggests parents set a budget for each child's clothes and make a list of what clothes the child needs.

"Then flip through a catalogue and note down the prices of each item on the list," she said. "If the total cost exceeds the budget it is time to go back over the list and start weeding out some (clothes) that aren't really needed," she said.

The best time to shop for school clothes, according to Reilly and other home economists, is at back-to-school sales in August and September. The best bargains on coats, they said, is August or December--after Christmas.

But many home economists warn against buying outsized clothing with the hope that your children will grow into it.

"Too-large clothing is a safety hazard and often embarrassing to the child," said Reilly. "Besides, children usually wear out clothes before they grow into them."

There are tips, though, for parents trying to win the battle of children growing faster than their clothes wear out. Home economists suggest parents look for shirts with raglan sleeves, which allow shoulders to grow uninterrupted by seams. Dresses, overalls and jumpers without waistlines also are a good bet, as are deep hems and shoulder straps that can be let out as the child grows. Home economists also suggest parents look for long coats and jackets without waistlines that tie or zip up and have knit cuffs.

"Children often insist they need certain clothes for school to be part of the gang," said Reilly. "It's a good idea to let children have some choice in what they are going to wear, especially if they are older. Parents can pick out three shirts that meet their criteria, for example, and let the child pick out which color or pattern he likes best."

After clothes come shoes. Home economists say sneakers, once thought to be bad for growing feet, are now considered acceptable and durable shoes. They advise parents to look for sneakers that are double-stiched and reinforced with rubber at the toe and heel.

A check of catalogues and shoe stores indicates that children's sneakers have increased $1 or $2 from last year and cost about $12 to $18. The price of boots, for the most part, seems to have remained the same. Leather shoes cost from $15 to $25, a few dollars more than last year.

Reilly said parents determined to keep costs down should check out consignment and thrift stores as well as large discount stores. She warned, however, to take special care in examining what you are buying.

For instance, wad the material in your hand to see how much it wrinkles, check for snags in the material and make sure the clothing has ample seam allowances. Keep in mind, Reilly said, that discount store materials range from very good quality to very bad.

"Some of the stuff they sell is, well, junk, and some of it is quite good. You have to be careful," she said.

Aside from clothes and shoes, other school costs include lunches and school supplies.

Although the prices of school lunches this year have remained the same as last year's in Northern Virginia, prices for the foods that normally go into a brown-bag lunch have increased about 6 percent, according to the Consumer Price Index. School lunches in Northern Virginia range from 60 to 90 cents. Christine Denzin, a home economist at Iowa State, said parents can make a nutritious bag lunch for about the same price.

Home economists advise parents who pack their children's lunches to combine protein (lunch meat or peanut butter), carbohydrates for energy (bread and cookies) and fruit. They suggest parents make several sandwiches at once, then pop them in the freezer. In the mornings, parents can take one out and put it in their child's lunch box. It will be thawed by lunch time. Be sure to check your cookbook for a guide to what foods freeze well (mayonnaise doesn't, for instance).

"But most cafeteria lunches are a good deal," said Reilly. "If the children like the food, it is probably more economical and easier to have them eat lunch in the cafeteria."

The biggest increase in back-to-school prices, according to the Consumer Price Index, is for school books and supplies -- up 14.6 percent from last year. Although most schools in Northern Virginia provide free textbooks (Manassas and Manassas Park charge textbook fees ranging from $8 to $17), students generally are expected to provide such items as notebooks.

Home economists suggest sending children to school with one notebook and then determining later if they need more.

"A lot of the paste, crayons, pencils, erasers and such are questionable," said Denzin. "Most schools have these supplies and children can use them without buying them."

She said the same goes for gym clothes, locks and athletic equipment. "Most gyms clean out lockers at the end of the year, then lend out uniforms and sneakers to next year's students," she said. "For parents on a tight budget, this is a good alternative to buying."

A check with area schools showed that most require gym uniforms and white tube socks and charge a towel fee. Arlington County's Washington and Lee High School is typical. Uniform T-shirts cost $3.75, shorts are $4.25 and tube socks are $2.50. Combination locks are rented for $3 a year and there is a $6.50-a-year towel fee.

Schools often charge additional fees for after-school activities.

"Again, it is wise to sit down with the kids and give them a choice," said Denzin. "They can be in the choir or they can play soccer on the team, but not both."

Home economists said parents should check with school officials if fees and equipment costs for extracurricular activities run too high.

"It is unfair to children whose families can't afford all this special equipment to be in a situation where, if he doesn't have it, he is left out," said Denzin. "Parents can meet with school officials and ask that costs be kept down, that practices be limited to maybe two days a week because it costs too much to drive the child back and forth to the school every day."

As always, though, keep in mind that there must be a balance between what your children say they must have to have to go to school and what the family budget can bear.

"It just takes a little planning and imagination and the ability to talk things over," said Denzin.