how to find the best soccer deals for your kidsForget back-to-school shopping. While last year's lunchboxes and backpacks likely can stretch into another season, soccer shoes tend to last just the one. And so we dutifully made the annual pilgrimage to the Big Three of soccer supplies: Big Five, Sports Authority and Sports Chalet. What did we find? That our local "mom and pop" soccer store had the best prices, not to mention a sales person who actually knew the difference between cleats and shin guards.

Here's the lowdown:

Each of the Big Three, as well as many chains like Target, offer a soccer package that includes soccer cleats (shoes), shin guards and a soccer ball. The packages range from $29 to $59 and make sense if your child is a first-time player and indeed needs all three items in the package. Buying the package will generally save you about 15% off the cost of buying the items separately.

But therein lies the rub. Does your child really need new shoes, shin guards and a ball? Because if he doesn't, you most likely will spend less by just purchasing what you need instead of the package. Don't buy what you don't need.

Most likely you're there because your child needs new soccer shoes, known as cleats. Kids feet grow in a year, so chances are your child has outgrown last year's shoes. Soccer shoes can be purchased separately for anywhere from $15 up to $100. Does your U-6 little girl really need $100 soccer cleats. No, she does not. Does your U-16 club-level player need them? Perhaps, but only if she's tried out the ones that cost half as much first.

Club players have practices three or four times a week and can play as many as four games in a weekend tournament. Better shoes prevent slipping, help the player land kicks and passes more precisely and won't blister your child's feet. Some kids with narrow or wide feet need the more expensive shoes. But for your local AYSO recreation league, it's hard to justify buying the top of the line shoes that they will wear once a week for a 10-week season and outgrow by next year.

Shin guards, while they certainly get scuffed up and stinky on the inside from sweat, basically hold up for a second season's use. I don't find they wash well, or at all, actually. But we do extend their use by putting folded paper towels next to the leg before the shin guard goes on. The towel stays in place firmly and will absorb the sweat. Less sweat, less stinky.

As your child progresses into higher level play, it is recommended that you get more serious (read: better made and more expensive) shin guards. Kicks to the shins hurt. When the shin guard is covered in hard plastic, it will hurt the kicker's toes more than your child's shin. This is a good thing in soccer. Expect to pay about $8 for basic shin guards. The top-of-the-line shin guards are about $20 although we did see a very high-end pair for $49 in our travels. We left them for Beckham.

You should also check with the coach or your league's website to see what size ball your child needs. My family has a bad track record of leaving our soccer balls at games and practices, so I don't mind having a spare, but better organized families might not need this expense. As the age division goes up in most leagues, so does the size of the ball. Balls run about $10 and last until the dog bites them and they puncture. Or until lost. Every child playing needs his or her own soccer ball. And since 90% of them look alike, always good to write your name on them.

Soccer bags? We have bought them dutifully for every all-star team our kids have played on. It's a team pride thing and all that. But in reality, they dress for practice and games at home and the only thing they have in their soccer backpack or bag is their soccer ball, which frankly fits nicely under their arm. A good water bottle, now that's a worthy investment!

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