How to Beat the Back-to-School Shopping Blues

It’s that time of year again: school open house invitations are arriving in mailboxes, the smell of freshly sharpened pencils fills the air, and the newspaper is littered with back-to-school shopping ads.  Even though I live for the thrill of a great bargain, I will not be hitting the stores.  Except for a few notebooks and dry-erase markers, I will not be doing any back-to-school shopping.

I finished my kiddo’s clothes shopping months ago.

Thrifty shopping may be socially acceptable since the economy took a nose dive a few years ago but it is nothing new for my family. My decision to stay at home with my son left us with one stagnant government employee income yet I was bound and determined to make our budget work. I learned how to find the best deals while my friends were still buying their infants new wardrobes every three months at the boutique mall stores. My baby was styling but at a fraction of the cost.

Now my son only goes up a size about once a year.  I have his entire next size wardrobe (shoes included) waiting for him months before he grows into it.

By picking up a few useful habits and adapting a frugal frame of mind you can also spare yourself from the back-to-school shopping melee and save hundreds of bucks in the process.

Shopping is a year-round venture.  It doesn’t matter if you are shopping at Neiman Marcus or Walmart: there is no reason to buy your child an entire new wardrobe in one massive blast though the mall. Always be on the lookout for a deal even if it is an item not needed until next season or next year. When you run into Target for a quick birthday party gift make it a habit to swing by the kids shoes and clothing clearance racks.  An extra five minutes (or less) can save you hundreds over the course of a year. 

Buy off-season.  This is  the key to saving a bundle.  Why buy a full price winter jacket in November when you can buy one for a fraction of the cost in January?  The best deals are found at the end of the season.  Your kids may not need any more long-sleeved shirts in March when they are 75% to 90% off, but you can stock up in the next size.  Yes, it means you must plan ahead, but most parents have some idea of what their kids will need in the future.  Your local climate, activities, and tastes determine what items you need to buy.   Here in the deep South we can get by with a couple of long sleeved shirts and pairs of jeans each year but we can never have enough pairs of shorts.  If I see them for cheap I snatch them up, knowing they will be worn.

School uniforms get marked down too.  They may make many parents’ lives easier but the cost can still add up if you buy all the pieces in August each year.  Uniform basics (khaki pants & primary color polos)  are cleared out late in the fall to make room for holiday clothes.  Pick up spare pieces or the next size up for next to nothing and you won’t have to go on a spending spree next fall.

Clearance racks are your best friends.  Once you realize you should be searching for swim trunks in lateAugust (when stores are getting rid of them) instead of June (when they are fresh on the racks) clearance racks can be your best friend.  Get to know your favorite store’s mark down habits you can save even more.   I rarely buy Kohl’s clearance even at  60% off (almost the same as their everyday sales) when I know they occasionally go down to 90% off (a steal!). 

It’s all about going green.  RECYCLE.

Consignment stores are an excellent source for name brand clothes in good condition. These stores have made a major comeback in the last few years and new shops are opening across the country to serve the budget-conscious public.   Most consignment stores meticulously go over all clothes before they accept them for consignment.  Many have strict rules detailing how many seasons old clothes may be knowing their customers want new and stylish outfits for their kids.  And if you bring in your children’s outgrown clothes for consignment you often get a better deal by accepting store credit.  It’s a win-win deal for you and the store.

Consignment shops aren’t just for babies’ and young kid’s clothes anymore.  Trendy teen resale boutiques such as Plato’s Closet are cashing in on the consignment craze.  Junior and young mens hot styles can be bought and traded at a fraction of the mall price. 

Thrift Stores are a bit more time consuming but can be worth the trouble.  You may have to dig deeper to find quality used kids wear but it is out there.  Most parents are too busy to take their kid’s perfectly good outgrown clothes to consignment shops.  It ends up in the thrift shop bin in exchange for a nice tax-deductible receipt.  Mixed in with the soccer uniforms and odd vacation shirts are designer duds just waiting to be snatched up for dirt cheap.  I have actually felt guilty walking out of my favorite thrift shop with a monstrous bag of deals.  (More in-depth thrift store shopping tips are listed here.)

But I don’t have room to store extra clothes.  Buy an 18-gallon Rubbermaid storage tub (dirt cheap in January) for next year’s clothes and store in a closet or the garage. Under-bed bins work well also and utilize often forgotten about space.  Make use of hard to reach shelves at the tops of closets and cupboards to store shoe boxes and off-season clothes.

It’s not rocket science.  You know your kids are going to grow.  Sometimes faster than others, but if you bought bargains ahead of time it won’t break your heart if he only wears the ten shirts you bought for $2 each one time:  that’s less than the cost of one new shirt in the mall.

Shoes are the trickiest since they are very seasonal and have little room to give.  I have bought summer sandals ($2.25 at Target) only to discover my child had already outgrown them when the warm weather hit.  But I also had the next size up.  And I took the new, unused shoes to a consignment shop where they sold them for $5 and I made $2 back.  No harm, no foul.

Shoes get marked down drastically mid-summer and mid-winter.  The one item my child begs for each year is a new pair of Sketchers, the “cool” sneaker in his elementary school set.  No problem. For the last two school years he has been elated to get new Sketchers ($10 – 80% off on clearance with a coupon from Kohl’s). I bought them months ahead of time. Our budget can handle that.

It is never to late to learn how to be a frugal fashionista.  It just takes a patience, perseverance, and an eye for stylish steals.   And there is no reason to look like you dress on the cheap when fabulous finds are out there at any age.


9 thoughts on “How to Beat the Back-to-School Shopping Blues

  1. Annie

    Some great tips for not getting stressed out with the Fall back-to-school flurry. We all know it's coming so it's best to get it done early and alleviate the painful re-entry. Thanks!

  2. Gigi

    I'm right there with you about snapping up a great deal; but we totally got blindsided this year. Up til now, our "uniform" consisted of khakis and polos. But this year? We've just been informed that he's got to have the shirts with the school logo. We are now looking at about $125 bucks just for 5 shirts. Needless to say, I am NOT happy.
    My recent post The Epitome of Lazy = Teenage Boy

  3. Staying Afloat!

    And here I was hoping for a great wine recommendation for getting through the back to school shopping!! LOL!

    Seriously though, what wonderful tips!! I always buy off season where I can. My younger boys also get the hand-me-downs from my oldest as long as they are in good shape!
    My recent post Sunday Sweetness

  4. Sarah

    This is exactly how I shop. I never even look at things that aren't on the clearance rack… it's all going to end up there eventually. I refuse to pay full price! I always buy things out of season. We bought our 3 boys' wardrobe for THIS FALL last March… Levi's for $2, long sleeve shirts for under a $1 at JC PENNEY'S! 3 boys outfitted for the cooler months for udner $200…. why would I ever pay more?! That's just stupid!

    I love how you broke it all down!

  5. mamamash

    I used to not give a crap, and bought what I wanted when I saw it. Now that I stay at home and have a kiddo, I make absolutely sure I've gotten the best price on something before I buy it. So funny how that changes.

  6. meatlessmouthfuls

    I don't quite have to worry about this yet, but these are awesome tidbits of wisdom that I need to tuck away!!

  7. Carri

    I think that's smart. Kids grow out of things so quickly, and what they don't grow out of, they completely destroy! I buy just about all my son's clothes from the Gap, but almost always on sale. I end up spending less than if I bought them at Target! You just have to wait.


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