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7 ways to stretch your back to school clothes budget

Shopping for new school clothes can be fun, but it can also be expensive. Now that my oldest son has completed kindergarten and is heading into first grade, I’ve been able to determine what works and what doesn’t to form some money-saving strategies for back to school clothes shopping this year.

7 Ways to Stretch Your Back to School Clothes Budget

First day of kindergarten outfit, 2013. Crazy 8 jeans, Old Navy polo on summer clearance, Old Navy hooded sweatshirt on sale, Saucony sneakers on clearance from Amazon.com, L.L. Bean small backpack on sale

1. You decide

Peer pressure and the desire to fit in can have a major influence on kids’ preferences when they’re older, but when they’re just starting out in school they’re not as aware of (nor do they care) what the trendy brands or styles are.

Use this to your advantage and don’t waste money on licensed merchandise that screams a brand name, or low quality gimmicky products just to fit in.

This year my son has let me know that he’s over dinosaurs, but other than that he didn’t care what I picked out for him. Of course I expect he’ll have more of an opinion and involvement as he gets older, but I hope to ingrain in him confidence in his own style, not a habit of following the crowd.

Don’t break the bank following school clothing trends that retailers and other parents are fostering, especially during the early years when your kid doesn’t even care.

2. Check clearance for school clothes

7 Ways to Stretch Your Back to School Clothes Budget

Check the clearance racks for deals on back to school clothes (credit)

It has been my chief strategy all along to shop clearance both online and offline to outfit my boys in new clothing. We don’t receive hand-me-downs and the the thrift shops in our area are bleak. I was happy to find that my clearance shopping tactic worked great for school clothes shopping, too.

By the end of July stores are trying to unload the rest of their spring and summer merchandise, including extra percent off discounts on already reduced items. You can score great deals on high quality clothing.

Worried about the colder weather? I snap up clearance t-shirts, then pair them with cardigans, hooded sweatshirts or long sleeve shirts; the t-shirts work year round.

Once in a while I luck out and find sweaters or sweatshirts on clearance, too. This year I found some great button-down cardigans for about $13 a pop (with a coupon code) from Lands’ End.

3. Focus on quality

Summer is ripe for back-to-school clothes bargains, and you can find items like t-shirts for a few dollars each. But be careful; “you get what you pay for” is very often true.

Last year I bought lots of cheap tops from Crazy 8, and while they fit for the whole year, most of them faded quickly and looked old. Some shirts even ripped after just a few wears.

The stylish thermal shirts that I bought for a steal at Old Navy shrunk into itty bitty versions of their former selves right away, but the hooded sweatshirt I bought there lasted well.

I was surprised that the Crazy 8 blue jeans I bought last year for less than $10 per pair held up extremely well. I had liked the look and feel of the denim and the attention to detail, like the sewn-down ends of the adjustable waistband, and the easy-to-use slider closure disguised as a button.

After many, many washes the jeans maintained their length, didn’t fade noticeably, and the knees are just beginning to look worn. I purchased their jeans again this year when they were on sale for $8.88 per pair.

7 Ways to Stretch Your Back to School Clothes Budget

Crazy 8 jeans quality is surprisingly high. These three pairs lasted an entire school year.

This year I looked for deals from higher-end retailers and read the reviews to see how well the items wash and wear. I traded in credit card reward points for Lands’ End gift cards so I could afford to splurge on higher quality where it mattered (but I still bought everything on sale).

Shop around — you can find quality items in many different stores, but don’t assume that every product will deliver the same quality. I favor stores that include customer reviews and sell the same tried and true items year in and year out so I can feel reasonably confident about spending my money.

Shopping online can be a convenient way to save, but sometimes seeing and touching the clothes in person provides vital information that will make or break your purchasing decision.

Above all, pay attention to the quality, not the brand name. Lower-end stores sometimes have hidden gems, and higher-end stores can sell expensive junk.

4. Clothes that grow

7 ways to stretch your back to school clothes budget

You can roll up long jeans, but you can’t fix jeans that are too short (credit)

Many pieces of clothing will work great when they’re slightly too large, and can accommodate children as they grow. Straight leg jeans look cute rolled up until they fit better. Choose pants that have adjustable waistbands or a drawstring.

Slightly too-long sleeves on sweatshirts, sweaters and other long-sleeved tops can be rolled over once and still look nice. Has your child outgrown the sleeves on a button-down shirt? Layer it over a t-shirt and roll up the sleeves for the spring.

I know they’re not the coolest, but elastic ankle sweatpants proved to be the most versatile for gym class. Other options were difficult to roll up, and too-long pants weren’t practical for running around. Elastic keeps the legs from drooping too low, so they don’t cause trips or get worn through.

Avoid wasting money on pieces that need to be exactly the right size to work — kids grow so quickly!

5. Know your fabric

It’s so disappointing when you buy a piece of clothing that looks great on the hanger, only to find that it shrinks, fades, pills or otherwise looks awful after the first wash or two.

One of my frustrating challenges last year was finding gym pants that didn’t shrink. The mesh pants I bought at the beginning of the year snagged straight away and looked terrible. 100% cotton sweatpants lost an inch or two of length in the wash no matter how careful I was. Too-long lined tracksuit bottoms dragged on the ground and the hems wore through within a week or two.

Finally I found sweatpants that were a 50-50 blend of cotton and polyester, pre-shrunk. They wash and wear and have stayed true to size. I bought five or six different pairs of gym pants before I found something that worked toward the end of the school year.

If possible, read online reviews to see how others have fared after washing their purchases. Save yourself time and effort by avoiding fabrics that require special care or separate washing.

I recently found some very inexpensive jeans on the clearance rack at Gymboree, but I put them right back when I read the warning label that said the dye could bleed and transfer — I would inevitably forget and tint an entire load of laundry.

Remember, a deal isn’t a deal if it ends up costing you more down the road.

6. Read the fine print on coupons

Stores are doling out back-to-school coupons left and right during the summer. Read the fine print to make the most of your coupons. This year I received a coupon code for $20 off $75 or more, or $30 off $100 or more, including free shipping.

I had my online shopping cart full of items totaling just over $150 and was ready to place my order when I realized I could get a better deal. I divided my shopping in half and made two transactions totaling just over $75, saving $40 instead of $30. The coupon code was valid as many times as I cared to use it.

Another retailer sent coupons in the mail for $10 off $10 and $10 off $25. Since shipping wasn’t free, I headed out to the store to find items to check off our list of needs. I asked the cashier if I could split my transaction to use both, and she told me it was no problem. I bought a nice hooded sweatshirt and 20 pairs of socks for about $20.

If your spending is well above the threshold for a particular discount coupon, check to see if dividing your purchase into multiple transactions makes sense. Many online coupons can be used repeatedly.

7. Shop the school uniform department

Even if your child’s school doesn’t require uniforms, the uniform department can be a great place to find basics like shirts and sweaters in solid colors, khaki pants and good quality coats. Don’t forget to check the uniform section for deals.

My son’s winter coat last year was a Lands’ End parka that cost less than $30 on clearance. It was plain blue, but worked just as well as the trendier color blocked coats that cost more.

If you see a sale or coupon for uniform items, be sure to check it out whether your child wears a uniform or not — you might find some great, high quality basics.

If it ain’t broke…

Break out of the mindset that a new school year means new everything. Buying new school clothes is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t make sense to waste money replacing items that still fit and are in good repair.

Those sweatpants that I bought toward the end of the year last year still look great, so I didn’t purchase new gym pants this year — I’ll wait and see if my son grows out of them. His shoes that we bought last spring still fit and look nice, so we’ll hold off on replacing those until we really need to.

Last year I made the mistake of buying a backpack that was too small, so this year I ordered a larger one that I expect to last through his entire school career. I chose a plain one so he won’t get sick of or outgrow any motif after a while.

Trust me, I love to shop and I prefer bright new things to the same old, same old, but I’ve realized that I love financial security even more.

Buying only what you need when you need it takes some of the pressure off and gives you more time to budget for replacing items later. Sales and coupons happen throughout the year.

Spend better to save money

Making smart choices at the beginning of the school year can see you through to summer vacation with minimal additional purchases. Save money by finding deals on quality school clothes that will survive countless wears and washes.

If this isn’t your child’s first year in school, spend a little time reflecting on which items worked, and which didn’t. Were you disappointed by the quality at certain stores? Did you buy too much? Not enough? Make a list based on your prior experiences, then look for deals on good quality items to check off your list.

7 Ways to Stretch Your Back to School Clothes Budget

Using coupons, sales and $70 in credit card reward gift cards, I paid $126.85 for school clothes: L.L. Bean monogrammed backpack, three pairs of Crazy 8 jeans, 1 pair Lands’ End khakis, 2 Lands’ End polo shirts, 2 Lands’ End cardigans, 2 Lands’ End longsleeve tees, 1 Lands’ End button down shirt, 6 Lands’ end t-shirts, 20 pairs of socks and 1 hooded sweatshirt from J.C. Penney.

Stretch your school clothes budget by finding good deals on quality clothing that lasts, choosing versatile pieces that can accommodate your growing child and purchasing only what you really need.

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