Save money on school clothes

$2.97. I felt a swell of satisfaction as I cut the price tag off the superhero T-shirt. What a steal. 

But the feeling was short-lived. After my most recent hauls from the clearance racks were outright rejected by my kids, I figured this shirt would never see a chocolate ice cream dribble or muddy sleeve.

Keeping kids clothed with the cash you have on hand can feel like an impossible feat. That’s especially the case around back-to-school, a season that is just around the corner: In mere weeks, the crayons and backpacks will be overflowing from retailer aisles, competing for sales in an ever-earlier fashion reminiscent of Christmas creep. 

Back to school is a major consumer-spending season, second only to the December holidays, in fact, according to the National Retail Federation. In 2013, shoppers prepping for back-to-school spent an average of $635. School supplies, followed by clothes and shoes, are the most popular purchases, a Deloitte retail report found, with department stores cited as the No. 1 stop for such purchases.

Department stores can have excellent sales, especially during peak shopping seasons. But there are other ways to get an A in shopping acumen that won’t have your kids complaining about mom’s style-less stash of can’t-pass-up-duds. 

Second-hand stores.

Thrifty moms and dads can thank Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for making thrift shopping cool again. And thrift stores are also upping their own cache with new services. For example, you can make an appointment with a personal shopper at Arc’s Value Village — a service once offered only by high-end department stores. Unique Thrift Stores offer a free VIP program that unlocks special discounts on VIP days.

Kids consignment sales.

For parents of young kids, clothing consignment sales are a one-stop shop for barely used clothing and gear. There are so many of these sales with names such as Just Between Friends and Munchkin Markets that there are bloggers dedicated to listing them all. It’s possible to earn some money in addition to saving some money at these sales by unloading your family’s gently loved goods. Plus you can volunteer to work the sales, usually swapping working hours for exclusive shopping hours.

Clothing swaps.

A dress stuffed in the back of one person’s closet could very well become a weekly staple for someone else. That’s the whole idea behind clothing swaps. Get your friends together and start trading. Sites such as getrichslowly.org have guidelines for organizing and hosting a swap. Use clothesswap.meetup.com to find events already organized in your area or try an online swap site such as swapstyle.com.

Social media.

Facebook might have started as a place to share pictures of our kids, but now it’s become the hub for information about schools, summer camps, parenting theories and shopping. Many neighborhoods have set up groups for swapping and selling items of all kinds. Kids’ clothing is a popular category. And the prices are typically cheaper than a consignment store. If your neighborhood doesn’t have a page, consider setting one up with local friends with kids of similar ages. 

Shop savvy.

If you’re always on the lookout for solid deals, no retailer is off limits. If you use credit cards with rewards, familiarize yourself with the perks. Many offer rotating bonus deals that increase your savings in certain categories. Others offer their own online shopping portals that net additional cash back. Shop through a cash-back site like ebates.com or mrrebates.com and you can see significant savings over time. Online couponing sites are another way to save cash, as is signing up for retailer loyalty programs or email offers.

Read up on returns.

I can’t always resist an out-of-season deal, and will risk a child disliking or outgrowing an item if it’s a steal. But some return policies make it easy to take back never-used merchandise. Be sure to consider a store’s return policy when choosing where to shop. For example, I still purchase winter gear at outdoor retailer REI for my kids as the season ends. That’s because despite recently tightening its returns policy, they’ll still take merchandise that was purchased up to a year ago with a receipt. 

Follow these strategies and you’ll have enough left over to contribute to that school fundraiser you know is right around the corner.


Kara McGuire is a personal finance writer and a St. Paul mother of three. Send comments, questions and story ideas to 
kmcguire@mnparent.com.