Back-to-school shopping: the tween- and teen-aged years

BlogHer Original Post

When your kids are in pre-school and the early elementary years, you can feel pretty confident that they'll like and wear what you buy for them. After all, you're Mommy. You can do no wrong. But once your kids reach the tween- and teen-aged years, back-to-school shopping is a whole new experience. Now you're Mom, not Mommy. And you can't do anything right.

Near misses, unexpected growth spurts, and the vagaries of teenaged fashion sense have conspired to lower my expectations of myself. Now, my goal is to waste the bare minumim of money. And since I only have one son and one daughter, I polled my friends for advice. Here's our collective wisdom for saving money on back-to-school shopping:

1. Accept any and all hand-me-downs. If you have a generous friend with older children and great taste, you want her to think of you every time she has outgrown clothes to get rid of. Don't be picky! My son refuses to wear shorts and polo shirts, and when my friend Liz unloads her son's clothes on me, she gives me armloads of them. I take them because I don't want to look churlish. And a free navy blue blazer is worth a trip to a charity drop-off.

2. If your kids balk at wearing hand-me-downs, tell them it's better for the
environment.
Tell them mother-of-four Susie Sunshine says "gently used hand-me-downs are environmentally friendly and the very best way to recycle."

3. Do a complete inventory, right down to underwear and socks. As Susie Sunshine puts it:

When taking inventory make sure to have the kid actually TRY ON stuff
to make sure it fits. Don't make the mistake of making this a kid-only
task, or you'll run the danger of not noticing your kid's dress pants are five inches too short until you're AT the wedding ceremony of a friend. (In his defense, the pants DID fit in the waist--he just failed feel the breeze on his ankles and lower calf.)

4. Just say no to unnecessary purchases. More words of wisdom
from Susie Sunshine: "If it ain't broke, don't offer to replace it.  Wash and air out that still-functional backpack! Scrub and bleach the lunchbox!"

5. Bide your time. Despite the flurry of ads, you don't need to go crazy buying new stuff right away. It's not as though the weather changes on the first day of school. They can still wear their summer clothes. 

6. Before you spend a penny, find out what the other kids are wearing. A lot of teen fashion is local, so websites and magazines are only so useful. You don't want to waste money buying stuff that's not-quite-right. Use whatever means possible to find out what's in style for your kids. Remember, this is the age of conformity. Your kids are going to want what the other kids have.

7. Set a budget. Tell your kids what it is, and stick to it. Unless they're living under a rock, your kids realize that there's a recession. Setting a budget doesn't just save you money, it gives you valuable tools for negotiating. And it teaches your children an important lesson. My daughter knows if she wants a new Vera Bradley bookbag, she'll have to
settle for Gap jeans.

8. Spring for one one trendy/cool brand name item. Susie Sunshine put it best: "Being raised in a Wrangler household during the designer jean '80's gave me a lifelong appreciation on how much easier a kid's social life can be with
just one or two 'cool' items in their possession."

9. Avoid taking your kids shopping with you. Blackbird of Say La Vee claims "we'd never survive actual browsing in stores." She likes to sit down with her laptop and her son to browse websites like Old Navy and Abercrombie. They figure out what his favorite looks are and order basics on line. They also order a couple of shirts from "those ironic tee-shirt web sites." Only after that's done do they visit a brick-and-mortar store.

Wendy of Martha MacGyver will shop with her son for tee-shirts and hoodies, but refuses to take her daughter shopping:

She thinks she's 18.  So do all the stores, judging by the hoochie
clothes they're trying to get my kid to wear.  To avoid this I go
shopping and buy a bunch of stuff, come home, and we shop among the
things I find acceptable.  I return the no's.  I just can't hack the
"gimmes" when we go out together.  I do shoes the same way with her.

10. Thrift shops can be incredible. Think ahead and stop in often. The every day clothes tend to be hard-worn, but the dress clothes can be fantastic. Stores in fancy suburbs have party dresses, beautiful wool overcoats, button-down shirts, and navy blue blazers at great prices. They're also handy for things like concert wear--the inevitable white shirt/black pants that make our youthful musicians look like waiters.

11. If you're handy/crafty, you can save a fortune. Michelle of Seeking Glitter and Grace has tips on what she calls "Anthropoligizing" inexpensive clothes. Wendy of Martha MacGyver has several posts showing what some appliqué or embroidery can do to dress up a plain tee-shirt. Both of them started with shirts that cost under ten dollars. This doesn't just save money; it's a great way to get your teenager interested in crafting.

12. Shop sales. The end-of-season sales on Lands End clothes at Sears are amazing, and they take returns on clearance merchandise. Fast-fashion chains like H&M and the Gap are constantly refreshing their inventory and run sales almost constantly. Find out when their stuff gets marked down and stop by then.

13. Don't forget eBay. Lots of mothers sell their kids' outgrown clothes, sometimes in lots that make things really cheap. I've found stuff my children loved but outgrew--sneakily swapping an eBayed size 14 for the 12 my daughter had been wearing. I also get great deals on sizes that are hard to find in stores. I just scored a pair of new-with-tags Quiksilver jeans for my tall, skinny son in size 29/32 for $24. They retail for $75.

14. Shoes will kill you. Especially boys' shoes. When their feet make the leap from boys size 5 to men's size 6, the price goes way up. A pair of Merrells for boys costs
$50; the same size in men's is $100. Don't buy too many shoes for kids whose feet are still growing! And put your money in the shoes he wears every day. Shop PayLess or DSW for dressy shoes. 

15. Little things mean a lot. And they don't need to be expensive. My son is so crazy about Dragonforce that he's thrilled with the $5 t-shirt from their web site's outlet store. His second-favorite t-shirt is the Guitar Hero one I got for 6.99 and a proof-of-purchase from Leggo waffles. My daughter is ecstatic with the
lollipop-shaped lip gloss, hot-pink framed Wal*Mart white board, and
leopard print Ann Taylor thumb drive--all found in my BlogHer swag bags.

So there you go--our guide to surviving clothes shopping during the teenaged years. If you have any other great ideas, please leave a comment--we could use the help!

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Please note, no teenagers were harmed in the writing of this post.

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