After a summer of fun and adventure, the time has come for kids to start getting ready to head back to school. It also means it’s the time of year for stocking up on school supplies like notebooks and pencils — not to mention back-to-school shopping for new clothes.
According to the National Retail Federation, families expect to spend an average of $253 on back-to-school clothing in 2021, up from $239 in 2020. And that’s separate from the $161 they expect to spend on shoes. Fortunately, with some planning and strategy, you can survive the back-to-school season without breaking the bank.
How to Save Money on Back-to-School Clothes
Saving money on back-to-school clothing means two things: finding the best price on clothes and buying only what your kids need. To do that, follow this tried-and-true back-to-school game plan.
1. Take Stock
Before you make a shopping list for new clothes, head into your children’s closets and dig through their dressers to see what they already have. Take note of what clothes are in good condition, which are a little worn but could be fixed up, and which are past their prime.
Inventory day can be fun. If your kids haven’t worn a garment in a while, have them try it on to ensure it still fits. Turn things into a fashion show by having your kids mix and match clothing to make new outfits from pieces they already own.
Getting your kids to look at their older clothes in new ways can help them feel less inclined to shop for new things. While you’re at it, take stock of basic staples like white T-shirts and black slacks that can work with newer pieces.
If you have several kids, the older ones can pass on clothes that no longer fit to their younger siblings. Handing down clothes makes particularly good sense if your kids’ school requires uniforms, as everyone has to wear the same thing.
Other types of clothing, like older T-shirts, might be more personal. Your youngest might not want their older sibling’s hand-me-down tees or jeans. Be sensitive to that and don’t try to force the younger kids to wear all their bigger siblings’ old clothes.
Once you know what fits, what’s getting passed down, and what you can’t salvage, make a list of what your children still need.
2. Make a Back-to-School Budget
As a new school year gets underway, you have more to buy than just clothes. Your kids might need school supplies and tech supplies too. Keep from overspending by making a budget that includes all aspects of back-to-school spending.
Since kids at different ages have different back-to-school needs, create a separate budget for each child. Your high school and college students probably need more tech gear, like a new laptop or graphing calculator. In contrast, your elementary school students probably need less expensive supplies, like crayons and lunch boxes. Clothing for younger kids tends to cost less than clothing for teens too.
If you have one, use your existing budget as a guide when creating a back-to-school budget. You can pull for categories already in the budget, such as shopping or gifts, to find the money to pay for back-to-school without having to charge everything to a credit card.
3. Make a Clothes-Buying Schedule
Retailers would love it if you bought every single clothing item your kids need for school at once. But you can likely space out your purchase of back-to-school supplies and clothes.
For example, if you live in a four-season climate, your kids probably don’t need a winter coat or heavy sweaters when school starts in late August or early September. You can wait until the temperature drops a bit to buy them winter clothes.
Scheduling your kids’ clothing purchases also helps you spread out your budget. Instead of spending $500 all at once, focus on budgeting $50 or so each month instead.
Spreading out purchases also makes shopping a bit more enjoyable. You and the kids won’t feel shopped out when you only buy what you need when you need it.
And remember: Everything goes on sale at some point. Whether it’s a back-to-school sale or end-of-season sale, wait to purchase new clothes until they’re on discount.
4. Hold a Clothing Swap
Swapping clothing gives you and other families in your community the opportunity to get back-to-school clothes for free.
The rules of a clothing swap are simple: People show up with unwanted clothing that’s in good condition. They can then take the clothing other people have brought to the swap. If there are clothes remaining at the end of the swap, donate them to charities that accept clothing.
For a successful swap, invite as many people as you can and encourage guests to invite others. The more people, the more clothing and the more choice everyone has.
To ensure people contribute relatively equally, set a minimum number of garments, such as three or five, and limit the number of pieces they can take to the number they brought.
5. Visit Thrift and Consignment Stores
Thrift stores and consignment shops tend to be overflowing with clothing for children and teens. You’re likely to find gently used brand name clothing for much less than you would pay for new. If your preteen or teenager has started to beg for pricier designer names, going to secondhand stores keeps them happy while saving you a lot of money.
You can maximize savings at thrift or consignment stores in a few ways. Many stores reduce the price of clothes the longer they sit on the shelves. Usually, the tags are color-coded, and certain colors could be a specific percentage off on certain days. Pay attention to the tag color and look for apparel with the sale tag on the day you shop.
Thrift and consignment stores typically inspect clothing closely before putting it out on the rack. But it’s still possible for a garment to get set out with a small tear or stain. Look closely at each piece of clothing before you buy it. If it’s smelly, stained, or damaged, leave it behind.
If you prefer online shopping to in-person, look for gently used kids’ clothes on ThredUp. You can also send the company a “clean-out kit” full of clothes your kids no longer want to get a credit (or cash) to use for back-to-school shopping.
6. Check Out Online Marketplaces
People list what they no longer need and the price they want for it. You can haggle and negotiate with them or even try to barter. Some people are so desperate to clear out their closets they’re willing to give clothes away for free.
Another online marketplace worth checking out is eBay. It’s a lot less local than Facebook or Craigslist but can make it easy to find affordable, gently used clothes.
7. Visit Outlets
Outlet stores aren’t what they used to be and might not always be the best way to get a good deal on clothing. For example, a type of outlet called a factory store typically carries products made just for the factory store and doesn’t have deep discounts.
That said, you can still score excellent deals on back-to-school clothes if you’re a savvy outlet store shopper. Keep an eye out for sale days and coupons, and don’t fall into the brand-name trap. Some garments at outlet stores, particularly factory stores, tend to be much lower quality than what you’d find at regular retail stores.
Check each garment carefully before buying. Look at the stitching, see if the fabric attracts lint. No matter how inexpensive a garment is, it’s not worth buying if it falls apart in the wash or looks dirty every time your child wears it.
8. Accessorize at the Dollar Store
The dollar store can be a treasure trove of inexpensive but necessary accessories for your kids. Think of the things your children need but are most likely to lose:
- Winter gloves
- Scrunchies and hair ties
You’re also likely to get unbeatable deals on school supplies like notebook paper and pens at the dollar store, meaning you can check multiple items off your back-to-school list with one shopping trip.
9. Scope Out the Best Price
Many retailers carry the same products but charge different prices for them. A pair of pants might be marked down at Walmart but full price at Target. Those same pants might be even cheaper on Amazon.
You can take the time to shop around, looking for the best price on back-to-school clothing. Or you can let an app take care of price shopping for you.
Capital One Shopping compares prices for you to prevent you from buying something available cheaper elsewhere. Honey tracks down coupon codes for you to ensure you never miss a deal. And CamelCamelCamel tracks Amazon prices, letting you know when the product you’re looking for is at its lowest price.
10. Use a Cash-Back App
Doubling up on deals lets you save money on kids clothing. Along with finding ways to get discounts or coupons when you buy clothes for back-to-school, see if you can get a rebate or cash back later.
When you sign up for Rakuten and click through the website or use the browser extension when shopping, you earn a percentage of your purchase in cash back. The percentage varies based on the store and the day. Some stores offer 2%, though you can find special offers of 10% or 12% back.
Along with giving cash back, Rakuten also provides coupon and discount codes that save you money upfront too.
11. Pay With Discounted Gift Cards
Many people end up with gift cards they don’t want to stores they don’t shop at. Luckily for you, those people can sell their gift cards through a marketplace like Raise, where you can buy them at a discount.
The size of the discount depends on the demand for the card and the retailer. You might find gift cards to Old Navy or Gap for around 15% off or a gift card to Target for 1.5% off.
If you know you’re going to shop at a particular store for back-to-school, you can add to your savings by checking for a gift card first. For example, if you want to spend $50 at Old Navy, you can buy a $50 gift card for $42.50 on Raise, saving yourself $7.50.
12. Get a Price Match
Some stores offer to price-match their competitors in a bid to win your business. Depending on the store, it can make sense to ask for a price match rather than buying the garment from another store.
For example, say you have a store credit card to Retailer A and it offers price-matching. Your card gives you a 5% discount on every purchase. The polo shirt you need is on sale at Retailer B but available at Retailer A for a higher price. Getting a price match lets you take advantage of the lower price while saving 5% with your store card.
13. Score Free Shipping
Whether it’s $5 or $10, paying for shipping adds to your back-to-school costs. Luckily, many retailers have realized that no one likes to pay for shipping, so they’ve made it easier to get stuff shipped for free. Many also let you send the clothing back for free.
If you aren’t going to meet the store’s free shipping minimum, you can still avoid the shipping fee. Some retailers offer free shipping to the local store or let you order online for in-store pickup.
Also, there’s a lot of overlap among retailers today. If the site you’re shopping doesn’t have a free shipping option, find the same garment or something similar on a site that does.
14. Save on Sales Tax
If you live in a state that charges sales tax on clothing, you can shave a bit off the price of back-to-school clothes by waiting until your state’s sales tax holiday, during which the state or local government waives taxes. According to the Federation of Tax Administrators, 17 states have back-to-school sales tax holidays:
- New Mexico
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
Tax holidays for school clothing typically occur at the beginning of August, but check your state government website for more information.
15. Ask for Price Adjustments
It’s frustrating when you buy something only to have it go on sale or get more deeply discounted a week later. Some retailers recognize that frustration and give you a price adjustment.
With a price adjustment, you get a refund of the difference between what you paid and the discounted price. Usually, the sale or discount needs to occur within a week or two of your original purchase. You also need to have proof of your original purchase, such as the receipt.
And you need to ask for the price adjustment. A retailer isn’t likely to just offer it to you automatically. You can usually either bring the receipt to the store or email customer service.
If keeping an eye out for the prices on clothing you’ve already purchased sounds like a lot of work, sign up for Paribus. The app alerts you when something you bought drops in price and helps you get the price adjustment.
Do your kids need an entirely new back-to-school wardrobe each year? Unless they’re growing so much nothing from last year still fits, the answer is probably no. Save money and stay within your budget by only buying what the kids need, looking for the best price, and buying secondhand when possible.
Also, remember that you can try to sell the clothes that no longer fit your kids and use the proceeds to boost your back-to-school budget. As long as the clothing is in good shape, you can make some money by selling on consignment or online secondhand retailers like ThredUp.