In the beginning, American schoolchildren didn’t typically wear uniforms except in private schools. Today, that trend appears to be shifting. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of public schools that require uniforms rose to 21% in 2015 – 2016 from just 12% in 1999 – 2000.
The definition of a uniform varies considerably from school to school. Some schools require truly identical outfits for students, often marked with the school’s name or logo. At the other end of the scale, a “uniform” can be a basic color scheme, like the plain white shirts and tan pants worn at the school where my sister teaches.
School uniforms can have many benefits for students. A 2011 study at the University of Nevada, Reno College of Education found that after a public school adopted a uniform policy, students reported feeling safer in school. They also found it easier to prepare for school and worried less about how they looked. At the same time, school officials and police reported that discipline in the school had improved and gang activity had declined.
However, uniforms have one big downside for parents: the cost. According to CostHelper, the cost of school uniforms varies widely. A school wardrobe of four or five uniforms can cost anywhere from $100 to $600. School uniforms from an official provider are still pricier — between $100 and $500 for a single outfit.
One reason uniforms often cost more than regular clothes is that parents have less choice about where to buy them. If you can only get your kids’ school wardrobes from the official school store, you must pay whatever that store charges. However, you can get around this problem with the right shopping strategies. The first tip to try: shopping secondhand.
Ways to Save With Secondhand School Uniforms
Clothes are one thing it nearly always pays to buy secondhand if you can — and that’s especially true for school uniforms. Since young children grow so fast, their outgrown uniforms can still have lots of life left in them. Naturally, these previously worn uniforms don’t look brand-new, but neither do most school clothes after a few weeks of wear. Secondhand school uniforms cost much less than new ones, and in some cases, they’re completely free.
1. Try Uniform Swaps
If you have two children attending the same school, the younger kid can obviously wear the older one’s hand-me-downs. However, if you have only one child or your kids go to different schools, you can end up with clothes in good condition and no one to hand them down to. Through a uniform swap, you can pass on your child’s outgrown uniforms to younger students at your school and receive uniforms from older students in turn.
Some schools hold official uniform exchanges for this purpose. For example, my high school had an “outgrown shop” at which parents could hand in old gym uniforms for credit or cash. Other schools, such as St. Cecilia in Philadelphia, hold exchanges on a “take what you need, give when you can” basis. They ask parents to donate their children’s outgrown uniforms, then offer them free to any parent whose child needs them.
If your child’s school doesn’t have an official uniform exchange, hold a clothing swap party of your own. If you don’t have the space to meet and exchange clothes in person, start a social media group where parents can post photos and descriptions of their kids’ outgrown clothes. When you find someone who has the size your child needs or needs the size you have to give, you can contact each other to arrange a pickup.
2. Shop at Thrift Stores
If you live in or near a large city with a large student population, there’s a good chance you can find outgrown school uniforms at local thrift stores. Check the stores closest to your child’s school to maximize your chances of finding them.
Even in smaller cities and towns, thrift stores are an excellent place to look for basic pieces that are often part of a school uniform. Dress shirts, solid-color polo shirts, and chino pants are likely to show up on their racks. You can’t count on finding the pieces you need in your child’s size, but if you do, they’ll be significantly cheaper than new clothes.
To find thrift stores in your area, do an Internet search on “thrift stores” or “thrift shops” with your town’s name or zip code. Also, check the websites of the largest store chains — such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, Savers, and Value Village — to find their nearest locations.
3. Find Sellers Online
If you can’t find suitable secondhand clothes for your child’s uniform at local stores, try looking online. Start consulting your local Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace groups in early July, and look for new listings every other day or so. That gives you roughly two months to find all the pieces you need to build a complete school wardrobe for your child. Just be sure to contact sellers quickly when you find something you need so someone doesn’t beat you to it.
Another good source for secondhand uniforms online is eBay. You can create saved searches for each specific garment your child needs, such as “navy shorts size 8,” and receive daily emails of all new listings for your saved search. You can pick up pieces one at a time or — if you’re lucky — find a lot of uniform clothing all in the same size.
Ways to Save on New School Uniforms
The biggest downside of secondhand shopping is that you can’t be sure of finding what you need. If the start of the school year is approaching and you still don’t have a complete school wardrobe for your child, don’t panic. There are ways to buy new uniform-appropriate clothes and still keep costs down.
4. Buy the Minimum
For starters, don’t buy more of any component than you really need. Your child may need a clean shirt for school every day, but kids can usually get away with wearing the same skirt, pants, or sweater several days in a row. Jackets and ties can go even longer between cleanings. According to blogger Tiffany at Life Your Way, if you do one or two loads of laundry each week, your child can probably get by with:
- Five or six shirts
- Two to three pairs of pants or shorts
- One or two skirts, dresses, or jumpers
- Five pairs of socks
- One pair of shoes
If you shop smart, you can pick up all this apparel for less than the $240 the average parent reported spending on back-to-school clothes in a 2019 National Retail Federation survey. For example, Classroom Uniforms says you can buy a week’s worth of mix-and-match outfits from its clothing line for about $150.
5. Visit Cheaper Stores
If your school’s uniform consists of basics like solid-color tops and pants, there’s no need to buy them at the official school store. Many major retail chains sell uniform-appropriate clothes for kids at quite reasonable prices. In fact, several retailers offer lines of kids’ clothes designed explicitly for this purpose, such as:
- The Children’s Place
- Gap (for girls and boys)
- Justice (for girls only)
- Old Navy
6. Shop Online
If stores in your area don’t carry the uniform pieces you need at prices you like, try shopping online. Some online retailers specialize in school uniforms, and others have sections devoted to them. Good places to shop online include:
- Amazon. The e-tail giant has an entire section called The School Uniform Shop. It provides links to uniform-appropriate garments from many popular brands, including Nautica, Izod, and Dockers. Alternatively, you can search for “school uniforms” to find apparel for girls and boys. Check out these Amazon savings tips for more ways to save.
- French Toast. Online retailer French Toast deals in school uniforms for all ages, which you can search by school or gender. The site’s “bundle and save” feature offers two- and three-packs of identical shirts or pants for a discounted price per piece.
- Lands’ End. The school uniform shop at Lands’ End offers clothing in all sizes, from toddler to adult. Clothes are built to last and covered by the brand’s unconditional lifetime guarantee. There’s even a selection of adaptive clothing for kids with disabilities. These garments feature magnetic closures for easy dressing along with decorative buttons to maintain a uniform look.
- Lee Uniforms. For teens and young adults, the Lee Uniforms store on Amazon offers school- and work-friendly pieces. The selection is limited, but the prices are very good.
When shopping for uniforms online, you can save still more by using a mobile coupon app like Rakuten or Ibotta. If you prefer to shop from a computer, install a money-saving browser extension like Capital One Shopping to help you find the lowest prices and the best coupon codes.
7. Wait for Sales
If your school has an official uniform store, call that store and see when it plans to offer discounts or promotions. In many cases, uniforms go on sale in October after most parents have already bought their kids’ clothes for the year. You can save by buying just enough pieces to get your child through September and waiting until October to stock up.
If the school uniform is a generic outfit available from many stores, keep an eye out for sales at all the stores in your area. Consider signing up for emails from your favorite local stores to let you know when uniform clothing goes on sale. Sometimes, these emails also provide coupons, which can boost your savings still more.
Timing your purchases can help at department stores too. Clothes often go on sale at the end of the season — for example, summer clothes in September or winter coats in March. If you plan ahead, you can save by buying next year’s uniform during these end-of-season sales.
If you’re unsure when and where school uniforms are most likely to go on sale in your area, create a Google Alert for the term “school uniform sale” with your location or zip code. Whenever a new sale pops up, you’ll receive an email about it. You can also use the term “school uniform clearance” to learn about end-of-season clearance sales.
8. Check Out Clearance
Even when a department store isn’t having a sale, there’s usually a clearance rack you can check for marked-down clothing. Since school uniforms tend to be plain clothes without a lot of eye appeal, there are often at least a few pieces that don’t sell and end up on the clearance rack. At Life Your Way, Tiffany reports finding uniform pieces for less than $5 on the clearance racks at Gap and Macy’s.
9. Buy Bigger Sizes
If your child is still growing, there’s a good chance the uniforms you buy now won’t fit by the end of the year. However, you can make them last as long as possible by sizing up. Choosing clothes with an extra inch to spare in the legs and sleeves gives your kid room to grow into them. Some uniform pants and skirts come with adjustable waistbands, so they’ll accommodate your child’s growth in width as well as height.
In fact, if you find a great price on a particular piece your child needs, you can buy next year’s sizes now. Assuming they plan to attend the same school for the foreseeable future, you know they’ll need the same uniform next year, so buying multiple sizes at once lets you get them all at the best possible price.
10. Buy to Last
If your child has stopped growing but still has a few more years of school to go, you can save money by choosing quality clothing that will last. These well-made pieces may cost more upfront than cheaper brands, but they pay off in the long run. A $50 blazer that wears out after one year costs $50 per year, but a $100 blazer that lasts for four years costs only $25 per year.
For example, clothes from Lands’ End come with a lifetime guarantee. If they don’t last your child until graduation (or they outgrow them), you can return them for a full refund. Clothing from Dickies, available at Walmart, is also guaranteed for its “expected life,” though the brand doesn’t give a clear definition of that term. Clothes from Target’s Cat & Jack line come with a one-year guarantee.
Another way to make school uniforms last as long as possible is to choose the darkest colors allowed. On light-colored clothes, minor spots or stains show up more vividly, making them unfit for school wear. Darker-colored clothing, such as maroon, navy, or forest green, hides these minor flaws.
Saving on school uniforms doesn’t end when you’ve made your purchases for the year. If your kid’s uniforms become unwearable due to rips, stains, or lost buttons, you’ll have to replace them in a hurry — possibly at full price. To avoid this problem, handle school uniforms with care to make them last as long as possible.
Always follow the washing instructions and line dry or dry flat when possible to avoid wear and tear from the dryer. Treat stains promptly, repair rips, and replace buttons. If your sewing skills are up to it, you can even get another year or two of life out of garments by letting down the cuffs or adjusting the waistband to fit your child’s larger size. Following all these steps reduces waste, so you can also pat yourself on the back for being green.
One final tip: Label all your kids’ school clothes with their names. When all the students in a school wear the same outfit, it’s easy for them to grab someone else’s sweater or jacket by mistake. Sewing in a name tag or writing on the care tag with a permanent marker increases the chances misplaced clothes will find their way home again.
Do your kids wear school uniforms? How do you save when shopping for them?