As any parent will tell you, young children grow like weeds. They’re continually outgrowing their clothes, making new clothes a significant expense for parents. According to a 2017 United States Department of Agriculture report, American families with children under 18 spend between an average of $688 and $1,193 per year (depending on income and the age of their children) on clothing for them. A 2019 survey by the National Retail Federation found that the average family that year expected to spend around $240 on back-to-school clothes shopping alone.
If that number sounds unreasonably high to you, perhaps you haven’t looked at prices for kids’ clothing lately. In the children’s wear sections at department stores like Macy’s, prices rival the cost of adult-size clothes. Regular retail prices range from $30 to $50 for a sweater, $25 to $50 for a pair of boys jeans, and $50 to $200 for special-occasion dresses. It would be easy to rack up a tab of hundreds of dollars in a single shopping trip at those prices.
If you’re fed up with spending that much on clothes your kids are just going to outgrow in a matter of months, there are two main ways to avoid it. First, you can adopt smart shopping strategies so you spend as little as possible on your child’s wardrobe each year. And second, you can make your kids’ clothes last as long as possible so you don’t have to run back to the store in the middle of the year to replace them.
Buying Kids’ Clothes for Less
For adults, buying clothes as cheaply as possible isn’t always a good deal. It often costs less in the long run to pay more upfront for quality clothing that will last for years. But for growing children, that isn’t usually a good plan. Young kids will outgrow those new, high-quality clothes long before they wear them out, and the extra money you spent on them will just go to waste.
When shopping for kids’ clothes, the smartest approach is usually to pay as little as possible for each garment. To do that, you need to think outside the box about where, when, and how to shop.
1. Buy Pieces, Not Outfits
When you walk into a children’s clothing store or department, the first thing you see is usually a group of child-size mannequins showcasing the store’s latest clothing collection. Each one sports an adorable outfit in which all the pieces match. For instance, you might see a mannequin dressed in crisp pants, a polo shirt, striped sweater, and matching hat next to a mannequin in a colorful blouse, plaid jumper, cardigan, and cute hair clips.
Stores set up their displays that way on purpose to trick you into buying more. They hope that once you see how cute all those pieces look together, you’ll feel like you have to buy the whole set.
The problem is these neatly coordinated garments don’t always go with the clothes already in your child’s wardrobe. If that cute little hat only looks good with that specific polo shirt and striped sweater, it will spend most of its time sitting unused in the closet.
A single outfit, even an adorable one, isn’t nearly as useful as mix-and-match pieces your kid can wear with many outfits. Instead of springing for the whole set, look at each piece individually and think about how much use your child could get out of it. If that plaid jumper would coordinate well with half a dozen shirts your child already owns, great — you can buy it and get six new outfits instead of just one. But if the colorful blouse it’s being displayed with really wouldn’t go with anything but the jumper, ignore it.
2. Check Out Clearance
To save even more money, skip over those collections in the front of the store altogether. Instead, head straight to the back of the store, where the clearance racks are. Stores regularly move merchandise that hasn’t sold to this section to make room for new collections. To get it off their shelves, they mark it down to temptingly low prices.
Even during a store-wide sale, the prices in the clearance section are typically even lower. Blogger Brandi Michel of Imperfectly Perfect Mama reports that the teaser prices in the front of the store are generally no more than 20% to 30% off the original retail price, while the clearance section typically boasts markdowns of 50% to 70%.
Better still, discounts at store-wide sales sometimes apply to the goods in the clearance section as well. If a $20 set of pajamas has already been marked down by 70% and the sale takes off another 30%, you can pick it up for only $4.20 — just 21% of the original price.
3. Shop Out of Season
One common reason for clothing to end up on the clearance rack is that it’s out of season. Several times per year, stores receive new shipments for the upcoming season, such as lightweight spring clothing in February. To make room for them, they mark down the clothes for the season that’s ending — in this case, winter coats and other cold-weather gear — to get them off their shelves.
Since these end-of-season sales usually take place a month or two before the season actually ends, you can pick up discounted winter clothes your kids can wear as long as the cold weather lasts in February. And if you buy the apparel in slightly larger sizes than your kids currently need, there’s a good chance they’ll still be able to wear it when next winter rolls around.
Alternatively, you can take advantage of these end-of-season sales to get a head start on your shopping for next year. Instead of buying clothes in your kids’ current sizes, look for pieces that are one or two sizes too big.
Michel recommends choosing clothes at least one size larger than the size you think your kids will need next year since she has found that they always grow faster than you expect. For kids who are in the middle of a growth spurt, go even larger. Michel cautions this strategy doesn’t work well with babies, as they grow so fast you simply can’t predict what their size will be next year.
4. Visit Discount Retailers
When it comes to getting discounts, where you shop matters just as much as when you shop. There are several types of retail stores that offer much better prices on kids’ clothing than name-brand boutiques and department stores. These include:
- Discount Superstores. Big-box discount stores like Target and Walmart sell clothes for children at more reasonable prices than other department stores. For instance, in Walmart’s children’s section, you can find jeans for $7 to $25, short-sleeved and long-sleeved T-shirts for $4 to $10, and sweaters for $7 to $30.
- Off-Price Retailers. Off-price retailers such as T.J.Maxx, Marshalls, Ross, and Burlington buy up manufacturers’ overstock — excess clothing and other goods that they couldn’t sell to other retailers — at prices below their regular wholesale price. Then they pass the discount on to shoppers. TJX, the parent company of T.J.Maxx and Marshalls, says prices in its stores are typically 20% to 60% below regular retail.
- Liquidation Stores. Liquidation stores, such as Big Lots, buy merchandise other stores can’t sell. Some of it comes from stores that are moving or going out of business, some is slightly damaged or irregular, and some just didn’t sell. Liquidators sell these goods to consumers at rock-bottom prices. When buying children’s clothes at a liquidation store, you need to scrutinize them to ensure they’re in wearable condition. However, many pieces are completely undamaged and ridiculously cheap. Blogger Lisa of Money Minded Mom says she has found girls jeans that originally sold for $50 for $1 apiece.
Pro tip: When shopping in-store make sure you use the Ibotta app. With Ibotta you’ll earn cash back at more than 300 different retailers. Another way to earn cash back on purchases is with the Drop app.
5. Hit the Thrift Shop
One of the best ways to find kids clothes cheap is to buy them secondhand. Because kids grow so fast, they often outgrow their clothes long before they wear them out, so you can find previously worn garments at thrift stores that are still in excellent condition. Sometimes consignment shops even have new clothing with the tags still on it that kids have rejected for one reason or another.
Some parents find the idea of dressing their kids in another child’s used clothes somewhat off-putting. However, as long as you wash everything before putting it into your child’s wardrobe, germs shouldn’t be an issue. If the idea still makes you uncomfortable, start small. One particularly good category to shop secondhand is special-occasion clothing, such as holiday dress clothing, which your child will only wear once or twice. Once you discover what excellent deals you can find, you’re likely to feel more comfortable branching out into everyday wear like shirts, pants, and shoes.
When shopping secondhand for kids, check garments carefully to make sure they’re in good condition. Small problems like a torn seam or a missing button don’t have to be deal-breakers if you can fix them yourself. However, put back any attire that’s noticeably stained or threadbare.
To find thrift shops in your area, do an Internet search for “thrift stores near me.” Also, consult the websites of some of the largest resale chains to find nearby stores. Big chains that sell both kids and adult clothing include Goodwill, Salvation Army, Savers, and Value Village. Sellers that specialize in previously loved kids clothing include Children’s Orchard, Kid to Kid, Kid’s Closet Connection, and Once Upon a Child.
6. Try Garage Sales
When it comes to prices, thrift shops are a mixed bag. Michel says she sometimes sees like-new clothes on thrift store racks for more than identical brand-new garments on clearance. However, there’s one source of secondhand children’s clothing that offers consistent bargains: garage sales.
It’s not always easy to find the exact garments your kids need at a yard sale. Sellers don’t always display their items effectively, so you may have to rummage through an unsorted pile of clothes looking for useful pieces in your children’s sizes. However, anything you manage to find is likely to be dirt cheap. According to a price guide from Angie’s List, baby clothes typically sell for $1 to $3 per piece in good condition and as little as $0.25 if they’re well worn, while larger garments generally cost $3 to $5.
Like end-of-season sales, garage sales are a fantastic place to stock up on clothes ahead of time. As long as you have enough storage space at home, you can pick up bargain-priced clothes for your kids in sizes you don’t expect them to grow into for years. Amy Dacyczyn, author of “The Complete Tightwad Gazette,” kept an entire “filing system” in her attic for kids clothes, with separate boxes for boys and girls of every age from toddler to teen. She stocked these boxes with yard sale finds and hand-me-downs and always had clothes available for her six children to grow into.
7. Find Online Sellers
If there are no good thrift stores in your area, consider shopping online for secondhand clothing. On sites like eBay, Swap.com, ThredUp, and Kidizen, parents sell their kids’ outgrown and unwanted clothes for extra cash or store credit. While prices vary by size and garment type, you can find many items for under $10.
One downside of shopping online is that you can’t examine clothing hands-on the way you can in a store. To avoid unpleasant surprises, read all product descriptions carefully. When possible, look at the exact garment dimensions and the size on the label to make sure it will fit your child. Check out the materials and washing instructions as well.
You can also use the Internet to find sellers in your area who want to pass along their kids’ used clothes. Just search for what you need on your local Craigslist group or Facebook Marketplace. You can even find cast-off children’s clothing free on Freecycle.
It’s wise to take some precautions when buying from local sellers. Arrange to meet in a public place rather than walking into a stranger’s home. On Freecycle, you can often arrange a “porch pickup,” collecting items from the donor’s front stoop rather than going inside.
8. Hand Clothes Down
The only thing better than getting your kids’ clothes cheap is getting them completely free. The easiest way to do that is by handing down clothes from older children to younger ones — both within your own family and in cooperation with friends or neighbors.
If you have two children of the same sex, it’s easy to save the older one’s outgrown clothes to hand down to the younger one. Doing this with children of opposite sexes can be trickier, but it’s possible in some cases. Many simple clothing items, such as jeans and T-shirts, look and fit much the same on preteen boys and girls, so there’s no reason your daughter can’t wear your son’s old clothes or vice versa. Winter coats and accessories also tend to be gender-neutral. However, as children get older and their body shapes begin to change (or one child gets significantly taller altogether), fewer garments can change hands as effectively.
If you can’t hand down clothes within your own family, consider having clothing swaps with other families in your area. At these events, you bring in your children’s outgrown clothing and trade it in for new-to-you clothes in the sizes your kids need.
Schools and churches sometimes organize large-scale clothing swaps to help local parents save on clothing. You can find events like this through Craigslist and Facebook. If there aren’t any existing sales in your area, consider getting together with other parents you know to start your own. You can take turns hosting and chat with the other parents while “shopping” for your children.
When your youngest child has outgrown a garment, it can still help you out one last time. You can either trade it to another family or sell it to raise some extra money for this year’s clothes. If you don’t have a resale shop in your area that takes kids clothes, you can sell them at a garage sale, on eBay, or at an online consignment shop such as ThredUp.
Making Kids Clothes Last Longer
When you’re trying to spend as little as possible on kids clothes, buying them for less is only part of the equation. You also want to get as much use as possible out of every piece before you need to replace it. Several strategies can help you do just that.
9. Choose Versatile Clothes
Every year when the holiday season rolls around, clothing stores try to tempt parents with an array of seasonal outfits for their kids. Yes, your daughter would probably look adorable in that little red velvet dress with the white cuffs, and that plaid vest and matching bow tie would be absolutely darling on your son. But you’ll only be able to use those outfits once or twice during the holiday season, and by next year, they won’t fit anymore.
A better bet is to buy just one special-occasion outfit for your child that can work for any event throughout the year. A dress in a non-season-specific style or a nice pair of pants and a dress shirt can work just as well for other holidays, parties, weddings, and picture day at your kids’ school.
If you have (or plan to have) more than one child, it’s also a good idea to choose gender-neutral clothing for your oldest child whenever possible. That way, you can hand clothes down to girls and boys alike. For instance, if you’re buying jeans for your daughter, choose plain denim instead of a pair decorated with pink and purple sequins on the pockets. If she wants her outfit to look more feminine, you can jazz it up with accessories like headbands or jewelry.
This tip is particularly useful for winter coats, which can be quite expensive to buy new. Buy them in gender-neutral colors like brown, navy, or tan, and avoid excessively feminine or masculine styles unless you already know both children prefer them.
10. Have Separate Clothes for School & Play
The kids’ play clothes don’t have to be as nice as their school uniforms or other school clothes. In fact, it’s probably a good thing if they aren’t. Play clothes take a lot more abuse from vigorous activities like climbing trees, rolling down hills, or falling off scooters. If your kids subject their school clothes to that kind of treatment, they’re likely to get torn, stained, or worn out, and then you’ll have to shell out money for expensive replacements.
To avoid this problem, make sure your children have separate clothes for school and play. Inexpensive pieces like T-shirts, sweatpants, leggings, and shorts all make suitable playwear. When your kids get home from school, make them change into these less expensive clothes before going out to play. That way, it won’t matter so much if they come home covered in grass stains or with holes in the knees of their pants.
11. Wash Clothes Carefully
Another way to prolong the life of your kids’ clothes is to handle them with care when doing your laundry. For example:
- Read the Label. Pay attention to the washing instructions on your children’s clothes (and your own, for that matter). As a rule, the water temperature listed on the label is the hottest the clothes can tolerate. If it says, “Machine wash warm,” cold water is OK, but hot water is not. Also, use the delicate cycle if the washing label calls for it.
- Separate Whites and Colors. The dyes in colored clothes aren’t always color-fast. Some of them can run during laundering, especially if you use hot water. Wash bright-colored and dark-colored clothes in cold water, and avoid washing them with white clothes so you don’t end up with a bunch of pink socks.
- Avoid Overdrying. Certain clothing, such as cotton shirts, are prone to shrinkage and other damage if you leave them in the dryer too long, according to Good Housekeeping. Overdrying is an even more significant risk with children’s clothes since they’re small and tend to dry quickly. To avoid damaging them, don’t run the full dry cycle. Pull the clothes out when they’re mostly dry but not hot, and let the air evaporate any remaining moisture.
- Prevent Static Safely. According to the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Family and Consumer Sciences, A buildup of static electricity in the dryer can damage clothes, especially acrylic sweaters. You can prevent it by using fabric softener or dryer sheets, but CNET warns that the chemicals in these products can be irritating and possibly damaging to your clothes or your dryer. Instead, soften clothes by adding either vinegar or baking soda to the rinse cycle, and put balls of aluminum foil in the dryer to disperse static.
- Air-Dry When Possible. According to UGA, some types of fabric, such as wool and rubber (found in the soles of shoes) should not go in the dryer at all. Always dry these garments flat or hang them on a line. In fact, Good Housekeeping advises that line-drying can extend the life of all your clothes since the heat and tumbling motion of the dryer tend to wear them out faster. Air-drying also eliminates static cling, saves energy, and gives clothes a clean, fresh smell.
12. Learn Basic Sewing Skills
No matter how careful you are, you can’t entirely avoid damage to your children’s clothes. Even the best-kept clothes can suffer a torn seam here or a lost button there. However, that doesn’t have to make the garment unwearable. If you have basic sewing skills, you can easily stitch up that seam or replace that button and make the piece look as good as new.
Having basic sewing skills doesn’t mean being able to make whole outfits for your kids from scratch. It doesn’t even mean knowing how to use a sewing machine. All you need is such elementary skills as threading a needle, sewing a straight stitch, and adding a button. You can ask any experienced sewer to show you these techniques or pick them up from online tutorials.
As your sewing skills improve, you can branch out into slightly more complicated tasks like patching and minor alterations. These can help you save money on clothing in several ways, such as:
- Extending the life of a pair of pants by reinforcing the knees
- Letting out the hem to lengthen a dress or pant legs that have become too short
- Taking in the waistband on a hand-me-down pair of pants or skirt that’s too big
- Repurposing worn-out clothes by turning pants into shorts or long-sleeved shirts into short-sleeved ones
As your kids get older, you can involve them more in the process of shopping for themselves. Not only will they be happier with the clothes when they help pick them out, but they’ll also get a chance to observe all the strategies you use for saving money on them. These tips and tricks will be invaluable when they’re living on their own.
By the time they reach their teens, your kids may even be ready to do all their own shopping. Take all the money you’ve budgeted for their clothes for the year, divide it up into monthly portions, and give it to them as a clothing allowance. Once they understand that this money has to cover all their clothing purchases and that no amount of begging will get Mom or Dad to buy them anything extra, you may be amazed to see how good they become at stretching their dollars.
How do you save on your kids clothing purchases? What are your favorite stores for shopping?