Back to school shopping season is here and it’s a mix of emotions. Kids get so excited about shopping for new stuff. But parents everywhere cringe and worry about the cost! If you need back to school clothes on a budget these are the top ways to save money on outfits, best places to shop and practical closet hacks for the entire year.
This article was originally published on July 26th, 2017 and has been updated and republished with a new date.
Back to School Clothes on a Budget
It’s that time of year! Clothes shopping for the new school year. With four kids to dress I know the stress of shopping for back to school clothes when money is tight. I’ve gathered up some great back to school clothing ideas, top tips and hacks along the way that help me stick to my budget.
Getting the back to school clothing balance just right can be a struggle. Younger kids want to be comfortable. Older kids like teens and tweens want trendy. You just want the clothes to last through the entire school year!
Building a child’s wardrobe on a small budget is more than just deciding what to wear on the first day of school.
Along the way there will be school spirit days and themes that children will want to participate in. Kids will be deciding what to wear to school dances, clothes for gym class and how to dress for both rainy days and hot days. All these little things can truly push the budget.
Practical Budget Advice Before You Buy Anything
Before you put anything into the cart, there are careful considerations to be made. Commercials are powerful at swaying kids and adults into thinking they need to purchase everything new. But that’s just not always the case.
This practical budgeting advice for back to school shopping can help:
Seriously, your kid doesn’t need a whole new wardrobe unless they had a major growth spurt over summer break. Assess what you already own. Pick and choose the remaining pieces that will round out your children’s wardrobe.
Take inventory of your kids’ clothes. If your child only needs new shirts, then don’t shop for bottoms. Stick to the list of needs to stay within the family budget!
Give the kids a choice. Let them have some input on what they’d like to wear and let them choose items from their favorite stores. This really helps minimize stressful mornings when anxiety about school kicks in. Getting dressed and feeling awkward has a lot to do with that stress. Besides that, all the bargains found aren’t worth anything if your kids refuse to wear what you bought!
Set a back to school budget. Determine the amount of money you’re willing to spend across the board. Older children and teenagers can better understand costs of each item and what they’ll be able to purchase.
Aim for comfort. Naturally you don’t have to sacrifice cute but if your kid is uncomfortable they’re not going to put it on.
Keep reading for more tips on buying back to school clothing on a budget.
No Reason to Say, “I Have Nothing to Wear!”
Your kid has an entire closet full of clothing but you’re still hearing, “I have nothing to wear”. To verify this is legit, it’s time to go through the closets and dressers piece by piece. Go through last year’s outfits one at a time. Here’s the best way to accomplish this:
- Have your child try things on to verify fit.
- Too small? Have a donation box handy. More tips later in the article about hand-me-downs and hosting a “trade party” between friends.
- Not in season? Put items in a storage bin in the closet or under the bed for later.
- Once you have cleared out the old, you’ll have a better idea of what you’ll need to purchase. Write up an official shopping list and aim to stick to it.
Pre-Shopping Tip: There always seems to be that one piece of clothing that doesn’t match anything. My daughter had the cutest patterned pair of pants. But she never wore them because she didn’t have a top that matched the colors! Decide whether you’ll let that piece go or try and find the coordinating item to wear with it.
Determine the “Cost Per Wear”
Clothing should not be considered disposable. Each piece you bring into your child’s closet should be worn multiple times, hopefully until it’s outgrown.
Estimate the cost per wear of each clothing item. Divide the cost of an outfit by how many times you’d expect your child to wear it. This is the “cost per wear”.
Yes, some of the items shared in this article are higher priced than what you might find off the rack at Walmart or Target. But these outfits are subsequently higher quality as well. If you can purchase clothing that can be washed and worn hundreds of times, the cost per wear drops significantly.
Buy with the intent of handing clothes down. If you’re purchasing with the intent of handing clothing down to younger siblings, cousins or friends, the cost per wear drops again. You’ll be more likely to purchase higher quality items, knowing that you’ll have made good use of them.
Buy Versatile Pieces That Are School-Appropriate
When purchasing clothing for kids, make sure you’re buying items that can actually be worn day in and day out to school.
Read over the school’s dress code to ensure pieces are school-appropriate. This includes graphic tees with certain words or images, t-shirts and dresses that are the correct length, shorts that are long enough and jeans that aren’t oversized. Cropped tops, baggy pants, and tight leggings might not be permitted to wear at school.
This also goes for buying items that are overly dressy or require special cleaning instructions. Reconsider rompers or clothing with fussy zippers or buttons that young children may struggle with when they’re alone in the school bathroom.
While you might be okay with your child wearing these items on the weekend, you’ll get more bang for the buck if kids can wear their entire wardrobe to school.
Consider the Weather
Living in Southern California, we have mostly sunny days with a few months of colder weather. But I don’t have just shorts and tank tops in my kid’s back to school wardrobe.
While the weather is still very hot during the first month of school, I refrain from buying all warm weather clothing. If my kids do need short-sleeved tees for back to school, I generally purchase in one size up. That way they can still wear them when spring weather rolls around the following year.
Purchase the majority of your children’s back to school clothes with the weather in mind. For instance, my kids have only a few hoodies and sweatpants and one cold weather jacket. Our wardrobe is mostly jeans and leggings with t-shirts (both long sleeved and short). No point in overbuying seasonal items if they don’t get worn as often.
If you live in a climate that has colder weather, your kid’s wardrobe may include more jackets, fleece, flannel and sweatpants. Take weather into consideration when shopping.
Wash and Wear Durable Kid’s Clothing
Before you purchase clothes for back to school, ensure that the fabrics are kid-friendly for everyday wear.
- Watch for cotton and knit fabrics that can be machine washed and tumble dried.
- Read labels and don’t buy clothes with fussy cleaning instructions for kids. This includes fabrics that require dry cleaning or hanging to dry.
- Purchase a good stain fighter like Oxy Clean Max Force. Pre-treat spots and stains daily when kids come home from school.
- Avoid white and lighter colors, especially if your children are hitting it hard on the blacktop at recess.
- Look for sturdy pants with reinforced knees that resist tears. Lands’ End Iron Knee pants styles are more durable, with interior patches to help prevent holes.
Why Shop Online for School Clothes?
Shopping online versus a local store or at the mall can save you bundles. Virtually adding items into a cart allows you to tally the final cost of apparel prices easier than when you’re at the shops.
Buying your child’s wardrobe on the internet helps to minimize spontaneous purchases that are outside the budget.
Browsing the retail shop clearance rack can sometimes result in a good deal. But in-store shopping trips are also time consuming. Shopping trips can also be a challenge with younger kids.
Know Which Online Stores Have the Best Sales
Regular priced clothing might be out of your budget. But if you know where to shop and when these stores have sales, you can get what you want at a lower cost.
Sign up for the shop’s newsletters to get notifications of sales. In return you’ll be rewarded with great values – awesome quality at a bargain price!
If a family member (like grandma) want to help with the costs of school clothes, request a gift card to one of the following stores. This way your child can choose the items they want, ensure the best fit and know that it’s a style they will actually wear.
Where to Shop for Back to School Clothes on a Budget
If you’re ready to make your purchase, here’s where to find affordable back to school clothes on a budget!
Primary – My number one choice for kid’s clothing, the rainbow of colors and styles are gender neutral and perfect for wearing to school. Get 20% off your first order at Primary.com with code AFF20PCT.
Hanna Andersson – Bright and fun colors with modern designs with excellent fabrics. Sized up to 12 with items in prints that cross-over genders for mixing and matching between siblings.
Gymboree – Items in sizes up to size 12 with lots of mix and match potential. Clothing styles and appliques err on the younger side with lots of seasonal themes. Exceptional quality with soft cotton fabrics that are very washable. I have been purchasing from Gymboree for nearly 20 years!
More Places to Shop for Back to School Clothes on a Budget
PatPat – Stylish and inexpensive styles for boys and girls. Licensed characters like Paw Patrol, Harry Potter and Peppa Pig that younger children love. Edgier styles for older kids up to size 12. Site has an entire line of “Go-Neat” clothing that repels stains and liquids.
Carters – The classic shop for babies also has a great selection for kids up to size 14. Conservative styles including t-shirts, dresses and button-up shirts.
shopDisney – The perfect place top shop for kids who love character t-shirts. From Mickey Mouse to Marvel, there’s a tee for all ages. Watch for special savings events with coupon codes or “Buy 2 and Save” deals.
Great Lakes Kids – Inexpensive super soft “milk silk” clothing in bright colored patterns. “Inspired” outfits to resemble popular Disney characters. Sibling coordinated dresses and raglan tops.
More Online Shopping for Back to School
Tillys – Pick up trendy, name brand clothing during one of their great sales. Brands like VANS, Hurley, Santa Cruz, Champion, VOLCOM, and Quiksilver are hot with older kids.
Osh Kosh – Known for their iconic denim jumpers and overalls, look for fun graphic t-shirts and budget-friendly multi-packs and sets. Uniform shop includes chino pants and polos.
Old Navy – Classic separates including a wide variety of jeans in popular styles and washes. Gender neutral styles and colors that coordinate between the lines for sibling matching!
The Children’s Place – Button-up shirts, cotton activewear, jeans, and colorful graphic tees that kids like. Uniform basics including polo shirts and jumpers. Clothing sizes for babies up to size 18.
Layer Summer over Winter
What’s in the closet that can continue to be worn, even in the chillier months? My child had the cutest chambray jumper dress that was worn all-year round. When weather was warm she wore the dress alone. When weather was cool, she wore it over a turtleneck and leggings.
Here are a few more layering examples:
- Lightweight button-up shirts can be layered over long sleeved tees.
- Long sleeved tees and turtlenecks that can be worn under coordinating shirts.
- Sweaters can really extend the wardrobe. Cardigans, fleece hoodies and pullover sweaters are nice to layer over tees or button-up shirts.
- Leggings are perfect for layering under skirts and dresses when the weather is cool. Consider capri length for fall, full length and fuzzy lined for winter.
Stock Up on Layering Pieces
Look in the closet and see what items you own can be layered during the winter. Keep that tip in mind when purchasing new items.
In the case of layering tees and leggings, choose classic colors that coordinate with many other items in the closet. Purchase basic staple pieces in standard colors like navy blue, black, white or heathered gray to pair with layering items for the best versatility.
Choose Practical Shoes That Go with Everything
Kids don’t need to have a dozen different pairs of shoes, especially when children’s feet grow so fast! Choose only a few styles of shoes in colors that coordinate with many different outfits. Skip patterned shoes and go for basic colors that match clothes in their closet.
It can be tempting to want to go cheap on shoes. But a high quality shoe really can last much longer. The investment can be worth the extra cost. Look for well-sewn seams on the upper, a tight seal around the rubber, sturdy insole and traction on the bottoms.
Purchase each child 2-3 good pairs of shoes, then rotate wearing them. I recommend altering days to allow shoes to dry and air-out inside. This can help to eliminate odors.
Pre-Shopping Tip: If you’re trying to expedite the morning routine, choose easy-on styles like slip-on shoes or Velcro instead of laces.
Clean Shoes and Make Them Look New Again
Shoes still fit but they don’t look their best? These are a few simple ways to refresh shoes for the new school year.
Wash – If shoes are not recommended for the washing machine, you can still spot clean. Use a heavy-duty product like ShoeAnew Cleaner along with a soft bristle brush to remove dirt.
Magic Eraser – My favorite, especially for restoring white rubber back to it’s original shine!
Shoelaces – A new pair of clean shoelaces can go a long way towards making shoes look newer.
Insoles – Replace ratty insoles with a new set. Many insoles can be cut to fit. Simply remove the old pair and use as a template to cut out the new insoles.
Best Kids Shoes for Back to School
Pediped – these sturdy washable shoes have been my kids’ go-to for 10+ years! From tennis shoes to dressy styles, pediped offers kid’s shoes that are pliable and already “broken in”.
We’ve owned so many pairs over the years. They last long after my kids outgrow them, when we hand them down to another child.
Pre-Shopping Tip: Many schools do not allow kids to wear open-toed sandals. Choose a sandal with a closed toe to protect feet but still allow them to go without socks.
Keds – The classic unisex Champion white sneakers are still available but they also offer these fun styles! The Keds Mary Jane is a cute alternative that’s a little dressier but still sturdy enough for the playground.
Nike – Watch for sales on the Nike Grade School Running Shoe. Certain colors and sizes are often available at a much lower cost!
Converse – the classic black and white sneaker that goes with everything. Choose a high top or low-top version like these Converse Chuck Taylor All Star.
Shop Out of Season
This is one of my tried and true budget shopping tips. Shop NOW for next year! When I see that clothes are drastically reduced, I jump on that sale. I’ll purchase items for my kids, knowing that I’ll be putting them away for another season.
Many websites will allow you to add items into a cart, then will store your items until they sell out. Log in and add items of interest, then watch for the sales. That full-priced sweater you saved in your cart in December is now deeply discounted in May!
Another perk of adding items as you find them is that online stores may “reward” you for the virtual abandoned cart. Sign up for email notifications and some sites will send you a coupon code to encourage completing the sale.
Tips for Buying Ahead
The challenge of buying ahead of season is actually remembering to pull out those items when the time is right. Box and label clothing so you know the contents at a glance.
Take time on a schedule to pull out items and size them up with your child. Add this routine to your calendar on a monthly basis!
Pre-Shopping Trip Tip: If you want to buy ahead but aren’t sure what size your child will be, consider the style first. Opt for elastic or drawstring waist shorts and pants. Purchase looser dresses and oversized sweaters.
READ MORE: Celebrate the first day of school with a Back to School Breakfast Party!
Keep Track of School Stuff
Do you have a kid that needs to have jackets replaced mid-year because they keep leaving them on the playground? Avoid having to replace new clothes that end up in the lost and found with this simple trick.
Name Bubbles – These peel & stick permanent labels can be used on everything from school electronics, lunch boxes and inside clothing. Apply one of these water-resistant labels on all of your kid’s things. Teachers can more easily reunite your kids with their missing items!
READ MORE: Check out the other easy ways to stay organized for back to school.
Thrift Stores and Consignment Shops
The local thrift store and consignment stores can be a great way to restock closets for back to school clothing on a budget. Another option is to widen the net and shop online for outfits in excellent used condition.
Going school clothes shopping online versus the retail store means you won’t have the ability to see or touch items in person. Use these tips for buying children’s resale online.
threadUP – One of my tried-and-true favorites for finding high end designer brands at lower prices. There’s even a section for kid’s school uniforms including polo shirts, pleated skirts and dresses.
I’ve been able to score great deals on brands like Mini Boden, Tea, and Matilda Jane. Some are even new with tags!
Sell your old stuff back as a means of cashing in on what your child has outgrown. threadUP offers a “clean out kit” for you to send in your resale items.
Don’t Need Full Outfits? Just Add Accessories!
One of my favorite ways to jazz up an “old” outfit is by adding cool new accessories. Look to add a fun pair of tights, belt, purse, coordinating socks or a hair accessory. These inexpensive additions add just a bit of spark when shopping for back to school clothes on a budget.
Bargain Hair Bows – My favorite place to shop for hair bows and inexpensive kid’s accessories. They also offer a large variety of kid sized Mouse Ears that are perfect for Disney day at school!
Purchase the hair bow bundle for the best pricing (as low as $1 per bow!). I’ve been purchasing from Bargain Hair Bows for many years. The bows are well made and come in tons of beautiful colors to match back to school clothes on a budget.
Pre-Shopping Tip: Don’t forget the underwear! I have to remind my older kids to let me know when their underpants are getting too small so I can reorder new ones.
Purchase comfortable styles from Carters, Hanna Andersson and Primary. You’ll find the elastic from these brands hold up well and the colors don’t fade. Bonus, no complaints from the kids!
Save With Coupons and Online Deals
Special offers, store coupons, discount codes and rebates can save lots of money on school expenses. Try these tips this school season:
Sign up for Rakuten, which makes finding website specials easy. I have the extension added to my computer. When I shop online a pop-up alerts me when I can earn cash back through Rakuten for that store.
It’s as easy as clicking the button to initiate the cash back bonus. Then Rakuten sends me a check in the mail with my bonus, so easy! Check the hot deals or shop at “double cash back” stores. Here are additional ways to save when shopping for school clothes:
- Purchase clothing when free shipping specials are available.
- Some locations may offer a price match if you find items sold elsewhere for cheaper.
- Many areas of the country have sales tax free shopping days to take advantage of additional savings.
Prep Clothing the Night Before
To ease the morning-of-school stress, make it a habit to prep as much as possible the night before. Getting ready the day before is my number one secret to a stress-free school morning routine.
I choose my own outfit the day before and encourage my kids to do the same. When they plan the night before, children can decide what they want to wear with a little more time and less morning rush. This also means getting backpacks and homework organized and placing shoes (with socks!) by the front door.
Use a hanging closet organizer and bundle entire outfits together on each shelf. In the morning, kids can grab, get ready and go!
Pre-Shopping Tip: Does your preschooler or kindergartner still struggle with getting himself dressed? If buttons and zippers are slowing him down, purchase easy, quick-on clothing styles. Look for rib-neck tees and elastic waist pants.
READ MORE: Ways to Make the First Day of School Special
Organize a Trade Party for Hand-Me-Downs
Some of the clothing I’ve bought through the years has been handed down 4 or more times! Items I bought for my eldest son were then worn by my nephew, my younger son and then handed down to a friend. That’s some great “cost per wear”!
If you have a circle of friends with children, consider hosting and organizing a trade party for hand me downs. Gather up clothing and shoes in good condition and trade hand-me-downs between kids.
This is a great way to make use of outgrown items that you’d like to see go to a “good home”. Items like winter coats and jackets, boots and cold weather hats are usually still in excellent shape.
Consider adding in other things to trade like outgrown backpacks, lunch boxes, or other accessories. Seek out locals for your trade in regional parenting groups or on Facebook marketplace. Trading school clothes and supplies are the ultimate budget-friendly way to recycle!