Back to School on a Budget: 7 Smart Ways to Get Kids’ Clothes for Less

A mother helps her young son shop for clothes.
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Although the days are still warm and you’re in full summer mode, retailers are already preparing for back-to-school season.

You can’t walk into a store or flip through an ad without noticing the shift. Gone (or at least relegated to the clearance racks) are the shorts and T-shirts. Jeans, pants and sweatshirts have filled the space.

For parents, this time of year not only means having to shell out money for school supplies — it also means it’s time to reboot kids’ wardrobes and get them ready for the coming school year. 

7 Smart Ways to Save on Back-to-School Clothes

But just like there are ways to save money on school supplies, there are also plenty of tricks to save when it comes to their school clothes.

As a mom of two middle-schoolers (yikes!), here are seven ways I save on getting their wardrobes ready for the new school year. 

1. Do a Thorough Inventory

Before you set foot in a single store, go through your children’s closets and drawers and see what still fits and is in good condition.

My kids wear uniforms, so for me, this is a fairly easy process. I check their khaki pants and shorts and their polo shirts.

Of course, I still have to check on their non-school clothes too — the casual ones they put on the minute they get home and wear on weekends (basically athletic pants, shorts and T-shirts).

After taking inventory, figure out what the kids still need. Do they have enough pairs of pants to get them from one laundry day to the next? If not, how many more do they need? You may be surprised at how much they already have.

2. Set a Budget

Determine how much you can spend on back-to-school clothing. Some people already include clothes in their monthly budgets, so that’s a good place to start.

Whatever you do, make sure to have a dollar amount in mind before you start shopping. That way, you’ll prevent sticker shock — or credit card regret — later on.

3. Be Patient

Two teen girls look at jackets the love while shopping at a store.
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Yes, it’s tempting to start looking at the new fall clothes as soon as they hit the shelves, but does your child really need a bunch of jeans and sweatshirts right away?

Think about the weather where you live — maybe they’ll be able to make it through most of September wearing shorts. The longer you wait to buy, the more you’ll save, since stores will start having bigger sales to clear their racks.

4. Shop Consignment Stores

Depending on your kids’ ages and interests, they might not care much about their clothes or where they come from. (If you have a fashion-savvy teenager, you may not be so lucky.)

Use that ambivalence to your advantage and visit local consignment shops and thrift stores to see what they have in stock. These stores can be hit and miss, but it doesn’t hurt to look, and it can pay off with big savings.

Don’t forget to check the shoe area — you might be able to pick up a great deal on shoes that need to stay at school for gym class. When my kids were younger, I frequently found brand-name sweatshirts that looked practically brand new for under $10.

5. Check Online Rummage Sales

I view these sites as another form of consignment shopping — except you do it from your home.

For example, on my local VarageSale site, I can easily search for the clothing sizes I need. 

As with consignment shops, these options can be hit or miss, but they’re still worth checking out. And if you have clothes your kids have outgrown, go ahead and post them to see if you can make a few bucks. It doesn’t hurt to try!

6. Shop Sales Strategically

We all want to be smart shoppers, but are we? Before heading out, make sure you have any store coupons and check your in-store app, such as Target’s to make sure you’re not missing out on additional savings.

Do you prefer to shop online like I do? Always head to Rakuten (formerly Ebates) or another of these cash-back sites first to earn cash back from your shopping.

parents shop for clothes with theiir young daughter.
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When shopping online, type in as many promo codes as you can. For example, Kohl’s is notorious for having multiple sales and codes available at once, so combine them to see just how much you can save on your purchase. Use online codes as well as codes from coupons in the mail.

I know it can seem like a pain, but once you get used to doing it and start seeing the savings add up, you’ll be motivated to keep trying. Or, to make things easier, consider installing a browser extension that helps you find the best price, add as many coupon codes as possible and earn cash back.

Consider also that some stores typically get you more savings than others. When we shopped at five popular stores, for example, we found that Walmart saved us 43% more than the competition.

7. Ask Around

If you have friends or relatives with older children, don’t be afraid to ask what they do with their kids’ old clothes. You never know — they might be looking for an easy way to part with them and might hand them over for free!

I’ve received countless bags of clothes from people at school with older children — and I’ve also passed on my kids’ clothes to others. Sure, there may be some duds in there, but there may also be some treasures, too.

I always tell people that what I can’t use, I’ll pass on to a local charity. Everyone wins — your friend is able to find a home for her kids’ stuff, you get some clothes for free and a local charity gets a donation.

If your friend is planning to sell the clothes online or at a consignment store, ask if you can have first dibs. They’ll likely give you a deal since it’ll cut down on some of her running around.

Getting your children dressed to head back to school doesn’t need to break the bank. Planning ahead and thinking outside of your typical big-box retailer can help you stay on budget.

Freelance writer MaryBeth Matzek is a mom and is always on the lookout for a good deal.