Often interviewers ask us how we manage to maintain a thrifty lifestyle and still have happy, well-dressed kids. Our kids do dress well and feel good about the clothes they buy and wear. We believe that the better you dress, the better you’ll be treated. For many families, the battle over kids’ clothing rages on. Faced with peer pressure, movies, TV and ubiquitous ads, how can you dress your kids well while spending less money?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Consumer Expenditure Survey, the average American spends $370 to $1100 per child per year for clothing. Interestingly, the price of clothes keeps increasing while many styles are decreasing the amount of the body they cover—pay more, get less. This is a battle for your hard-earned cash. If you join the opposition, you’ll spend $100 for one pair of the latest shoes or “in vogue,” ratty-looking jeans. If you fight for the Frugal Alliance, you’ll spend less and help your kids create a great-looking, complete wardrobe.
We refuse to play into the “retail realm’s” hands. Pushing new must-have fashions every few months, they announce higher prices every year and flaunt immodest or grungy styles as the norm. A war-experienced soldier won’t fight such an enemy on their terms. He’ll make his own rules based on his strengths. So put on your uniform, polish those boots, and let’s identify our strengths as economizing warriors and prepare to win this battle!
We’ll fight this war on two fronts:
The Spending Front—getting quality clothing inexpensively; and
The Style Front—convincing kids to dress nicely. To come out victorious, we need specialized weapons and tactics. Here’s a list of strategies you’ll need to succeed in the Kids’ Clothing War:
Spending—Getting Quality Clothes Inexpensively
1) Start Young Dressing infants through preschoolers is fairly easy. They’ll wear whatever mom picks out, regardless of style or color. At this stage, the concern is how quickly they outgrow their clothes. The least expensive way to purchase clothes for kids in this age group is at garage sales. You can usually find outfits for $1 or less. At benefit or church rummage sales with lots of kids’ clothes, we’ve been able to negotiate for a bag full of clothes for as little as $2.
Planning a few sizes ahead helps you avoid paying retail prices, too. It also eliminates the stress of dressing your little cherub for church only to find she’s jumped two sizes and has nothing nice to wear.
2) The Hand-me-down Network Develop a network of friends and family with kids a little older than yours. Inevitably, as our kids outgrow clothes and we pass them on to others, more bags arrive. We pick the clothes that we think will look best on our kids and pass on the rest.
We’ve enjoyed our younger two boys’ excitement as they grow into the clothes that their “cool” older brother wore. Of course, each kid has different tastes, so some clothes go back into storage until the next one comes along.
3) Have a Storage System This is an absolute necessity. If you save the clothes, but can’t find them when you need them, you’ve wasted the effort and will end up spending money. We store clothes, sorted by size, in bankers’ boxes. Annette keeps a card file with one index card per box. The index card lists the box number, the contents and where it is stored.
4) Have a Shopping Hierarchy
We consider clothes shopping a hunting expedition. Get in, find what we need and get out. We visit certain stores depending on the need. Our first option is a small thrift store that benefits an adoption agency. They offer quality clothes, low prices and have a friendly staff. Our second line of attack is Savers Thrift Department Stores with more than 200 locations in the U.S., Canada and Australia. Our third option is a great consignment store—A Second Look. Lastly, we’ll shop at discount retail stores, such as Ross and Marshall’s. Daughter Becky recently needed to update her winter work wardrobe. Her careful shopping at Savers netted her three blazers, one skirt suit, two pairs of slacks and four shirts all for about $50.
For those who doubt thrift store quality, the industry has undergone an overhaul in the last 20 years. Because of today’s consumerism , an abundance of high-quality clothing and household items are available in thrift stores. The stores are cleaner, better organized and definitely have more convenient hours than garage sales.
5) Review Clothes Keeping track of your kids’ clothing needs can be difficult. Annette compiles a list of needed clothes twice yearly—when she switches the kids’ wardrobes from summer to winter in October, and again in April when she switches from winter back to summer. With our hand-me-down supply, the lists are usually relatively short. Typically we need to go hunting for only a few items. And because we go early in the season, we can easily find what we need.
6) Plan Ahead
We’ve all seen the “End of Season Close-Out” ads. The selection may be limited, but the prices can’t be beat. Shopping nine months to one year in advance can be a daunting task, especially if you have several kids. But this strategy has garnered us great savings. This summer, 16-year-old Roy entered an essay contest and won a $100-gift certificate to Tilly’s, a California-based teen clothing store. He could have easily spent the money on one or two in-season items. Instead, when he shopped the first week in November, he checked the clearance tables. Roy bought five pairs of nice shorts, one swimming suit and two “cool” short-sleeved shirts, all to be saved for the spring. Even if Roy grows taller, the shorts will still fit.
7) Simplify the Wardrobe During the summer, our older kids, age eight and above, sleep in boxer shorts and T-shirts. In the winter, the girls have warmer pj’s, but the boys sleep in sweatshirts and sweat pants. They all own a couple of pairs of blue jeans, Docker-type pants and dress pants. The girls have several seasonal dresses, and the boys each have a suit.
With a pared-down wardrobe, it’s important to help the kids rotate their clothes so they don’t end up wearing just one pair of favorite pants. Our “payday” system for the kids (see Teaching Kids About Money article or our Kids and Money Audio CD) includes regular dresser-drawer inspections to make sure their clothes are kept neat and orderly.
Style—Convincing the Kids to Dress Nicely
8) Give ’em Choices As kids get older, they want to have a say in the clothes they wear. In our family, the parents, i.e. mom, always have veto power. Years ago Annette attended a seminar that presented the idea of “shared control.” This helpful concept reduces skirmishes over clothing and works like this: The parent picks out two or three acceptable clothing choices, and the young child gets to make the final selection. By the time our kids are teenagers, they have a pretty good idea of what types of clothing are appropriate for most situations.
9) Give ’em Limits Some parents tell us that they have to choose their battles carefully and that fighting over clothes just isn’t worth it. “Hogwash” is our response. If we as parents aren’t going to take a stand, who will? We’ve seen the trend turning as many school administrators are realizing that this clothing nonsense has gone too far. We need leaders in our kids’ lives who set limits. We recently chatted with a high school math teacher who shared a newly enacted policy at her school. Because so many girls were coming to school with grossly immodest clothing, the principal’s office now keeps a box of extra-large T-shirts on hand. The shirts are distributed to inappropriately dressed students. Our kids’ drama instructor also set a clothing policy. No spaghetti straps or bare midriffs for girls and no low-rider pants with visible underwear for the boys. We need to support and encourage these values. We also need to return to our parents’ decree, “I don’t care what everyone else is wearing; you’re not wearing that.”
10) Don’t Give ’em Money Our kids start buying their clothes at around age 11— sometimes younger—depending on their desire and maturity. The money they earn is part of our payday system that starts at age five. At 11, the “teen syndrome” hasn’t yet hit in full force. We have the opportunity to teach and influence the choices they make with their money. We help them find bargains at garage sales, thrift and consignment stores. Because they are spending their own money, they become much more careful in what they buy. This system totally eliminates the whining for expensive designer sneakers or other clothes.
Another family we know uses a different system. The parents set a limit on what they will spend for a particular clothing item. If a child insists on something much more expensive, he or she is responsible for paying the difference from his or her own savings or earnings.
11) Give ’em Love One of the most important weapons in our armament is love. Balancing a hard line on clothes with a soft line on hugs, laughter and fun family times will give resilience to your relationships and your rules.
OK, the battle briefing is over. You’re now prepared to get out of the Jeep and fight. If you utilize our 11 weapons and tactics, you’ll win the war and you’ll be one of the best-dressed military units in the Frugal Alliance.