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5 Tips for Back-to-School Clothes Shopping on a Budget

Guest post by Elise Adams from

Without question the Adams Family is on the super-tight end of the financial spectrum these days. As I write on my blog every week, we’re on three different government assistance programs and my husband is very under-employed as we head into the Fall.

So while we wrestle with side-gig ideas and re-educating ourselves, we still have toddlers growing like weeds and one little girl in particular headed to Kindergarten, here are my top five tips for back-to-school clothes shopping on a squeaky budget:

1. Start Early.

I’ve been stocking up on uniforms and other hard-to-find items since last Spring. But it’s not too late to start now.

Whatever you do, don’t wait till the day before school starts. The later you wait, the more you’ll be tempted to just grab whatever you see out of desperation!

2. Make a list and a budget.

These could be two tips, but in my household they are inseparable! When I know I’m only going to have $10 each month for clothes it makes me tighten up list to a short and sweet one.

3. Don’t discount yard sales, Freecycle, and secondhand stores.

I am not buying even one new clothing item for my kids this year. The only items I am purchasing new this year are socks, tights, and underwear. Other than that, I’m finding better quality for better prices at my local Goodwill or consignment shops.

4. Accept hand-me-downs gracefully.

Because we’ve been consciously poor ever since my kids were babies, they are excited by these generous gifts from friends or strangers alike. If you aren’t practiced at being upfront and honest with your neighbors and friends about your financial picture, start today! You’ll be surprised at how many folks from every level of financial security are happy to trade, barter, or just plain give away great stuff. (It’s cool these days to recycle!)

5. Place school clothes in a separate area.

This will help you see your progress over the next few weeks. Don’t panic if you don’t have a full school-year of clothes bought/purchased by the time the school-year begins. All our children need is a few outfits to get going that first week of school and you can continue to add to this over the first few weeks/months of this next school year.

Bonus Guilt-free Tip

Lastly, whether a simple lifestyle is old hat to your family or brand new, try to remember that the purpose of clothing is to keep ourselves warm or cool–and not in the popular sense. Sometimes I wish for the simplicity of my Grandma’s day when one good pair of shoes was all one hoped for every year when school started. Let’s remember that our children are rich in experiences, energy, and enthusiasm no matter what they wear to school this year!


Elise Adams is an author, motivational speaker, and radio personality who is determined to help everyone she meets ‘survive, thrive and get on with their lives’.  She blogs over at where she openly and candidly attacks the tough topics of addiction, chaos, and homelessness from a personal recovery perspective. Her latest project is a Free Video Class she calls ‘How to survive ANY crisis without Losing your Sanity’. Elise, her husband and three toddlers (three other kids live with their other parents–can you say ‘blended family’?) live in the Pacific Northwest.

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  • Those are great tips and an inspiring story.

  • Cassi says:

    As a mother of 2 young boys on a budget this is great advice. I am an avid shopper of rummage sales, second hand stores, and clearance racks. When my oldest started kindergarten last year, I sat down and had a candid conversation with my husband about “school clothes shopping.” I really saw it as an unnecessary expense and he saw it as “something his parents always did.” We now do not shop for back to school clothes at all we purchase or acquire clothes the boys need as the outgrow what they have. While I was talking about the $1 and $2 shirts I purchased at WalMart at a recent meeting, a friend informed me that she has just gotten a new “shipment” of hand me downs from her sister and would be packing up a bunch of clothes to haul off the Goodwill I was able to take my son “shopping” and not spend a penny. He was able to get many shirts, pants and even a few costumes to get him through his current size.

  • Great post Elsie! I agree completely, especially with #5. I always keep the deals I find in a separate area and then a few days before school, we bring it all out and the kids are excited to see what has been stashed away. It suddenly feels “new” to them.

  • Jennie says:

    Thanks for the wonderful tips! My son has 5 outfits that fit him right now ( he does not wear a uniform to school) and he has plenty of “play clothes” that he wears at home. Do you think 5 outfits is enough for now?

    • Jennie,

      I think 5 outfits is plenty! I have twin daughters in the same size so I try to have at least 5 outfits each in their current size while I work on getting a few for the next size they’ll be growing into. If I find an amazing deal (like at a garage sale on their current size I may buy a few more pieces). Our girls do not wear a uniform to school either and I keep their play and church clothes separate (they love to play outside and they typically wear dresses to church).

      Plus, kids can grow quickly and if you buy too many outfits for them they may not have a chance to wear them before they are outgrown.

    • Rochelle says:


      I actually run a school uniform store, and my advice is always three outfits, one for the washer, one for the dry and one to be wearing. So, with “regular clothes” you should be good to go with five outfits! When you add, add a shirt or two first – nobody knows it’s the same bottoms. Be blessed.

  • Love this! I did most of my school clothes shopping for my girls last year and this year at the Goodwill and D.I. and the best part… we all enjoyed shopping! I wasn’t stressed about $$ and the girls had free range to go through the racks and pick what they wanted because I wasn’t afraid of sticker shock! lol We then just went through and picked out the ones that were in better shape! 🙂

  • Jen says:

    If your school has uniforms, check whether they do a used uniform swap, where parents can trade in what their kids have outgrown (in good condition) for bigger stuff, and in my school’s case, buy the used items that are swapped for very reasonable prices. So even if it’s your child’s first year of school, you can get appropriate clothes at a fraction of the price of new. If the school doesn’t do a swap, see if you can start one (if you have time), or if you can get any names and numbers of parents you could call to see if they have anything their kids have outgrown that might fit your child.

    • Lea Stormhammer says:

      I got ALL of my kids school uniforms this way this year and about 2/3 of them last year – the year they were in kindergarten. If your school doesn’t have a uniform start I will second starting one!
      We have SO many people at the school my kids go to who buy all new clothes each year and so many of the pieces are like new because of that.

      If you do need to buy, make a list of the bare basics. Mine was three bottoms and 5 tops for each child plus 1 sweater or sweatshirt for cold weather. Having the list made it way cheaper to outfit them on the pieces we needed – it was easy to say “no” to the extras!

      We figured out after last year that 5 full outfits work best for us – I sometimes only do laundry once a week instead of my planned twice. So, that’s what we have this year. I also have one sweater and one sweatshirt for each of them for cold weather. Works like a charm!


  • Thanks for the tips. I am in desperate need to find my kiddo some back to school clothes!

  • These are great ideas! Check out the giveaway for a $100 gift certificate on my blog too!

  • Leighann says:

    My school requires uniforms. My daughter was homeschooled last year, and she didn’t have anything that fit her to go into public school for this year, so I had to start *all over again.* I knew from experience that checking the thrift stores around here is absolutely useless; no one seems to part with their uniforms, and if they do part with them, other people are ready to snatch the up quickly. So I kept a look out and found the best time to get uniforms on clearance – March!

    In March I was able to snatch up 10 regular white polo shirts for $3.50 each AFTER TAXES! I would have spent more on those shirts at the thrift store!

    Target had their boys’ school uniform bottoms on sale, too. I picked up pants and shorts for $5 each, SHIPPED. The boys’ uniform bottoms looked EXACTLY LIKE the girls’! When they arrived, I couldn’t tell any difference between the two genders; I guess one pair of khaki pants is very much like any other pair. A few weeks later, I managed to get some modest navy skirts. For 10 days worth of uniforms I spent less than $80 after shipping and taxes. Not as good as if I could have gotten her regular clothes (with t-shirts going on sale routinely for $1 or less), but considering the year before, when I bought her uniforms, I wound up paying over $300 for them (I didn’t know about strategic shopping then!).

    Shop for your uniforms in March!

    • I homeschool but we LOVE uniform clothing here (hey, it’s preppy!). I always wondered what the magical time of year was. That’s good to know!

      My girls wear white blouses with skirts or under jumpers, and uniform blouses are perfect for this. My boys love polo shirts, and uniform pants are great. Plus, uniform dress shirts are perfect for church!

      • Laura says:

        Hi Prudent Homemaker! We love your site! This is true; March is a great time to get uniform deals. I usually stop by the mall at this time of the year to see if there are any great clearance sales on winter clothes (which is what we wear most of the year) and there are always a few great steals on uniform pieces. I bought a skirt at Sears for $3 and a navy dress online from Lands End for $2. My children are growing like crazy, so I had a hard time guessing their sizes for the upcoming year, but my storage bin is stocked mainly with new uniform pieces that cost $1-2. I love the idea of homeschoolers using uniform clothing for a classic, well-kept preppy look! Blessings to you!

        • I had to put an end to that “homeschool uniform” of striped shirts and camo pants, you know? 🙂 Actually, I always dressed them fairly preppy, but my dad gifted the boys some camoflauge pants, and they kept putting them with their striped polo shirts! (They’re outgrown them now!)

          We wear summer clothes most of the year here.

    • Elise Adams says:

      GREAT tips on finding uniforms! Our church school uses uniforms too. I was able to find an entire stash of nearly new uniforms for my daughter at a 2nd hand store right after the school year ended in early June! I’ll be copying and saving your tips for next year though!

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Christina H. says:

    Great article. I discovered Mom2Mom sales (like giant yard sales, I hear they call them consignment sales in the South) when I was pregnant with my first child; I haven’t bought a single items of new clothing since that day. The only new items I purchase are underclothes; panties, socks, and the like.
    I keep two bins underneath each child’s bed and purchase for the next two sizes during the Mom2Mom season (April-September). My kids are some of the best dressed kids around. They wear very nice brand name clothing like Gymboree, Gap, Nike, etc. Don’t believe that buying second hand means the clothes will be worn, stretched out or dirty. Being picky and persistent can get you a nice wardrobe for your child for for very little $!
    I have learned to do several things to stream line my consignment shopping:
    #1) Know what you are willing to pay for an item of clothing. For example, I will pay $1 for a nice pair of jeans. I aim for .50 for tops, but will do up to $3 for sweaters/hoodies. I will pay up to $5 for a winter coat or a pair of shoes (they would have to be nearly new for me to fork out $5 though). If the seller isn’t willing to meet your price, walk away. There will always be another deal!
    #2) Know what items your child NEEDS. You will have to think about your lifestyle, how often you do laundry etc? Do you attend church and need nicer dress outfits? Make a list, and monitor your progress so you don’t forget what is in each bin of saved clothes. Once each of my kids has 10 pairs of pants I stop buying pants. (I do laundry every two weeks, so you could get by with less if you washed more often). Even if I find a really cute pair, so what. The bottom line is my clothing budget, so if we have enough pants then I need to save the rest of the budget for sweaters, or shoes, or whatever. I work in cash envelopes to keep me honest, so I don’t forget something I bought and go over budget.
    #3) If you are buying a multiple items or a big bag of items ask if they will take $X for the whole purchase. I usually add up the total and cut $5 off the top. If I am buying 10 items this would mean I could shave another $.50 off the purchase price of each item. Or ask if they will let you fill a bag for $X. You can get A LOT of items in a bag if you roll and squish ;)! This applies to Mom2Mom sales and yard sales.
    #4) I am always on the lookout for the big money savers too; coats, winter wear, boots, holiday outfits, and Halloween costumes. I will pay $5 for a Halloween costume for example. You have to think ahead; this year I bought my daughter a lovely Christmas dress with a sweater for $5 in May. This items are usually only worn once or twice so if you are patience you can grab some great finds at rock bottom prices.
    #5) In order to make the best mix and match wardrobe work a color scheme for each child. For example, I try to stick to buying soft to medium tones of pink, yellow, and green for my daughter that way I know most of her clothes will mix and match easily. I tend to keep bigger $ items like pants and sweaters more neutral and free of too much bling and decoration so that they will match better with other items.

  • Diana says:

    I have no problem with used (my kids have been clothed in hand me downs for years) but I always find better deals at stores sales/clearances if I shop smart and plan ahead than I would at Thrift stores. I scour clearance sections for the season that just passed and then buy them big so they’ll fit next year. Also, I know Target has coupons online including sometimes for clothes. You can couple those with a sale or clearance and make out pretty well. They key is to not overshop. Once you’ve bought what you need (even if you bought it 6 months ago) try to stay away from the cute stuff that comes out later.

  • Heather says:

    get to know the schedules at a couple of your local thrift stores. Almost all have a day of the week or a week of the month where some or all of their clothes are half off. I’m fortunate enough to live in a great area with several great thrift stores. One is constantly running an “all clothes 50 cents” sale, another has all kids clothes half off on Tuesdays, and another has a rotating sale based on the color of the tag. You wouldn’t know this unless you go in the store on the right day or you are signed up for their email list.

    note: I’m less picky about clothes because I still have preschoolers, so if there is a small stain I usually don’t mind because they stain their clothes really quickly anyway. But I have found some really nice things for really cheap. I buy all my clothes at the thrift store too, almost never paying more than 50 cents to $2 per item, unless I can get something free at Target with their fabulous coupons.

  • Jennifer says:

    Thanks for the post–great ideas! Such a good reminder too that I don’t “need” all this stuff for my kids that society tells me is important.

  • It seems like a lot of people need uniforms for public schools. Is that normal? My kids aren’t school aged yet.

    • Dawn says:

      Our county requires uniforms for public school here in South Alabama.

    • Leighann says:

      I live in Mississippi and I know that all the *county* school districts here require kids to wear school uniforms as part of No Child Left Behind compliance, in order to get federal funds. The city schools (like city of X school district) don’t require uniforms. At least, that’s how it is down here on the coast, it may be different in the rest of the state.

  • carlene says:

    Did you consider calling the school for uniforms? The school nurse may have hand me downs that are just sitting in the office taking up space. Just a thought.

    • Leighann says:

      When I did this, the school required you to fill out a form and meet certain income requirements in order to get the uniforms.

  • Maria says:

    Goodwill tends to be WAY overpriced. Search around for thrift stores that are more price friendly, be aware that some neighborhoods will stock nicer clothes than others. While you’re at it, remember to check zippers, buttons, seams and stains.

    • Elise Adams says:

      It really depends on the area. When I lived in the Seattle area certain Goodwills in certain neighborhoods would be priced higher 🙂 Now we’re blessed to live in a much smaller town so our prices here are better compared to the consignment stores in town.


  • Tracy says:

    I can remember the days when my budget was this tight–it won’t last forever! Fortunately, my kids (high school and college age) still are happy to shop at Goodwill. These days, I need to remind them that if they buy everything that they want, they may be depriving others of what they need.

  • Abageal says:

    I’m sure most know about this but for me I just figured it out so I thought I would add this tip. I recently bought a pair of white stride rites for my 4yr old at a yard sale for .50. They were quite dirty and I didn’t know if I could “revive” them but I figured for that price I would try. With some elbow grease, cheap cologate tootpaste (not gel), and a toothbrush I scrubed them up and then stuck the in the was with a load of towels. They looked brand new when I was done!

  • MomofTwoPreciousGirls says:

    I feel so grateful. I have a 3.5 year old (and she will tell you so!) and a 2 yo. Oldest is a January baby and youngest May!

    My sister’s very close friend has twin girls that were born in January and they are 2 years older than my daughter. Every season the mom brings over several garbage bags of things that don’t fit them anymore going into that season and anything she may have pulled out from the prior season. I just look through each article to see if there are stains that need to be treated or anything that I think my DD may fight me on (she hates turtlenecks for example). I treat stains, wash everything and put anything that will fit her now in her drawers, anything that is too small goes in a bin for little sister, and anything that is still too big or for a future season goes into the appropriate bin. I have only had to buy her undies and pj’s.

    Even though little sister is a different season, she is more beefy than my oldest so she is wearing this summer what her sister wore last summer. When I went through what is need for fall, all she will need is more undies and just a couple of pairs of long pants and maybe some stockings. Luckily, I live in GA so summer lasts longer and I won’t need those items until most stores are putting them on sale online! I am truly blessed! This was a great post!!

  • Jennifer says:

    Twice a year, the local resale shop has a $1 clearance sale. I try to stock up for my five children during those times. I don’t buy back to school clothes just for the sake of getting them and I can’t remember the last time I shopped off the rack. I was raised bargain shopping and I hope to pass that trait onto my children. I get them clothes as they need it. When they are $1 a piece, it is easy to spend $100 and not feel guilty because you know you just stocked the closets completely with clothes and shoes that will last the season!

  • Jacki says:

    I have too been on all 3 govt. asst. programs, heck we are still on one right now. However, looking at my daughter you would never guess it. I was the kid in class everyone picked on because of my faded, old, or unmatched, out of style clothes. So now that I have a daughter in school, it is one of my prioritites to make sure her clothes are in great shape and are “in style”. No I am not out there spending hundreds on clothes. But by hitting the MANY garage sales, consignment sales and stores, and thrift stores I have purchased most of her clothes this way. But I make sure to be very picky. Then I continuously watch the clearence racks and sales for the rest. Her wardrobe might look like a million bucks, but is probably worth a hundred!

  • Heather says:

    I don’t know if all areas have this, but our local Salvation Army just did a 99 cent sale on all clothing (except the clothes with white tags that were 49 cents). I was able to get 3 nice pairs of pants, a long sleeve shirt & snow pants for my son for school for $4.50. This is a big help for back to school & I plan to put it on my calender for next year so it might be worth checking at your local store.

  • Madeline says:

    Very nice article.

    I just wanted to say that I grew up poor and while my mother always said “school isn’t a fashion show”…it really is. I felt inferior because I didn’t have half as many nice clothes as other kids. As much as I like to save money, I’d have to make sure my kids had nice clothes – as shallow as that seems, I think it really does matter.

    • L says:

      I agree with you. My kids know they may not be the “best dressed” but I am always asking if their clothes are good enough to “fit in”. It really does matter. I would rather spend a little more on my kids clothing, than on myself, for example, going out to eat, professional sporting events, concerts, movies, coloring my hair, manicures, etc. Kids have a hard enough time. I will go the extra mile to spare them some embarrassment or teasing.

    • Jenn says:

      I totally agree. These tips are all great, and we do follow a lot of them, but buying school clothes for a 7 year old is very different than for a 13 year old girl. It DOES matter. We like to think it doesn’t, and I wish it doesn’t, but clothes count. We give my daughter a set budget, and she is in charge of buying, so if she wants to spend half on a “cool” item she can, and she has to make it up elsewhere. I WISH WISH WISH our public schools made the kids were uniforms. It would make things so much easier (and cheaper!)

      • Christina H. says:

        As a teacher at a public school, I too wish that all public schools would adopt the uniform policy. Clothes do matter and you are so right it does count. Kids can be very cruel. I police that behavior constantly. Dress codes across the board would make it so much simpler. It would make it easier for parents to dress their children because there is no discussion about what to buy. It would eliminate the need for a dress code. I teach in a middle school and everyday I am asking girls why their shorts are so short and checking “how many fingers” across their tank tops are. Boys on the other hand come to school in pajama pants and ripped t-shirts. Nobody can care about brands or fitting in when you have uniforms. And I think the moms of teenage girls would be happy to get out of the house faster since there wouldn’t be a lot “what outfit to wear today.”

      • Stacy Cooper says:

        Agreed. Wait till she’s 17! I did force my son to adhere to a budget last year and will be doing it again this year! I was surprised to see him give me some of the money he made on a big weedeating job today to set aside for our shopping day. We have to travel an hour to a big town because we have Kohl’s and Walmart and no way can I take him to WalMart anymore (since high school) and Kohl’s doesn’t seem to have really good deals anymore and everyone that doesn’t go out of town shops there so he doesn’t want to buy the same exact clothes. There was a time when I was employed (medically retired now) that I am ashamed to admit how much I spent but I’m sure I could buy a nice fairly new car.

    • April says:

      That’s not shallow. I go out of my way to make sure my daughter has new clothes. I don’t buy her clothes used but I do shol clearance and keep a strict budget. Kids are so cruel. I rarely except hand me downs because some kids will try to embarass other kids by telling everyone that such and such has on their old clothes. I remember in middle school getting teased I was so happy when we switched to uniforms, but even with uniforms their are popular brands. I remember kids getting teased and beaten up and schools turning a blind eye & the worst thing they could do was tell on the kids that was considered snnitching & got you ostracized and beat until you changed schools. I guess it depends on the school when I attened predominately white school I fit in but when I attened a predominately black school it was a living nightmare.

      • Sue says:

        I am with you ladies on this.. I mean I will not go out and spend fortune on jeans and such.. But my kids have certain clothes that are nice for school. We get alot of hand me downs from my sister and her daughter. But I make it a point when we go visit them, my girls are not wearing anything that was a hand me down, cause my niece will say something!!! She is just that way. UGH
        Sue in NJ

        • April says:

          When I give away Clothes I do it discertly & never bring it up. I remember a girl in middle school that wore the same uniform shirt everyboy one boy put a inkspot on it w/o her knowing & pointed it out to everybody. I gave her some clothes but she wore them she thought I was going to tease her. With my daughter leggings & tutu skirts are in style along with skinny jeans. I will buy her 2-3 outfits & a pair shoes. Today must be my lucky day I won 2visa gc this morning $100, llast week won $25 visa gc, and $15 gc to tjmaxx and I have $33 bucks in survey checks. Since it’s not costing me a dime I will be a wee bit more lax on the prices.

  • Amber says:

    Those are great tips! I have been shopping the clearance racks, thrift stores, and yard sales all summer to stock up on my childrens clothing for this winter and even next summer. I have been able to get some great deals by doing this.

    I also keep a list in my purse of what clothing I have for my children and what I need (a shirt to match a skirt, church clothes, etc…) This helps me to know that I am buying something we need and will use and not buying it for the sake of a good deal:)

  • peever says:

    We don’t do back-to-school shopping either. I’m always buying ahead so my kids have plenty of clothes in the next size up for all seasons. I have a spreadsheet to keep track of what I have in the next size up. I don’t think my son knows that some people go out and buy a bunch of clothes before school starts! We don’t have school uniforms here.

    I primarily only shop at thrift stores. There’s a couple in my area that have 50% off sales on major holidays so I only shop about 4 times a year, unless I see something super cheap on the Target racks. One kids consignment store does 50% off when the season changes, then they do a $15/bag sale, but it’s usually totally picked over by that point so I have to go on the first day they do 50% off. They also do 70% off on Black Friday and I always find great deals there. The only things I buy new are socks, underwear, shoes, and jeans for my son. I can never find used jeans for him that aren’t totally ripped and stained.

    I’m also fortunate enough to get hand-me-downs for my daughter.

  • Laurie says:

    I have a 7y/o starting 2nd grade soon. I buy most of her clothes at the consignment stores and she has no idea. She is getting pickier,but I probably spend less than $150/yr on her whole wardrobe. She does not know about the popular labels and have never asked. I love that she always looks very nice. I totally agree about sending kids off to school in nice clean clothes that are barely worn so they will not get teased. I always want my daughter to look back over her grade school/hs yrs and be proud of how she looked. Life is very tough out there and the last I can do as her mom is to make sure she is presentable. I am amazed and what other parents send their kids to school in. We are not talking a poor school at all either. It seeems most kids just jump out of bed and wear whatever matching or not. It does really show.

  • Elise Adams says:

    Great new ideas from all of you!!! Thanks for sharing…I’m copying your comments. Next year my shopping will be even more organized as I’ll have two little girls in school!

    Great to meet you all! 🙂


  • jess says:

    I do not shop thrift stores or consignment stores for clothing. I find I can shop clearence racks and use coupons at places like jc pennys, kohls, macys, sears etc for cheaper and I am very sensitive about clothing. I was very poor growing up and wore old, dirty clothes. I never had the name brands and was teased mercilessly in middle school and elemntary school. My boys won’t go through that. I can’t bear the thought. However, I keep them in carters, oshkosh, childrens place for play clothes and tommy, nike, ralph lauren, gap, etc for school clothes and I spend very little. Then I resale their clothes as they outgrow theem and make a lot more than I paid for them, then I roll that money into new clothes as needed.

    You can get name brand new clothes if you are patient and dilligent about keeping on top of coupons and sales. Even if I had to sacrifice other things I would to make sure my boys have nice clothes!

  • Elise Adams says:

    I understand Jess. My own mom was very self-conscious about second hand shopping and felt terrible when she had to shop there. I have a different feeling today–especially since it’s accepted in my circle of friends as a form of recycling and green living. It’s great to hear that you’ve discovered a way around your sensitivities while still staying frugal though 🙂 Kudos to you!

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