Saturday, February 08, 2014

In the Kids' Closet: Frugal Ideas for Stocking a Child's Wardrobe

Quite honestly, as much as I love a bargain, sometimes I wish I could just hightail it to the nearest Janie and Jack and buy a whole wardrobe for my children without worrying about sales, coupons, or deals. It would be so easy. But in my heart of hearts, I know that even if I had the money to do such a thing (which I certainly don't!), I'd feel bad about spending so much money on clothing. And yes, I'd even miss the endorphin rush of finding a great deal.

I've already talked about my method for keeping track of the clothes we have in storage. Knowing what I have is enormously helpful, because it keeps me from buying stuff I already have (mostly...), and helps me stick with a basic color scheme (at least, theoretically...)

As a note, my oldest child is only three -- there's a lot I haven't learned yet, and I'm sure my shopping habits will change as my children grow up and start having their own opinions (eek!). But I'm guessing that some of the basics will remain the same.

So without further ado, here are some tips for dressing kids without breaking the bank.

1. Know Your Budget. This should probably be the first consideration! Our family doesn't have a "strict" clothing budget, though I'm considering implementing one. Currently it's more of a "find what we need at the least possible cost" sort of thing. When I want to splurge on children's clothing, I will pay for part or all of the garment with my "allowance" (a certain amount I'm allotted monthly to spend as I like). 

It's also good to know where you want to spend the money you have. Do I want most of my clothing budget to go towards tees and leggings, or would I rather spend it on a few special pieces? Perhaps by making some of the pieces I need, I can have more to spend elsewhere. I recently spent $22 on a pair of Zara corduroy trousers for my son, because they came with button-on suspsenders (I don't like the more readily available clip-on kind, and apparently the button-on kind are impossible to find). That's more than I would usually spend for pants, but I knew that I could use the adjustable suspenders for several years by simply adding buttons to his other trousers. He'll wear the trousers next year, but he can use the suspenders this year, next year, and probably for several years after.

2. Know what you want. If money were no object, how would you dress your child? You may not be picky, and that's great (especially for your wallet!). If you do have a more specific aesthetic, perhaps you can start a Pinterest board with favorite garments, or create a few Polyvore groupings that will help you define your (or your child's) style. I have the little "Clip to Polyvore" button on my task bar, which lets me grab images from any clothing website I come across. Knowing what you like helps you buy with confidence.

I try to avoid lengthy online shopping sessions (which usually end in my checking the cart balance, gulping, and closing my browser window), but it is helpful to know what's out there. Pick a few favorite brands and browse once in a while (this is also great for sewing inspiration!).  A few of my favorite children's brands are Janie and JackZaraGAPRalph LaurenGymboree, some Old Navy, and some H&M -- not that I can afford to purchase most of those brands full price! Which is actually good, because I'm not as tempted to buy when the prices are insanely high.

Being overly picky doesn't work well when shopping secondhand (and how picky you can be will depend on your budget), but some sort of decision making is required when sifting through a clothing rack! Knowing what I like can mean the difference between a closet stuffed with "okay" clothes, or a just-right closet of favorites.

Side rant: Why is it so ridiculously hard to find children's clothes WITHOUT skulls, sassy slogans, or cartoon characters plastered all over them? Does every pair of little girls' shoes need a slathering of glitter? And do clothing manufacturers realize that girls can wear colors other than neon pink? Okay, I've said my say. Rant over. *wink*

3. Know what you need. Your child's wardrobe will vary based on location (farm vs. city), climate (Maine vs. Florida), and lifestyle (country club vs. casual). It helps to plan ahead so that you buy only clothing that will be useful. Four pairs of slacks aren't necessary if your son only wears "nice" clothes on Sundays, but might be essential if he has a school uniform. Six sweaters might be overkill in Texas, but would be barely enough to get through a Montana winter. There's no simple formula for each family, or even each child.

How much you need will also depend on how messy your child is, and how often you want to do laundry. Also, consider how you'll need to care for a garment before you buy -- dry cleaning is probably best reserved for special occasion clothing.

4. Limit your color palette. While my budget prevents me from being super picky, limiting the colors I buy in any given season can save some cash. I'll admit, I have a long way to go with this. However, a bargain that doesn't match anything is either money wasted, or requires more money to buy something that matches. Not such a bargain after all...

Oh, and don't forget that a rainbow of colors in the wardrobe can also mean that you need a variety of shoes to blend (assuming matching shoes is something you care about -- I personally can't stand mismatched shoes).

5. Shop used when possible. It's better for your wallet, better for the environment, and quite frankly, you can often walk away with items that are far nicer than what you could afford brand new. I could just buy my kids' clothes brand new from Wal Mart or Target, but by purchasing used clothing I save money and have more selection. My best find was a like-new 18-24 mths Janie and Jack wool blazer for my son at a local thrift store. It would have cost roughly $90 new, but I only paid $2 -- and the timing was perfect for a formal event that was on our calendar. Cha-ching.

I'm probably preaching to the choir here, so 'nuff said!

6. Know your local stores. I do most of my shopping at one thrift store and one consigment stores in my area. There are more thrift/consignment stores around, but these two specific stores are economical and easy to access. The thrift store sells all clothing for $1, and occasionally has $0.50 or $0.25 sales on children's clothing. The consignment shop generally has better selection (and higher prices), and also has a store credit policy that allows me to bring in 15 items per visit. I take in hand-me-downs we won't use, outgrown clothing I don't want to store (some of which I originally purchased at the same shop!), maternity clothes, etc. The credit is added to my account, and I very rarely pay for anything I buy out of pocket. 

I don't have a lot of time to shop (and gas prices aren't exactly low), so by limiting my regular visits to just two stores, I save time and money. Sure, it's hit or miss with secondhand shops, but I've saved a boatload and had some pretty great finds.

This Janie and Jack set in near-perfect condition ended up costing $1 at my favorite thrift store. Score!

I occasionally shop at our local Kohl's when there's a great coupon (love those $10 off $25 coupons!) or a sale. By shopping the clearance racks, I can stretch my dollar even further. 

Don't forget online options -- Thredup sells used children's clothing, and has a good inventory. Plus, you can search by style, size, and color. Their prices are decent, and are definitely better than full price when you can't find a particular garment for less. I've actually used more, because I feel their prices are more reasonable (though their inventory is smaller and the search engine isn't as convenient). So far I've scored brand new Sonoma loafers for $8, a pair of brand new footed sleepers for $5, a brand new would-have-cost-$190 silk Janie and Jack dress for $15, and a bomber jacket for my son for $9 (he loves that he has an American flag patch on his shoulder, just like the one Daddy has on his flight suit!). All that to say, there are several online resources that may be helpful, so don't despair if your locale is short on good used kid's clothes.

7. Think Outside the Box. Sometimes it helps to look past a garment's intended use. For instance, my son probably has only one pair of "real" pajamas right now. The rest of his (admittedly extensive) PJ collection is made up of knit shirts and pants that I've picked up for $1 each or less. Since I'm somewhat picky about what he wears, this is the perfect use for the knit tops I find at the thrift store with logos or designs (many of which are GAP or Gymboree). He loves picking out his pajamas, and I love not spending a fortune on clothes he only wears for bed. Plus, since they're intended for "day" wear, the quality is generally better. Granted, that means he's not wearing fire retardant sleepwear -- personally, I'd rather limit his exposure to those chemicals, anyway, but you'll have to decide for yourself if you consider going this route.

8. Buy Ahead. Purchasing "too big" clothing is a bit of a gamble with kids. Growth spurts can upset your plans, meaning that the money you spent is now wasted. Fortunately for me, my children seem to grow in a "predictable" manner -- but I had a friend whose son went from 2T to 5T in about a year, and another friend whose baby went from 9lbs to 22lbs in three months! Once children are older you're less likely to get "burned" because clothes are intended to fit for an entire year (or even two), but seasonal clothing can be especially risky with babies and toddlers. If you know your child's growth patterns, you can judge for yourself how much you can risk. For me, if a garment is $1 or less, I can probably get at least that much credit for it at my local consignment shop. 

I will grab great bargains if I'm confident they'll be used. Each child has one banker's box of "too big clothes" that are several sizes too large, and one box for clothes that will fit in the upcoming season/year. My son is currently a 3T, so I have a fair bit of 4T, only three 5T garments, and one size 6 sweater (It was a wool Janie and Jack pullover for fifty cents. I couldn't resist. Even though he was only 18 mths old when I bought it. *wink*). My daughter's box contains some sizes that she won't wear for quite some time, because she's inherited a handful of my childhood clothes -- but I've been very picky about what I've kept, and stuck to timeless styles.

I'm particularly inclined to buy shoes ahead of time. If I find great shoes a few sizes too big at my local thrift store, I buy them. They're only $1 a pair, so it's not much of a risk. Little Man has several pairs of taupe dress shoes (the suede lace-up kind, like these) in larger sizes -- one pair is Bass, and the other Stride Rite. Not only will they match just about everything, I paid one dollar instead of forty dollars for quality shoes.

Basically, how much and how far you buy ahead will determine on budget and storage space. I usually have a "limit" for size and price -- the larger the size, the more "special" the garment needs to be (and it'd better be a fantastic deal, too).

9. Stretch Sizes. Little Man is wearing some shirts this winter that he wore last year. Last year they were roomy, and this year they are fitted. With any luck, some of the garments that are a tad big on him this year will still fit next year. Some garments -- especially knits -- are flexible with regard to size, so don't assume they can only be worn for one year. Yes, children grow fast -- but if you look at measurment charts, "fast" equates to about a 1/2 to 1 inch increase in each measurement per year (after you're through the infant stage). Look for clothing with some "stretch" -- adjustable elastic in the waist is a huge help, and is becoming more and more popular. If you don't mind cuffing pants, you may be able to get a lot of wear out of a single pair of trousers! That is, assuming the knees don't wear out first...

Little Man's PJs are a mix of sizes, and who cares if some of his knit pants are a little short? We're not planning a pajama fashion show!

10. Use Your Skills. If you have a sewing machine (or even just a needle and some thread) and a few basic skills, use them! While making your child's entire wardrobe may not be feasible (or even frugal, considering the cost of fabric these days), a little bit of sewing can reduce some of your clothing costs. Leggings, skirts, and sundresses for girls, custom tees and cardigans for boys -- make them out of thrifted adult clothing, and you've scored some cheap and unique items for your child's wardrobe. Or, if you find a thrifted piece that's great except for a small stain or tear, consider regular/reverse applique or an embellishment to cover the flaw. 

Alterations can also stretch your child's wardrobe and save you some cash. Shorten a long-sleeve winter tee to make it suitable for summer. Shorten pants to become shorts (note: skinny jeans/pants will probably not work for this!) -- this is great for pants whose knees have seen better days. For babies, you could even cut the bottom off of a onesie that doesn't quite snap and hem it into a shirt.

These are all simple tasks that only take a few minutes, and can give new life to garments that would otherwise be donated, discarded, or stored (quite honestly, I prefer to wear a garment out rather than store it for "maybe-possibly-one-day").

Most of my ideas are most applicable to small children (the only age I've experienced so far!), so I'd love to hear some thoughts from those who have dealt with older children. Actually, I'd love to hear all of your ideas! I also highly recommend you check out Laura's tips: Kids' Clothes On a Budget. I found her suggestions quite helpful!

Last, we'll be looking at how to care for kids' clothes!


  1. Thanks so much for your great tips!

  2. Glad they could be of help!



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